Where is Christ?
Kathleen G. Macedo"But if we turn around in our prison so that we can see what a pitiable state we are in, then we encounter Christ who has entered into our loneliness and embraces us there with the outstretched arms of the crucified." (The Content of Faith, Karl Rahner, 306)
In the movie What Dreams May Come people are in control of everything: love, redemption, and salvation. They barely acknowledge God, and there is no mention of Christ in the movie.
How are they redeemed, from what are they redeemed, and by whom they are saved? Are the answers to these questions found in this movie representative of late twentieth century popular theology? Can people be saved if they don't acknowledge/recognize their redeemer? How does Christ move in people's lives in this self-deterministic, post-Christian society? I will reflect upon these questions and offer some conclusions.
Christianity proposes that people, in order to be redeemed, need salvation through Christ and that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ. Karl Rahner presents this view of Jesus:
This passage asserts that only Jesus could have been or could be the Christ. Theologians throughout the history of Christianity have supported this traditional view of Christ. "The New Testament itself…affirms that Jesus Christ not only makes that life (the redeemed life) possible, he also determines its shape (Christian Theology, McGrath, 324)."
I define 'traditional view' as the theology that most practicing Christians demonstrate in their spiritual lives and in worship in America today. Most Christians oriented into this traditional perspective believe that only through salvation offered by Jesus Christ can one have eternal life. People holding this view either see something happening in Christ which makes possible and available a new way of life, see that Christ is an expression and demonstration of God's saving will, or see that Salvation is shaped or modeled by Christ (McGrath, 388-389). In any case, there is a constant: Salvation needs Christ.
Even Paul Tillich, who represents a less traditional understanding of Christianity, says that humankind needs to be saved through the New Being. "Whatever his name, the New Being was and is active in this man (Jesus of Nazareth)…Christ, the New Being, saves mankind from the old being, that is from existential estrangement and its destructive consequences (McGrath, 346)." Existential is a way to describe the non-temporal, historical nature of human existence (A Handbook of Theological Terms, Van A. Harvey, pp.92-93). Tillich also explores the idea that the influence of the New Being doesn't necessarily have to be through Jesus of Nazareth.
For Tillich "Jesus is one symbol among many of a universal human possibility relating to the transcendent or achieving salvation-others can be found elsewhere in the world's religions (McGrath, 346)." Does this mean that there could be more than one Christ, perhaps many at various times? Tillich poses the questions:
So, there are alternatives to the 'traditional view'.
Consequently, under different circumstances, Jesus of Nazareth would not have to be the Christ, the New Being, but, nevertheless, there could be only one New Being. This doesn't indicate the notion of self-redemption or multi-saviors that we see in What Dreams May Come.
The movie models the idea of many human redeemers operative both in life and after life. The concept of one Redeemer is not present. In a Pelagianistic manner, if people even ponder God at all, humankind redeems itself from loneliness, isolation, mistakes, and separation from love. In What Dreams May Come the main character, Christy, saves his wife, both in life when she is suicidal and institutionalized, and in death from Hell. He doesn't need Christ who "entered into the heart of this finite world and of our cruelly sinful history and took on and suffered its finitude, tragedy, and guilt (Rahner, 275)." He does Christ's work.
Christy takes on his wife's pain, guilt, sin and human suffering before death and after death. He is in turn guided and led by other people to his salvation in the afterlife. He heals the relationships with his children while in heaven. The character of Christy illustrates the mindset of a large segment of late 20th century society that feels at home in the role of Christ.
Popular theology looks for redemption in psychology, psychiatry, human institutions, work, and human love. In Hebrews 2:10 Christ is named as the captain of salvation (NKJ), but in the world depicted by What Dreams May Come the individual is the captain of his or her own ship.
This cliché elicits an understanding of modern society's self-image: save yourself through self-help, self-analysis, self-love, self-medication, self-respect, self-awareness, self-direction, self-determination and self-meditation. Take care of yourself.
"Self" does have an importance in a Christ centered religion. According to Rahner self-will is not entirely incompatible with Christianity. It is our responsibility to do God's will.
However, free will should not turn us away from God and into ourselves. " Jesus warns us not to receive our glory from ourselves (291)."
The self-determinism exemplified in the movie extends into the realm of being after death. In What Dreams May Come the characters determine the shape of their own personal heavens. They can decide if they will stay or if they will be reincarnated. They don't need Christ to guide them towards heaven in life or in death. Other movies from the same general time period reinforce the idea of self-willed choices after death.
In The Sixth Sense the dead can bother people until things concerning their death are resolved. In Ghost, Beetlejuice and the Poltergeist movies people after death have a lot of latitude to interact with the living, become solid, be seen, stay, or leave. The afterlife depicted in the Bible doesn't offer choices.
Death is one of the two strongest forces at work in our lives and has been throughout history. People do not easily give themselves over to God, a death of self-will, or relinquish their fear of death to the promise of eternal life. The characters in the movie are driven by a need to control what happens after their deaths. Most hadn't done a very good job of controlling their lives before they died.
They are faced with continuous decisions: change the vistas of their heaven, stay there or be reincarnated. They even defy the 'rules' when Christy goes to hell to redeem his wife. "Suffering and dying are the destruction of what is human (Rahner, 297)." People desperately cling to what is human.
Love is the second of the two strongest forces at work in our lives. In Luke 10:27 Jesus teaches us to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (NRSV)." The Bible teaches us that God loves us so much he sends his son and Jesus loves us so much he dies for us. Through their love the characters in What Dreams May Come try to save each other in life, search for each other after death, move from heaven to hell and back, and find each other in their next reincarnation.
Rahner warns us that idols such as "the enjoyment of life or the experience of the person's own emptiness and absurdity…are worthless idols that must never become our masters (Rahner, 59)." In our self-absorbed society it is too easy to let our love for each other and our love of life become our idols.
Therefore, Jesus is inherent in the extreme love that the characters in the movie have for each other. Christ is in their lives in spite of themselves. However, if people don't recognize this fact, will it not reinforce the belief that humankind is sufficient for its own salvation?
Is a person like Christy, who acts as savior of himself and others, a tribute or an insult to the Christ? In the movie Christy ultimately gives up his self-determinism. He chooses the permanency and inevitability of Hell to be with his wife. In this way he finally gives himself over to a power greater than himself and is saved.
By giving up control we give ourselves over to Christ.
Christianity offers a response to the desperate struggle revolving around love and death. "He who is the Christ has to die for his acceptance of the title 'Christ' (Tillich, Vol. II, 97)." Through the resurrection of Jesus "death is reversed by life. The public defeat of death on the cross is refuted by the power of resurrection (God, Christ, Church, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, 112)."
Death is reversed by life. People in the movie have the choice in death to choose life again. Christ is asking us to choose eternal life before we die. We have to believe in the resurrection. "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; then if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain (1 Corinthians 15:13-14, NRSV)."
How does the populace of the late 20th century, personified by the characters in What Dreams May Come, precede from self-obsession to hope through Christ? By the actuality that God's grace and salvation through Christ is part of their lives whether they want to recognize it or not.
Tillich says that the New Being has universal significance (Vol. II, 151).
Thus, the Christ emerges as a presence in our lives, even for those who self-determinedly turn away from the idea.
Rahner also sets forth a concept of the anonymous or implicit Christian. This salvation which the person has found must also be the salvation of Christ because there is no other (Rahner, 54)." Hence, humankind is saved.
We see Christ in the movie, and in contemporary society, hidden in each person's quest for salvation.
Augustine and various writers throughout history, including most writers in the Middle Ages, maintained that only believers in Jesus would be saved. However, the universal saving will of God found an early proponent in Origen along with other theologians up through Karl Barth in the 20th century (McGrath, 417-18). Rahner, CS Lewis, and John Wesley also postulated that faith in God will lead to belonging to Christ "without knowing it", even if one has no knowledge of Christ or does not accept that knowledge (420).
Therefore, people will be saved even if they don't acknowledge or recognize their Redeemer, Jesus as the Christ, in this self-deterministic, post-Christian society. Also, perhaps their being will lead to their believing.
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume I (The University of Chicago Press, 1957)
Karl Rahner, The Content of Faith: The Best of Karl Rahner's Theological Writings, Edited by Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt (New York, Crossroad, 1999)
Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. God Christ Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999)
McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology, An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001)
A Handbook of Theological Terms, Van A. Harvey (New York, Touchstone, 1964)
Holy Bible, NRSV and NKJ versions