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Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and the Return to Eden

September 30, 2020


Yes, I get it. Tenet was confusing as heck . . . and I loved it! Christopher Nolan’s latest cinematic exploration involves David Washington, “The Protagonist”, in a sci-fi spy thriller with a highly complex and inverted timeline.

While confusing at times, I love that Nolan’s storytelling usually contains a deeper concept the audience is invited to ponder. His cinematography is certainly visually imaginative and immersive, but it is not intended merely for entertainment.

Further, while Nolan’s movies would not be considered obviously connected to Christianity, the themes and ideas that are explored consistently resonate with a Christian, if not Catholic, worldview. In this way, Nolan’s movies can often work as a springboard into Christian truths. An authentic Christianity exercises imagination in mining truth from the world around it.

While Tenet is not saying anything necessarily religious or spiritual, the movie places before its audience an idea to ponder regarding the concept of time: moving forward in one dimension, while simultaneously moving backward in another. This idea is explored through the concept of entropy.

According to Claudia De Rham, a theoretical physicist from Imperial College London, “Entropy is the measure of the level of order or the level of information. There’s a really fundamental law in physics telling us that entropy always increases. On average, things get more and more disorganized. That’s why we grow older. . . . That’s why it’s much easier to destroy something than to construct something.”

Entropy is the process we know to be true in our universe, in our way of existence. Tenet, however, explores the concept of  reversed entropy, or “Inversion.” Instead of a forward trajectory, objects or persons that are inverted move backward through spacetime.

Per the story, humans in the future somehow tapped into the power of inversion and have begun to communicate with Sator, an evil Russian oligarch (stellar performance by Kenneth Branagh) who plans to destroy the world. Trust me in saying that the situation is far more complex, but I don’t have the space here to explain half of it.

This may seem like a jump, but in watching the chaos of Tenet unfold, my mind sprung to Eden. The Garden of Eden was, in fact, the state of humanity’s original creation. In this primordial paradise, humanity existed in its ideal state. In Eden, there was no sin, no war, no hatred, no greed, no anxiety or fear. We know that—however unfortunately—that state did not last forever.

Rather than mere membership in a spiritual or ideological social club, the goal of the Christian, in a sense, is to “return to Eden.” This journey is obviously not a historical endeavor—one of literal time travel. It is rather a journey of the heart and soul. Every human being has been created for something more—a return to an ideal, or yet perfect, relationship with God and the rest of humanity—our brothers and sisters.

It is here that one of the central ideas of Tenet illuminates a Christian truth: there is no way of going forward without going backward. As embodied spiritual beings we, in fact, move forward in one plane of existence, while we simultaneously move “backward” in another. While our body is deconstructing, our soul should be reconstructing.

Admittedly, this proposal needs some clarification.  The first Eden is not heaven. Through Jesus’ Paschal Mystery, the possibility of an entrance into heaven, the “New Eden,” was provided. The reconstructive journey to which the Christian is called, in fact, exceeds the state of the first Eden and embraces the perfect state of the New Eden.

The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ. (CCC 374)

Unbeknownst to many, Catholicism has an ancient, deep, and beautiful spiritual tradition which explores the path of perfection—the journey back to Eden. This spiritual expedition is known as the three stages of the interior life—The Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive Ways.

The Purgative Way is marked by “the soul’s chief concern in this stage of perfection is an awareness of its sins, sorrow for the past, and a desire to expiate the offenses against God.” The Illuminative Way is marked by “an enlightenment of the mind in the ways of God and a clear understanding of his will in one’s own state of life.” Finally, the Unitive Way—the third and final stage of Christian perfection—is marked by “a more or less constant awareness of God’s presence, and a habitual disposition of conformity to the will of God.”

Importantly, these stages are not necessarily chronologically followed in a person’s life and may be entered into and out of at different times. Yet, like the storyline of Tenet, suffice it to be that there is far more to explain than there is space here. These spiritual stages are among the teachings of the great Carmelite mystics St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. These saints, undoubtedly, are those real human beings who helped to show that the backward/forward journey was possible.

Finally, to draw a connection to the Eucharist—the living, sacramental presence of Jesus. In Tenet, inverted objects can exist in one dimension, but in fact move backwards through spacetime. In this sense, the Eucharist is a supernatural reality Jesus gifted his people to invert their spiritual entropy back to Eden/forward to the New Eden, the state of perfect union with the Father.

Faithful and consistent reception of the Eucharist—a reality simultaneously in and outside of time—helps us to move backward/forward through the stages of Christian perfection. God gives us himself to help rebuild us in him. This notion is brought out, I think, in a prayer the priest is invited to pray while he purifies the vessels after communion: “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.”

While Tenet left some people with major headaches, I hope that after this reflection, the movie can leave us, possibly inadvertently, with something of a heartache. Whether we know it or not, all of us have a heartache for Eden/the New Eden. The journey to heaven, the New Eden, is the crazy journey for which we have been created.

During an interview for Tenet, Nolan explained, “I am very happy that audiences around the world are beginning to be able to respond to the film . . . because for me as a filmmaker the film is not finished until the audience gets to see it and tell me what it is that I’ve done.” The filmmaker doesn’t want to merely entertain, but seeks to engage the person at a deeper level.

Like Jordan Peterson, Nolan effectively reaches broad audiences with an investigation of truth, but refrains from disclosing his personal dispositions so as to keep his audience engaged. In another interview, when asked about the ambiguity that often marks his films and the ambiguity that he holds as a director, Nolan stated, “For the ambiguity to be meaningful (not arbitrary) the audience has to feel that there is an underlying truth there that the filmmaker believes.” This ambiguity extends the film beyond the screen and into life.