By Sam Bennett
Traditionally, God is explanation’s resting point, since God and his cause are the same. However, God leads two lives: first as an object (as something real), then, more certainly, as an idea. Descartes observed, “I am a thinking thing, and possess an idea of God within me”, and from here he considered the origin of this possession, concluding that such a remarkable idea proves an equally remarkable reality: the idea of God “is something which cannot have proceeded from me myself; that the idea of God is in me is the proof of God’s existence.” God would be responsible for both himself and his representation in us.
But what if the idea of God has a prosaic lineage — proceeding in some sense “from me myself”? Perhaps the idea of God was produced in response to human needs, or even a deadlock characteristic of the human condition.
This is a somewhat imaginative question, not amendable to certain proof. For inspiration, we can look to The Revenant (2015) by Alejandro Inñárritu, where a certain deadlock between reason and responsibility for the neighbor is dramatized. We can speculate that the first suggestion to humanity of God — more broadly, of the idea of the divine or supernatural — arose from an attempt to resolve such a deadlock.
The film begins as an Odyssey, with an expeditionary group of early 19th century American hunters struggling to make their way through the unmapped Midwestern frontier, to their company’s home fort. After acquiring a valuable amount of animals skins, they first have to deal with the harsh and hostile natural surroundings. Yet their greatest hazard is possible confrontation with a Native American tribe (viz., the Arikara), whose chief intends to recover a kidnapped daughter, as well as retaliate against settlers more generally, who have brought havoc to the Native’s ancestral land.
The American expeditionary group, after the bloody ambush that opens the film, has already lost 33 men, with less than half of that remaining. They nearly lose another in the film’s most famous scene, which is the brutal mauling of the protagonist Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) by a grizzly bear.
Remarkably, Glass kills the bear and survives the assault. When the rest of the group finds Glass, they face a dilemma. Glass represents a liability for the group. His condition is dire, he is all but dead; he would be quite a burden for the group during the rest of their journey, as they lack horses and are low on basic provisions. Speed is essential in keeping a distance on the pursuant Arikara. So he should be sacrificed immediately — this is the position of some members of the group, most vocally John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).
Yet there is some resistance by the group to this proposal, and not simply because Glass is the scout and knows the terrain best (which is not much of a reason, as Glass is no longer fit to guide). They exhibit a sort of resistance that does not have to do with what is practically beneficial. As one would expect, some have a sense that they ought to help Glass for Glass’s sake, despite him being a liability.
We can say that the group is torn between a calculation that assists the group in its effort for survival, and an ethical impulse to help the other person (the neighbor), in this case Glass. Some members of the group (such as the young adult Bridger, played by Will Poulter) want to help Glass, but not due to the potential practical benefits of preserving his life. Bridger is not acting out of practical wisdom, but ethics. As Levinas saw in Totality and Infinity, ethics pertains to the experience of responsibility before the neighbor, where the other person appears to lift him or herself above the group; to take precedence over the group and its needs.
This truly is a dilemma, however, not a black and white scenario. As Inñárritu himself put it in an interview, “Fitzgerald has a point”, since the interest of the group is hardly insignificant. Yet there is also no denying that we experience a sense of inhumanity at the thought of the individual being subordinated to the group. Fitzgerald’s confident recommendation that Glass be sacrificed immediately is revolting. So we need to keep both points in mind: puzzlingly, Fitzgerald appears both reasonable and inhumane.
The sense that the neighbor is elevated above the group has an evident power. Imagine you knew that sacrificing a child would save humanity. Why would this still be such a difficult act? After all, is not the child just another member of the human species, whose sacrifice would save so many more ‘instances’ of him?
The difficulty of explaining the raised status of the neighbor threatens to suppress the ethical impulse. The neighbor is just another person, just another human being. How could a moment within the whole suddenly elevate itself above the whole? Doesn’t that idea resist a reasonable explanation? If one claims, as is typical, that there is something special about humanity (and hence the neighbor) — for example, that we have free will or rational intelligence — the problem is only compounded, since each member of the group will have the same gift.
Is a rational defense of the precedence of the neighbor possible? We are pulled to say that we cannot sacrifice Hugh Glass before the needs of the group — or that if we did, if we had to, there would be something evil about it — but why?
Perhaps this predicament creates the original impulse that leads to the thought of the supernatural or divine. In its vaguest and fundamental form — in the form that can come upon you suddenly, without any help from this book or that teaching — perhaps the divine idea suggests that nature is in conspiracy with the ethical demand.
Consider for example the experience of natural beauty, in which Theodor Adorno noticed a self-transcending factor: “Nature is beautiful [when] it appears to say more than it is” (Aesthetic Theory 78). The physical appears to push beyond itself. In a sense, nature is simply an arrangement of mindless, meaningless particles; yet in beauty, this banal material seems to soar, above its ordinariness and logic of self-reproduction.
The gamble of the divine is to see this elevation — whether it is the elevation of the neighbor above the group or the elevation of the material in beauty — as the hidden goal of nature. That when the ordinary breaks away from itself into the extraordinary, nature had secretly longed for this event as its own redemption. The point of nature would be its transfiguration.
In contrast, an atheistic viewpoint would say that this sudden jump in level, where the ordinary leaps beyond itself, is an effect produced by the viewer, a projection. The elevation appears to happen outside oneself, but really it is the viewer influencing the viewed. The shift into the extraordinary is denied objectivity; the prosaic level is the only reality.
When we see the shredded body of Hugh Glass, barely animate, we are reminded of this predicament. Worse than average, a battered body, yet also the flash of dignity, and our duty toward it, above the group and ourselves. Is the ethical sense a subjective imagining, or nature’s secret longing and final intention?
Adorno, Theodor W., Gretel Adorno, and Rolf Tiedemann. Aesthetic Theory. N.p.: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Michael Moriarty. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2008.
Iñárritu, Alejandro González. “The Revenant DGA Q&A with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Michael Mann.” Interview by Michael Mann. YouTube. Directors Guild of America, 30. Dec. 2015.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. N.p.: Kluwer Academic, 1991.
Sam Bennett received an M.A. in philosophy at George Mason University and lives in Manassas, Virginia.