Andrew D. Thrasher, ThM
“I call it the Cloud Atlas Sextet. There are whole movements imagining us meeting again and again in different lives, different ages.”
The movie Cloud Atlas weaves a complex narrative wherein the cast of characters are born, learn to love, and die, again and again. The six “movements” in the plot reflect a certain paradox: they describe a world of cyclical existence, yet one without liberation, one without any hope of salvation (other than our love for others). Cloud Atlas demonstrates immanence without transcendence, an immanence that embraces the absence of liberation or hope of salvation for the present life as a finite expression of infinitude in the cycle of rebirths.
Cloud Atlas provides insight into our contemporary belief structures, what could be called the concern for holism in postmodern belief. But Cloud Atlas shows a holism without salvation, a concern for the whole person, for the whole life, for the whole reality only graspable in the part. In what follows I would like to unpack some theological sources that govern Cloud Atlas, and show how it portrays its embrace of immanence as the reality of postmodern existence and belief. Tied to this is also a call to respond to this immanence, from which I will propose an ‘otherwise-than-modern’ response to postmodern immanence: a call for re-enchantment I recently advocated for in another blog published here.
Pars Pro Toto and Wholeness: Postmodern Concerns
“Truth is Singular. Its versions are mistruths.”
From what I have gathered through conversations with many people in the west, underlying the postmodern condition of the fragmentation left by, 1) the rejection of modern values of autonomy, rationality, and objective truth, and 2) the assertion for subjective localized and perspectival truths, what I see is fundamentally a concern for wholeness. Stanley Grenz states that we search to be whole persons:
Postmodern holism entails an integration of all the dimensions of personal life—affective and intuitive as well as cognitive. Wholeness also entails a consciousness of the indelible and delicate connection to what lies beyond ourselves, in which our personal existence is embedded and from which it is nurtured. This wider realm includes ‘nature’… But in addition it involves the community of humans in which we participate. Postmoderns are keenly conscious of the importance of community, of the social dimension of existence. And the postmodern conception of wholeness also extends to the religious or spiritual aspect of life. Indeed, postmoderns affirm that personal existence may transpire within the context of a divine reality. (Grenz 1996, 14).
And yet, while Grenz states that though the postmodern self is bound to and constituted by social relationships, what still results is a de-centered, fluid self, constituted by our multiple communal belongings. He states:
The instability of the self is exacerbated by the postmodern elevation of difference at the expense of universality and the attendant celebration of the plurality or multiplicity of options… Moreover the postmodern condition marks the loss of assurance that any particular map of the external world can somehow express or manifest the realm of the internal self. Hence, the postmodern self becomes the final extension of, and contradiction to, the central assumption of the Romantic movement, namely, the coherence between the inner self and the external world mediated by the presence of the infinite within the finite. (Grenz 2001, 136).
If the infinite is expressed in the finite tension between the inner and outer self as a whole person, then the assertion from Cloud Atlas that “Truth is singular. Its versions are mistruths,” demonstrates a concern for the whole truth by those who only have access to the parts, who merely catch glimpses of the whole story, in effect what Raimon Panikkar calls the pars pro toto effect. Panikkar’s theology fundamentally argues for theological immanence (that the sacred is present in this world), providing a contradiction to a world that appears to lack transcendence. Panikkar advocates for a secular renewal by showing the in-finitude of the infinite in his pars pro toto effect:
The universal is centered; it is turned toward its own center: uni-versus, turned toward the One. It is embodied in the concrete… It is limited, and yet it re-presents the Whole [as] the pars pro toto effect (part for the whole)… We see the whole through our window; we see, and even are, the totum in parte (whole in the part). The concrete is the pars pro toto. The particular is the pars pro toto. We may ‘sacrifice’ the particular for the sake of the whole [but] we cannot do that without the concrete. (Panikkar 2016, 20).
According to Panikkar then, the infinite is expressed in the whole of reality, which is only constituted by its particular manifestations. In a sense, the particular existence of every person reflects the infinite within them; the whole reality as a reflection of the whole. Where Cloud Atlas stops is essentially in the notion that truth is singular, or rather, whole; it rather asserts that truth as a whole is distorted by its parts. But when we look at Cloud Atlas we see the whole picture: We see the story play out across many lives and reincarnations.
Dharma, Karma, and Reincarnation
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Underlying the movie is the notion of Karma and reincarnation. The characters played by Tom Hanks reflect this: he moves from a thieving, murderous doctor, to a dishonest hostel manager, to a self-conscious scientist who dies a violent death, and then to a homicidal author, and finally to a post-apocalyptic islander facing the weight of his past lives. In a sense every action that we commit results in its appropriate reaction. Panikkar defines Karma as:
The link that connects us to every particle of reality and restores our sense of unity with the whole universe, for all beings are, without exception, governed (and nurtured by the same cosmic law). This law is not a mere causal chain, for there are forms of dependence that belong to karman and are not necessarily causal, unless we expand the concept of cause to any process of interdependence. Essential in this view is the universality of such a law. All that is, precisely because it is, has an [intrinsic] relatedness to everything else. (Panikkar 2014, 56).
Here we see that Karma entails a cosmic law of interdependency: that every action we do in this life results in an appropriate effect affecting our future lives. In Buddhism, our mental volitions entail the karmic merits and demerits that determine our fates in our next lives. Likewise in Hinduism, what is reincarnated is not only the self, but also all its antecedent karmic effects that have not come to fruition in the previous lives. Reincarnation is determined by what our lives produced according to our dharma, the duties we are bound to, the duties that govern the nature of reality. Dharma in Hinduism has the connotation of a law of righteousness, order, and law, and prescribes how we are to act in this world. In Cloud Atlas, the concept of Dharma has an interesting spin, encompassing eastern notions of Karma and Dharma guided by a critique of western homogeneity. The following quote elaborates on the natural order set out by Dharma, and yet paradoxically describes the postmodern orientation towards it: the fullness of reality is constituted by our actions in cyclical existence governed by our love.
Moore: “There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten-at worst, to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.”
Ewing: “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops
Unanimity and Homogeneity: The Search for Love
Unpacking the previous statement, let me unpack what seems to be the paradox of the natural order according to the film. One of Cloud Atlas’s “movements” depicts a future wherein all of humanity is one giant bureaucracy striving for the homogeneity of all humanity. All must follow, all must agree, all are one. Any nonconformity to the state of unanimity results in persecution, condemnation, and death. As one character states in another story line: “there is a natural order to this world.” Any nonconformity to this order results in exclusion. Oddly enough, the natural order of homogeneity set out here highlights typical postmodern concerns characterized by the dualistic tensions between the ruling and the oppressed, between local perspectivism and global homogeneity. Masterfully, Cloud Atlas demonstrates the contours of what these tensions entail: the oppression of the weak by the strong, forcing us to make a choice to stand for something, fight for something; something that goes against the natural order.
The movie condemns the natural order of homogeneity for its effects on the oppressed. And yet, the oppressed are comforted by Somni’s words: “our lives are not our own, from womb to tomb, we are bound to others.” Cloud Atlas poses the question, Why should we fight for something that goes against the natural order? and answers, Love. But even this love is only a reflection of a part. While demonstrating the uniting quality of human relationships, this love is presented as an abnormality in reality, something to cling to as truth without realizing why: we just hope in it. This is something I think characteristic of postmodern belief: love is the truth that goes against the natural world. Why is this so? Why do we see love as abnormal in our world today, something to hope in and yet not fully embrace?
Immanence ontologies developed in the last 50 years by Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, and Nancy point to the reality of an a-theology (absence-theology) in our contemporary mindset: God is absent from us and we have to make sense of our world in his absence. James K. A. Smith commenting on Charles Taylor states that with disenchantment we have lost significance: we must create meaning and significance in an immanent world because of the belief in the absence of God’s presence and communion with us. Disenchantment reflects the loss of significance: where nothing can stand out of itself as inherently meaningful, because we have lost our connection, our communion to God. (Smith 2014, 26, 57-58).
Postmodernity is a culmination of the disenchantment of modernity, which entailed the displacement of transcendence, wherein we cannot but accept our disbelief in God while also realizing something has been lost to us in this (Smith 2004, 88; Smith 2014, 64). Colin Gunton argues that modernity has displaced God, resulting in a dualism in how we make sense of the world: individualism or collectivism. And yet, even while the western block opted strongly for individualism and the eastern block for collectivism, Gunton argues that both result in a movement toward homogeneity that subverts the particular to the communal, and the communal to the individual (Gunton 1993). If the natural world entails the movement to homogeneity, what option for resistance do we have? Cloud Atlas argues that it is Love. But this Love is still an expression bound to immanence. What would happen if love was not so bound? What true salvation is found in love?
Imagining Love in Immanence and the Otherwise-than-Modern Love
Archivist: “In your Revelation, you spoke of the consequences of an individual’s life rippling through eternity. Does this mean that you believe in an afterlife? In a heaven or a hell?”
Sonmi-451: “I believe death is only a door. When it closes, another opens. If I cared to imagine a heaven, I would imagine a door opening and behind it, I would find him there.”
Imagine a life where there is no salvation other than to fall into the arms of your beloved: this is the closest thing to salvation that can be achieved in Cloud Atlas. The strength of love binds us to others, and salvation is found in our love. While our contemporary setting searches for fulfillment and wholeness, what undergirds this search is our search for a salvific love that redeems our existence. And yet, I believe Cloud Atlas fails to demonstrate that this love actually provides such redemption. Many western religious traditions have hope in another life wherein we have another chance, even to love again. However, though we hope in this, Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism don’t hope in the next life, because the cyclical existence is bound to suffering. Cloud Atlas celebrates the opportunity to love again and to strive to act in a way for a better rebirth, but it also highlights the decay and hubris of humanity’s attempt to order and control this ‘natural’ world. In Indian religions, reincarnation is a trap: we are bound to this world, and practitioners seek liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Cloud Atlas replaces liberation from cyclical existence with the hope to love again: and to suffer again. If our lives are bound to this permanent tension between living lives of love and despair, why would we hope in something so imperfect as the possibility of again suffering a terrible life?
In my attempt to propose something ‘otherwise-than-modern’ I do not think that Cloud Atlas gives us anything substantial we can hope in, even though we can hope to love again. In our search for wholeness, why take the possibility of suffering again, even if there is another possibility for loving again? To propose an alternative, Christianity describes God’s love for us as offering, I think, a better hope. Christ’s death means the atonement for sin, and his resurrection means that God truly paid the price for a lost humanity and creation. Therefore, we have a hope not in a reincarnation to this struggle between suffering and love: we have hope in love without the presence of pain and suffering. The resurrection is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. It affirms a hope in a redeemed body, a redeemed love given by God in his Son, for us to participate in his Love: to truly fall into the arms of the beloved after death.
Andrew D. Thrasher holds a ThM in Christian Theology from Regent University (2017) and a MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from George Mason University (2014). He currently teaches Religion at Tidewater Community College in Southeastern VA and resides in Chesapeake, VA.
Cunningham, C. (2002). Genealogy of Nihilism. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Grenz, S. (1996). A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Grenz, S. (2001). The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Gunton, C. E. (1993). The One, The Three, and the Many: God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Panikkar, R. (2014). Mysticism and Spirituality: Mysticism, The Fullness of Life. (M. C. Pavan, Ed.) (Vol. I.1). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Panikkar, R. (2015). Trisangam: The Jordan, The Tiber, and the Ganges: The Three Kairological Moments of Christic Self-Consciousness. In Christianity: A Christophany (Vol. III.2, pp. 3–26). Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Prabhu, J. (1988). Dharma as an Alternative to Human rights. In S. K. Maity, Upendra Thakur, & A. K. Narain (Eds.), Studies in Orientology: Essays in Memory of Prof. AL Basham. Agra: YL Publishers.
Sharma, A. (2000). Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, J. K. A. (2004). Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Smith, J. K. A. (2014). How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Boston: Harvard University Press.