THE STIGMA OF FINITUDE
Deborah L. Ormay
"Pictures, poems, and music can become objects of theology, not from the point of view of their aesthetic form, but from the point of view of their power of expressing some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately, in and through their aesthetic form."1 To be sure, "What Dreams May Come" addresses multiple issues that concern humans ultimately. Two of these main difficulties include finitude and self-determination. I propose that "What Dreams May Come" features such a positive anthropology that God plays no role in the characters' lives before death or after death, thus leaving them without a helpful framework in which to engage their finitude. This same anthropological view holds humans back from jumping into the Abyss - into the Unfathomable One.
"What Dreams May Come" spins its illusions from the premise that "next to painting the brain is the most interesting thing"2 reports Chris, the character portrayed by Robin Williams. The anthropology presented in this film is so positive that God suffers reduction to a voice "Up there somewhere shouting down that He loves us…"3
This portion of the analysis will discuss finitude and self-determination as depicted in "What Dreams May Come." What does it mean to be finite? What human need(s) does the motion picture address? To what questions does it respond? Does this movie disclose any theological truth about humankind? What pastoral care implications rear their heads in this movie as regards finitude and self-determination? I will consider other movies released in 1998 to assess shared commonalties. What do these movies reveal about Western culture? I will offer closing thoughts as well suggestions for future reflections. First, let us examine the main issues of finitude and self-determination.
Finitude and Self-Determination:
Part of being human means existing as a finite creature. To be finite means to have a beginning and an end. We are called into being without our having been asked if we want to exist.5 We die, often, with the same amount of control. We fight the stigma of finitude. We accomplish wild and great things as individuals and as a collective species. We have landed on the moon. We have conquered catastrophic diseases. We have cloned sheep. We have created art that challenges and inspires. We have invested monies to benefit progeny. In spite of all of these death denying and death defying activities, we remain finite creatures imprisoned in specific times and circumstances. Death, the ultimate embarrassment, flaunts its power over our finitude at every turn like a piece of spinach stuck on the collective teeth of humanity. Finitude, like many facets of life, contains a two-sided aspect. Humans choose to view it as either a blessing or a curse.
Since September 11, 2001 the media have deluged the world with images of death, destruction, grief, and rage. People are now acutely aware, more than ever perhaps, of life's vagaries. Life holds no guarantee that you will come home from the office. The fallout from this tragic event includes renewed vigor to celebrate and honor our lives however short and circumscribed they may appear.
The fact of the matter is we do not control our finitude, no matter how vigorously we exercise self-determination within the confines of our finitude. No one has come back from Heaven with eyewitness reports. The characters in "What Dreams May Come" remain grasped by their finitude even as they have died. They lack willingness to be grasped by the Transcendent or to even reach out to it. Chris longs only for Annie. Marie's bedroom décor serves as a backdrop for the exchange between her (as portrayed by Rosalind Chao) and her father. "It is easier to let oneself fall into one's own emptiness than into the abyss of the blessed mystery."6 Annie falls into that dark place. The flotsam and jetsam from our lives on earth serve as the raw materials for the tailor-made heaven and hell presented in this movie.
"I'm Only Human"-Needs Addressed in the Film:
"What Dreams May Come" addresses several uniquely human needs: the need to love, the need to be loved, the need to procreate, the need to create and to do something one regards as valuable within one's lifetime. The movie discloses how important relationships are within the confines of our finitude. If the now is all we have for certainty, should we not love as much and as deeply as possible? To love means to enter into relationship, yet in this movie no one seeks relationship with God. Relationships with others give us definition.
Chris and Annie's relationship birthed other relationships. Chris reaped joy from his relationships with his wife and with his teenaged children. Chris defined himself, based on these ties, as a faithful husband and an understanding father. Chris characterized himself through his professional activity as physician, a person in relationship with patients. Annie introduced herself in the movie as an artist. As her life progressed she acquired relationships driven by self-determined choices she made: wife, mother, art gallery director, institutionalized patient, mourner, suicide and, finally, hell-dweller. This movie's poverty rests on the lack of relation with God. If relationships help define who we are must not the converse hold true? We are defined by the relationships into which we do not enter. The bachelor receives definition by not entering into a particular relationship, for example.
To the general populace the most blatant theological truth that screams from "What Dreams May Come" is that love transcends human finitude. Yet a more studied perspective yields truths that Saint Augustine developed and that have undergirded certain strands of Christian spirituality. Issues of caritas and cupiditas infiltrate "What Dreams May Come."
Cupiditas, according to Augustine, is wrongly ordered love or love that focuses on the temporal and the finite. Cupiditas' ultimate concern is self with the corresponding slogan "It's all about me." Cupiditas centers on what is less than God, less than the Ultimate - that Unfathomable Abyss. Caritas, in contrast, ascends towards God. Caritas regards temporality as the vehicle one uses to travel to the Transcendent Eternal. The movie characters abide by cupiditas love, resulting in the sorrows they bear during their earthly lives. Their skewed outlooks revolve around themselves. The audience sees what a feeble connection Chris and Annie have with the church; the church only serves as the place where they say goodbye to Ian and Marie. It is nothing more - absent from the grieving process for the distraught parents. This void is exacerbated by the movie's refusal to acknowledge what the church, ideally, represents. When Chris dies and arrives in heaven, his longing for Annie and subsequent quest for her becomes his god rather than the One True God of the Judeo-Christian faith.
I suggest that the film's creators elected not to consider God because to commit to one faith tradition's God would appear to be politically incorrect. It would translate into poor box-office.
What Pastoral Cares May Come:
As pastor I will be preaching and ministering to people who daily struggle with finitude. They crave meaning in their lives before they die, as do I. They want to know that their lives mattered.
People want to engage their lives in such a way that hearty affirmative answers accompany the questions "Am I loved" and "Did I love well." To do so requires framing one's life within those two poles.
My goal as pastor is to guide those in my care to accept the limitations of mortality with all the zest, joy, and God-directed living as possible. Limitations lend support and structure. The word "limitations" too often bears a pejorative connotation, reflective of the cultural mind-set in which humans too often become mired.
The One and The Many-Other 1998 Films:
The cultural product under analysis in was released in 1998. Other movies released that year include "The Truman Show," "Pleasantville," "Blade," and "Meet Joe Black." Each explores finitude and self-determination, albeit in the case of "The Truman Show" Truman exists as an other-determined finite creature.
"The Truman Show" depicts a television corporation and its viewing public determining the daily life of the main character depicted by Jim Carrey. As the movie progresses Carrey's character obtains awareness that others have constructed his life; he exercised little self-determination. In the mostly black and white feature "Pleasantville" movie goers are treated to an on-screen transition as characters from a 1950's television program become alive to themselves as genuine, enfleshed, yet finite creatures. The switch from black and white film to color film dramatizes the change.
What interests me regarding two of the sibling movies from 1998 is that political correctness has influence how those with questionable finitude are portrayed. Wesley Snipes as "Blade" was born to a woman who went into labor while a vampire bit her. The result: Blade possesses human and vampire traits. Blade crusades throughout the film against vampires even while he recognizes his true nature. He self-determines the expression of his vampire nature by injecting a special serum, developed by a friendly scientist. The deadly characteristics associated with vampires remain in check, as long as Blade takes his medicine.
In "Meet Joe Black" the personified Death (Brad Pitt's character) applies self-determination in his desire to take a vacation from his usual duties.
The culture that spawned "What Dreams May Come" extols Self over the Transcendent as an ultimate concern. This movie reinforces and feeds into our desire for self-determination. Self-determination in and of itself is not the villain. It becomes villain when we turn it into an idol and freely turn away from God (cupiditas). This movie upholds the common human hope for eternal life, whether eternity is played out in endless reincarnations or in dwelling in one's private heaven. We desire to transcend our finitude.
Conclusion and Future Reflections:
Our bodies deteriorate. We die. We want our lives to have counted for something even while we exist. As noted in Ecclesiastes 5:17: "Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him; for that is his portion."9 We exercise self-determination in death denying and death defying ways during our finite existence. "What Dreams May Come" suggests that self-determination continues following death and that death is an illusion - a transitional phase that opens to an infinitude filled with possibilities. This infinitude, however, remains a place of labor and restlessness because God does not dwell in the heavens presented. God is a distant and ignored voice that shouts the Gospel message of love. This movie suggests there might something more but it remains unclear. What is "Up there?" Is it a Heaven where Chris' longing for Annie would never have been noted? Would it be the place where all tears were dried and the sound of weeping would be no more? "Up there" would be in God's presence. I suggest that "What Dreams May Come"demonstrates that eternity without the Ground of Being is hell disguised in a Technicolor candy coating.
Cover Artwork: Elizabeth Malczynski, "A Child's World" (The Bantam Gallery, A Division of Bantam Books, Inc., New York, 1978)
 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume I (The University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 13.
 "What Dreams May Come".
 Paul Tillich, p. 110.
 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), p. 387.
 Karl Rahner, p. 70.
 Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia and Jerusalem, The Jewish Publication Society, 1985).
 Karl Rahner, p. 627.