Everything Everywhere All at Once and the "crisis of meaning"
The essay that follows is a response to Tim DeRoche’s “The Secular Case for Christianity.” Since that piece is behind a paywall, here are the cliff notes:
Tim was raised Catholic, but became agnostic as he matured.
When he met his wife, a devout Christian, he started going to church again.
His relationship with the faith is still complicated. He’s not so sure he accepts Christian doctrine as factually accurate or literally true.
But, as an active member of what he calls the “meaning crisis community,” an online gathering of unorthodox minds, Tim has been increasingly exposed to arguments that affirm the value/utility of Christian doctrine — regardless of whether it’s true.
He introduces three of his favorite thinkers — philosopher René Girard, historian Tom Holland, and psychologist Jordan Peterson — and argues that their ideas expose the relative unimportance of faith/belief. These thinkers show us that — true or not — Christianity has helped individuals live good, meaningful lives, and has helped society reduce slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.
This leads up to Tim’s central claim: “So where do I stand now? Am I a “believer” or a “nonbeliever”? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters all that much. What does matter—for my own life and for the life of my community—is how I act.”
In other words, the secular case for Christianity is that whether or not the doctrine is true, things go better for us when we look to its central stories for moral guidance. Why obsess over whether we really believe when we can reap the benefits of belief simply by acting as though we do?
My essay is, roughly, a response to that question. I’m not so much concerned with adjudicating the historical merits of Tim’s argument, though no doubt many would question his contention that the spread of Christianity has been the net positive he makes it out to be. Instead, I focus on whether his secular Christian worldview is a viable foundation for a fulfilling life. I argue that it’s not, and that the philosophy underlying the film “Everything Everywhere All At Once” offers a viable alternative.
One final note: I also draw on Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film “Silence” and Sam Mendes’ 1999 film “American Beauty.” If you’re not familiar with them, you can follow those links to their Wikipedia plot summaries. And then put them in your movie queue, because you’re missing out.
Like the Intellectual Dark Web, one of its forerunners, the Meaning Crisis community isn’t a fixed place. Folks gather on Twitter (#meaningcrisis), on Discord (“Bridges of Meaning”) and in the comments sections of various YouTub—
You bolt awake in a small ship bound for Japan. You are not online. It is 1642 AD. You are a Portuguese Jesuit priest and you’ve heard that your mentor renounced his faith after being brutally tortured by Japanese authorities for seeking converts. Knowing full well that you risk the same fate, you’ve set sail to save the man who nurtured your unwavering devotion to Christ the King. Earthly suffering is but a trifle; everlasting torment is at stake. His soul must. not. burn.
You reach the shores of Japan and find the worst case incarnate. Japanese authorities are persecuting Christians with such sophistication that renunciation is inevitable. You wish they would nail you to a cross or hang you by your ankles with a small cut on your head from which you’d slowly bleed to death. Instead they do these things to the ordinary villagers who look to you for spiritual guidance, and they make you watch, and they won’t stop until you turn your back on Christ — the same tactics to which your mentor succumbed. Even so, you stay true to the Son of God until He Himself divinely ordains your renunciation:
With all due respect to Tim DeRoche, I shudder to think how his words would be received by Sebastião Rodrigues, protagonist of Scorsese’s “Silence”:
Am I a “believer” or a “nonbeliever”? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters all that much. What does matter—for my own life and for the life of my community—is how I act.
A crisis of meaning can’t be remedied with shoulder shrugging about the substance of our beliefs. How we act does matter, but action and belief are intimately intertwined. When all is well, perhaps it suffices to simply say “He is risen” without really believing it. But what about when shit hits the fan and our beliefs are put to the test? Does merely affirming a doctrine’s utility equip us with moral resolve on par with that of persecuted Christians in seventeenth century Japan?
In all likelihood our beliefs will never be tested as intensely as were Rodrigues’ in “Silence.” But none of us can avoid being haunted by the fact of our mortality, and none of us can avoid grasping for fragments of fundamental mysteries. A shrug of the shoulders won’t cut it; we crave firmer answers to existential questions.
DeRoche is to be applauded for confronting our crisis of meaning, but the fruits of his confrontation fall flat. He asserts that what matters is how he acts, but his assertion begs the question: why? If we inhabit a godless universe, and we’re just living out a fleeting existence on a rock hurtling through space, and those who suffer profoundly during what little time they’re sentient have no prospect of a blissful afterlife, and all talk of transcendent meaning is nothing but convenient fiction contrived in desperation by the strangely sentimental hunks of electric meat inside our skulls — all of which DeRoche implicitly concedes as possible — then why does anything we do matter?
We’re several generations removed from life in a culture that answers this question with anything approximating coherence, but Gen Z is perhaps the first to come of age in a world where we no longer even try to keep up appearances. This generational dynamic is central to “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (EEAAO). The movie’s plot is simple even if it’s dramatized chaotically, a fantastical journey through a multiverse populated by parallel versions of the movie’s main characters.
Evelyn and Waymond — a young Chinese couple — get married absent approval from the father of the bride. They run off to America in search of a better life, buy a laundromat, have a daughter. Before long, their romantic passion wanes, sped along by the mundane reality of life as small business owners in America. Evelyn ceases to respect Waymond, who she’s come to see as pitifully spineless and unserious. By the time their daughter (Joy) is a teenager, Evelyn’s father is living with them in America and, partly because of the façade of happiness they maintain, he’s made his peace with their marriage. But Joy is queer, and Evelyn is anxious about her father rejecting Joy’s queerness, so she introduces Joy’s girlfriend to him as her “good friend.” The mother-daughter relationship was already strained by Evelyn’s high expectations and unrelenting pressure, and her obfuscation of Joy’s identity is the last straw. Joy gives up hope for a happy home life and succumbs to a kind of nihilistic depression. The movie tells the story of Evelyn’s two-fold struggle to clear the fog of banality that’s come over her marriage and to heal her wounded relationship with Joy.
Evelyn, demoralized by the dullness of modern middle-class existence, is already subconsciously struggling with the question “what’s it all for?” — and it’s a losing struggle because she doesn’t have a good answer. Joy’s descent into nihilism makes this struggle explicit. A parallel supervillain version of Joy confronts Evelyn with the assertion that “nothing matters,” and EEAAO, at its core, is a response to that assertion. The movie contains the seeds of a living philosophy that forms one of three conceivable solutions to our crisis of meaning — none of which are DeRoche’s secular Christianity.
One option is an authentic resurgence of traditional religious faith. This solution is favored by the New Right and has a serious intellectual foundation in the writings of Catholic intellectuals over at The Postliberal Order. I’ve argued at length against the logistical viability of this option here, and — logistics aside — I reject the doctrines in question.
Another option is the defiant hedonism of “American Beauty,” one that insists it doesn’t matter if nothing matters because, if you’d just wake the hell up, you’d see that the world around you is astonishingly beautiful and every second of sentience you get to enjoy is a goddamned blessing. There’s a romantic appeal to this, but it’s fundamentally unserious and an unstable foundation for a good life:
This scene flirts with something beyond hedonism by referencing a “benevolent force,” but taking the movie as a whole, we’re left to wonder what that force is, how it should guide our conduct, and if it has an external reality at all beyond our perception of it.
EEAAO presents us with a superior alternative. Joy is driven to a personal crisis of meaning by familial strife, which is a story as old as civilization, but her crisis takes on the character of the times. It’s not enough to note that she feels like “nothing matters.” The logic with which she justifies her feeling is essential, and that logic explains the movie’s chaotic narrative structure.
Joy argues that nothing matters because, relative to the enormity of our universe — not to mention the infinite variety of parallel universes that exist alongside ours — human beings are small and stupid. Even if we were more formidable actors on the cosmic stage, our every movement would be an illusion; every observable form is just an arbitrary arrangement of fundamental particles compelled to chug along according to the laws of nature. We’re stardust, if you will, and to stardust we’ll return — but then, that’s all, folks. All our strife, ultimately, is for naught. If only we’d accept that nothing matters, then we could finally drop our delusional burdens and be as rocks:
Two rocks — one tan [Evelyn] and one dark gray [Joy] — sit side by side, overlooking a ravine and mountains in the distance. It’s silent for a while. Then captions appear — white for Joy, black for Evelyn. This, apparently, is one of the many universes where the conditions weren’t right for life to form.
“It’s nice,” reads Evelyn’s text.
“Yeah,” reads Joy’s text. “You can just sit here, and everything feels really … far away.”
“Joy,” Evelyn’s rock says, “I’m sorry about ruining everything —”
“Shhhh,” Joy’s rock says. “You don’t have to worry about that here. Just be a rock.”
Joy’s crisis of meaning is dramatized as a parallel version of her who’s hell-bent on destruction. Evelyn is told that the only way to save the multiverse is to destroy that version of her daughter. Evelyn refuses to give up on her and instead resolves to bring Joy back from the brink of despair. Ultimately, Evelyn offers an explicit retort to Joy’s assertion that “nothing matters.”
If you try to look at human existence from a point of view outside the multiverse, then, sure, nothing matters. But that’s not our point of view, and it never will be. Joy talks the nihilistic talk but doesn’t walk the walk. If nothing matters then why’s she still chasing her mother around from one universe to the next? Evelyn exposes Joy’s nihilism for the combination of angst and unresolved familial trauma that it is:
[Maybe there’s] something that explains why you still went looking for me through all of this mess. And why no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you.
Evelyn’s journey through the multiverse leads her to a realization that, at first, sounds sort of like the hedonism of “American Beauty.” She comes to see that there’s beauty in the mundane, plenty to cherish even about life as a laundromat owner. But EEAAO takes things a step further. Whereas “American Beauty” offers no real resolution to its familial trauma, EEAAO does. Evelyn and Joy make up, and Evelyn learns to love her husband again, and she shows her father the real Joy, and we’re left with the impression that Evelyn came away from the whole adventure newly resolved to nurture her little slice of reality into the best possible version of itself.
The “something” that explains Joy’s inescapable desire to be close with her mother is love. Love is more than just a gravitational pull drawing human beings toward one another. It’s the entire basis of Evelyn’s new life ethic — the creative force through which she’ll bring the best version of her reality into existence. And love, as a creative force, is operative in the universe whether or not human beings consciously strive to be its agent. In the words of celebrated logician and philosopher of science Charles Sanders Peirce:
Everybody can see that the statement of St. John [“God is love”] is the formula of an evolutionary philosophy, which teaches that growth comes only from love, from I will not say self-sacrifice, but from the ardent impulse to fulfill another’s highest impulse. Suppose, for example, that I have an idea that interests me. It is my creation. It is my creature; for as shown in last July’s Monist [“Man’s Glassy Essence”], it is a little person. I love it; and I will sink myself in perfecting it. It is not by dealing out cold justice to the circle of my ideas that I can make them grow, but by cherishing and tending them as I would the flowers in my garden. The philosophy we draw from John’s gospel is that this is the way mind develops; and as for the cosmos, only so far as it yet is mind, and so has life, is it capable of further evolution. Love, recognizing germs of loveliness in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely.
For Peirce, then, God is love, and love, while operative within the cosmos, is not sovereign over it. There is no transcendent deity reigning supreme, imposing order from without. The order of the cosmos is emergent, and love is the process through which new forms—including life on Earth, and the human race, and you—have emerged. In this vision, then, human beings exist in the image of God, which is to say the image of love, but we were not made that way by Him. There is no maker, but there’s still a logic to the making, and it is the logic of love. The universe is indifferent, but love is not. We exist in the image of love, and like it or not, our happiness hinges upon our ability to conform to it.
In EEAAO, Evelyn puts Peirce’s ideas into practice. She and Joy are at their lowest point when they stray furthest from the dictates of love. They’re happy only when they accept that, as beings inescapably imbued with love, and specifically love for each other as mother and daughter, they matter to each other. They can flourish as individuals only if they flourish together, and they couldn’t live as rocks even if they tried. Human beings can’t help pursuing happiness, and our success is contingent upon certain constraints — one of which being a proper conception of the self. Certain ties — those binding us to parent and child, spouse and friend and neighbor — are unbreakable. We can deny their existence but denial doesn’t make them disappear. We’re not atomistic individuals — more like nodes in a network connected to those we love.
The alternative offered by EEAAO isn’t traditional religion, and it isn’t hedonism. It makes explicit what “American Beauty” brushes up against with its talk of a benevolent force. The benevolent force isn’t a transcendent deity, a Creator of Heaven and Earth — it’s Peirce’s evolutionary love, the force through which we emerged and upon which our happiness depends. You can say it doesn’t matter if we adhere to its demands, but some small part of you will know that’s nonsense.
When the well-being of those we love is on the line — and it always is — everything matters.