Paul Schrader’s First Reformed tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a middle-aged minister at a thinly populated Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The film begins when a pregnant parishioner at the church, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Toller to speak to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who believes it is immoral for her to have a child. Toller attempts to persuade Michael that he can care for the earth and still justify bringing new life onto it. When writing about the exchange in his journal, he paraphrases Thomas Merton: “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.” But when, days later, Michael takes his own life, Toller finds himself deeply affected—or infected—by his despair.
Wounded by the loss of his son in Iraq and the subsequent disintegration of his marriage, Toller passes his days in a barely furnished apartment next door to his church, keeping a journal of his thoughts as he battles loneliness, alcoholism and a battery of vexing physical maladies. Following the death of Mary’s husband, he begins spending late nights reading about pollution and climate change online, soon realizing that a major patron of the nearby megachurch—whose proceeds subsidize his parish and salary—is the chief executive of a powerful chemical company. He places a sign in front of his church with a question Michael had asked of him in their initial conversation: will god forgive us—for destroying his creation? Then he tries to speak to Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), the head pastor at the megachurch, about rejecting the patron’s support and taking a more forceful stand on behalf of the environment. Failing to persuade Jeffers, Toller returns to the suicide vest he had found among Michael’s belongings and embarks on a plan to blow himself up during a public rededication of his church, on the occasion of its 250th anniversary.
Part of the genius of the film is in the way the viewer remains in sympathy with Toller as he passes almost imperceptibly from curiosity about the environment, to concern, to melioristic action, to terroristic action. There is no one, discernible break with reality or sanity; each step seems to follow logically from the previous one, until suddenly we find ourselves watching in confusion and horror as Toller straps on a bomb vest in his apartment. The film’s astonishing final sequence begins when the minister, looking out the window at the arriving guests for the anniversary ceremony, sees Mary climbing the stairs. Toller had told Mary not to come, but she had insisted anyway, seeing it as a gesture of gratitude for the help he had given her in the wake of her husband’s death.
As the ceremony begins next door, Toller rips off his suicide vest and retrieves a chain of barbed wire from his closet—which he fastens around his naked arms and torso. When blood begins to trickle from his wounds, he dons a white robe and pours himself a tumbler of Drano. Meanwhile, the opening hymn is being played next door. The movie is almost, but not quite, over.
It is fitting that the most resonant artwork about the earth in 2018 revolves around a church. For millennia human beings perceived both themselves and their environment as a sacred bequest from God (or gods), and today there are arguments in churches across the country for the cause of “creation care.” But even for disenchanted secularists the topic calls forth an increasingly religious cast of mind. If the emphasis used to be on facts and figures, benchmarks and risk levels, we seem now to have passed into a phase marked by blame and guilt, anxiety and fear, preparations for damnation punctuated by bug-eyed leaps of faith. “Human nature has brought us to this place; perhaps human nature will one day bring us through,” wrote Nathaniel Rich over the summer, near the end of his 25,000-word New York Times Magazine epic “Losing Earth.” “Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. It is also human nature, after all, to hope.”
Rich’s article was merely the longest in an imposing line of recent jeremiads against climate change, most of which seem calculated less to avert catastrophe than to inspire repentance. Rich’s chosen avenue for doing so is the description of a series of high-level governmental near-misses in the Eighties, when elites and politicians in both parties, although largely convinced by the emerging scientific data, nevertheless failed to put effective policies in place to stop what was then known (rather quaintly) as the “Greenhouse Effect.” In his 2017 article “The Uninhabitable Earth,” for New York, David Wallace-Wells focused on future consequences rather than past regrets, laying out a series of apocalyptic scenarios—heat death, climate plagues, floods and “mass extinction”—that scientists he talked to predicted were likely to result from our inaction. Both articles emphasize the emerging scientific consensus that the window for stopping the worst has passed us by, then use that observation to pivot to a reflection on collective responsibility. “Everyone knew—and we all still know,” as Rich puts it in his conclusion.” “You, too, are in denial of climate change,” reads the title of a follow-up post by Wallace-Wells.
Wallace-Wells, like Rich, ultimately faults human nature for our predicament, even pilfering some jargon from behavioral science—the “ambiguity effect,” “anthropocentric thinking,” “status quo bias”—to make this conclusion sound edgy and up to date. Others have blamed fossil-fuel companies, neoliberalism, the industrial revolution, the will of God or the innate destructiveness of Western civilization. All are plausible villains. Important as it is to apportion blame, however, such writing about climate change remains limited by the frame of sin and iniquity that has become compulsory for the genre. This may be one reason it tends to provoke a sense of despair in us—similar in kind if not quite as extreme as Toller’s—as opposed to the kind of creativity and sacrifice everyone agrees will ultimately be necessary to address climate change’s fundamental drivers.
It has long been a commonplace to point out how our materialistic, technologically enhanced way of life is depriving us of a future. But it is less often remarked how that way of life—and the way of thinking that accompanies it—seems to have deprived us of any meaningful vocabulary with which to explain why, beyond appealing to the same maximization of “self-interest” that got us into this predicament, we should desire to have a collective future. Do we? A tacit assumption of much writing and speaking about climate change is that we want to survive. And yet, that we deserve our own destruction is the buried premise of nearly every word we speak.
Of the many possible queries about what it might mean to abide by Rich’s “irrational optimism,” the most pressing is a variation on the old enlightenment question: What ought we to be optimistic for? For the survival of the earth? For the continuation of the human species? Or for the continuation of the kind of lives—supposedly so shortsighted and indulgent that we can’t even enact a carbon tax, much less revolutionize our political economy—that have brought us to this melancholy juncture?
In his great essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954)—an oft-neglected environmentalist classic—Martin Heidegger contended that technology was not only, as it is often supposed, a human activity, or a “means to an end”; it was also a force that framed the way we related to ourselves and our environment. In the transition from premodern to modern technology, then, there had not only been an increase in the resources extracted from the earth but also a transformation in our way of being toward it. Whereas the peasant “places the seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase,” taking care of and maintaining his environment in its richness and diversity, the modern industrial farmer had been conditioned to “challenge” his field, “setting upon it” in order to extract a maximum yield of resources or energy. Clearly, this was not great for the field. But what Heidegger was really concerned about—what he called the “supreme danger”—was not in what this attitude toward nature did to the earth, but in what it was doing to us.
By revealing everything in our environment to be nothing more than “standing reserve,” Heidegger indicated, the human being who lived in the midst of modern technology himself had been paradoxically diminished: though he reckoned himself a “Lord of the Earth,” he had in fact become merely the equivalent of an office clerk—i.e. “nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve.” As this mindset proliferated, the world would cease to exist as a place of variety and diversity, and “Truth” would become the exclusive province of physicist-kings.
Adapted from a series of lectures given in 1949 titled “Insight into What Is,” “The Question Concerning Technology” is haunted by the recently concluded war and the fresh threat of nuclear apocalypse, both of which bore vivid witness to the way human beings could themselves become a form of “standing reserve.” Yet Heidegger suggests in his final lines that the danger posed by modern technology may also reveal an opportunity. For the ancient Greeks the word techne—which lies at the root of our modern notion of technology—denoted, not the control of nature and the extraction of resources, but rather the “manifold revealing” that is responsible for the beauty of art. Precisely because the technological way of being was destined to bring us to the brink of destruction, Heidegger suggested, it might provoke in us an alternative comportment toward the world. From the poetic perspective, we do not appear as objects of scientific measurement and control. Rather, we are revealed as the beings who are uniquely capable of questioning what we are and how we should lead our lives.
In the final moments of First Reformed, just as he is about to drink his poison, Mary appears in Reverend Toller’s home. Throughout the movie, she has been the one able to negotiate, without threatening to harm herself or others, between conflicting desires and commitments, all the while attempting to coax the male extremists in her orbit to remain on the earth they claim to care so fervently about. (The point is made explicitly in the film’s second most memorable scene, when Mary convinces Toller to lie on the floor of his apartment while she drapes her body on top of his.) When he sees her, Toller drops his glass and runs into her arms. The camera swoops down and around them as they pirouette in the minister’s barren living room, the hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood?” playing in the background. It is the only moment of fully consummated human intimacy in the film, all the more poignant for the contrast it makes with the prevailing austerity of Schrader’s transcendental style. Toller and Mary twirl once and then twice, and then the music stops and the screen cuts abruptly to dark. The guttural rumbling that has accompanied Toller’s darkest moments returns as the credits begin to roll.
It is not clear to us, as viewers, if Mary is really there, or if the embrace is a Drano-induced hallucination. I prefer to think of it as a fantasy. The way we talk about climate change often leaves the impression that, if we wish to make ourselves equal to the challenge we perceive, we have only Toller’s two choices: to cleanse the world or to purify ourselves. The irony and the tragedy is that we are incapable of doing either. Our world, like each one of our lives, will end: What will we be dreaming of doing when it does?
Image credits: Stills from First Reformed (2018)