“I Have Found Another Form of Prayer”: Tensions and Resolutions Between Univocity and Apophasis in “First Reformed”


(Given at 42nd Annual Implicit Religion conference “Religion and the Encounter” at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK 19/05/19)


The purpose of this paper is not necessarily to ascribe any individual theological position to any of First Reformed’s protagonists, nor indeed to speculate on Paul Schrader’s own convictions in writing and making the film. Perhaps the subtitle would be better phrased, “tensions and resolutions between univocity and apophasis in watching First Reformed.” Either way, however, I wish to present a list of reflections upon two philosophies, associated with religion, that routinely have struck me each time I watch what I consider to be one of the greatest films of 2018 and, indeed, recent years.

First Reformed follows Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), pastor of the woefully unattended First Reformed church in the fictional Upstate New York town of Snowbridge, once a crucial stop on the underground railroad, now a decorative subsidiary of the exceedingly affluent Abundant Life megachurch, pejoratively dubbed “the souvenir shop.” Toller is approached by the heavily pregnant congregate Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asking him to counsel her husband, eco-activist Michael (Philip Ettinger), whose despondency over Planet Earth’s damoclean status has him compelling Mary to have an abortion. Although Toller comes the next day to comfort Michael, they engage in something more akin to a Socratic dialogue, in which Toller feels spiritually invigorated for the first time in recent memory, alluding to the adage that wisdom – if not life itself – is defined by the ability to hold the oppositional concepts of hope and despair in one’s mind and heart simultaneously, insisting that “a life without despair is a life without hope.” He reveals that his placement as the pastor of First Reformed was something of an act of charity bestowed upon him by Abundant Life, after encouraging his son to enlist in the Iraq War resulted in the rapid end of his son’s life, his marriage, and his role as a military chaplain. Accordingly, it seems his entire spiritual life is defined by despair, which he himself must interpret as holding hope implicitly, even if never explicitly. Later, after Michael presumably realises Mary and Toller have discovered he is in possession of a suicide vest, he arranges another meeting with Toller, at which point he is discovered, dead. Toller, realising Abundant Life has a close relationship with one of the biggest local polluters against whom Michael fought, inherits Michael’s impassioned cause, and his suicide vest.

Toller’s primary spiritual inspiration, as evidenced in conversation and visible books by his bedside, is the image of modern mystic Thomas Merton, one who observed that, for many, “Christian social action is not Christian in itself, but only because it is a kind of escalator to unworldliness and devotion. This is because we apparently cannot conceive material and worldly things seriously as having any capacity to be ‘spiritual.’ But Christian social action, on the contrary, conceives man’s work itself as a spiritual reality.” Stephen P. Millies continues this thought: “By blurring the distinction between the worldly and unworldly, and in joining action essentially to contemplation, Merton urges us to recognise the possibility of sanctity within the temporal and profane.” (Contemplative Citizenship). Here is established a conference of the spiritual to the material in such a way that we begin to see met the founding premise of the univocity of being, starting with St John Duns Scotus’ initial suggestion that the transcendentality of God is not as such that the respective finite / infinite distinction between humankind and God is enough to discount a shared concept of being between the two. For Spinoza, this concept of univocity speaks to a substantial oneness, which may be termed “nature,” or indeed “God,” whilst for Deleuze, the univocal being is the process of being, defined as Difference.

Aside from Merton’s A Life in Letters, also on Toller’s bedside is, unremarkably, a copy of The Bible, a copy of Heretics by G.K Chesterton, which one may interpret as a reasonable companion to Merton, encouraging direct action, but also the anonymously written The Cloud of Unknowing: one of the most iconic examples of apophatic mystical theology in the Christian tradition.

It is not through any New Atheistic cynicism that – during his debate with Toller – Michael, described by Mary as being effectively irreligious, asks Ernst “will God forgive us?” Rather, his position appears directed by Spinozist ethics and, accordingly, his experience of the death of the planet is his experience of the death of God, at such an intensity that the Earth’s vulnerability and rapid decline implies a longer and, for a priest, more troubling question: “will God be able to forgive us?” As Zachary Holbrook notes:

Though Michael clearly respects Toller’s history and integrity, he gives no indication of sharing the pastor’s faith. But his fervor for his cause is virtually religious, and the implicit materialist theology of the environmental movement is the greatest non-point source of his spiritual pollution. The detailed predictions of coming doom resemble nothing so much as a fundamentalist tribulation timeline. With no vision of a life after death, this worldview denying even a symbolic “eternal life” of offspring to inherit one’s legacy, how can we hope beyond the urgency of the moment? (Toxic Environments..)

I must, however, suggest that Michael’s position on “life after death” is more complex than having, as Holbrook describes “no vision” of one. Although his argument is drowned out by Toller’s overhead narration, we can interpret Michael as truthful when he replies affirmatively that he does believe in “a next life;” he nevertheless understands it not in terms of Heaven, but in terms of a transformed Earth. The looming imposition of environmental crisis establishes a potential new timeline, creating a new concept of afterlife: a state of radically altered relation between modes and substance. An existence, definitively divorced from potentially all prerequisites for that existence.

For Toller, the act of writing – not simply the words themselves, but the inflections, penmanship and deletions, are the first “form of prayer” indicated in First Reformed. His plan to destroy the diary after a year solidifies the immanent, material manifestation of communion and, in so doing, confers to it a physical vulnerability. A to-be-destroyed-ness. This process of making one’s mark upon a text, before finally burning it, is – as well as Toller’s first “form of prayer” – a clear parable for humankind’s relationship with the planet Earth itself. Indeed, we can see this reflected – for better or worse – most directly in Aronofsky’s mother! in which Bardem’s deistic patriarch is an author, whose creation always ultimately meets a conflagratory demise. Here, the silent image of God rests within the implied avatar, the constructed recipient “Dear Diary,” absent and yet made present through the act of writing: a book is made into a diary, and the diary acts as reader, confessor, God defined by its lack of response. A little later, Toller remarks how “the desire to pray is a type of prayer.” Whilst, certainly, the act of trying to pray is routinely described thus, particularly in twelve-step programs (membership of which Toller would certainly be a candidate), which find themselves with the task of encouraging spiritual awakening in the previously atheistic and hopeless, Toller’s desire to pray can be understood primarily in psychoanalytical terms, in which desire is defined as lack. Accordingly, the state of spiritual muteness, even absence, is one shared both by Toller and his conception of God.

Toller’s appeal to Michael for the birth of his unborn child is to describe it as “something alive in Mary; as alive as a tree, surely.” We may understand the image of the child, the tree, the planet, the diary, the First Reformed church, God itself as sharing the position of that which should, in common discourse, vastly outlive the protagonists, if not exist forever, and yet are being immediately imperiled. There is theological precedent for a certain univocity of entropy, of course: Philipp Mainländer’s Philosophy of Redemption. Mainländer’s premise is that humanity, if not all existence, is or shall be defined through a “Will-to-die,” transferred to us by a suicidal God, whose self-annihilation may be interpreted as the Big Bang itself, as Thomas Ligotti’s remarks:

In Mainländer’s philosophy, “God knew that he could change from a state of super-reality into non-being only through the development of a real world of multiformity.” Employing this strategy, He excluded Himself from being. “God is dead,” wrote Mainländer, “and His death was the life of the world.” Once the great individuation had been initiated, the momentum of its creator’s self-annihilation would continue until everything became exhausted by its own existence, which for human beings meant that the faster they learned that happiness was not as good as they thought it would be, the happier they would be to die out. (Conspiracy Against the Human Race, p.36)

Here, all the world is defined through the action of a deistic substance; however, rather than a classically Spinozist substance defined through a vitalistic ontology, the Gertrude Stein-esque mise-en-abyme of I Am That I Am, we approach instead I Am Not That I Am Not, or perhaps I Am Undone That I Am Undone. The process toward nonexistence is the shared differential status of substance: a univocity of nothing. Nothing as a verb.

I Am Not That I Am Not is a reasonable approximate description of God’s existence within the apophatic mystical tradition that perceives Its transcendence as one that can only be philosophically approached through a process of negation, discounting It so much from conventional mortal perception, that It may only be described in terms of darkness, emptiness and nothingness. Whilst there are many celebrated texts in this tradition, I shall focus here on St John of the Cross’ The Dark Night series, in which he asks and answers the to-be-expected question: “why, if it is a divine light…does one call it a ‘dark night’?” The response to which is twofold: “First, because of the height of divine wisdom, which exceeds the capacity of the soul. Second, because of the soul’s baseness and impurity; and on this account the wisdom is painful, afflictive, and also dark for the soul.” (In the Dust of This Planet, 136). Accordingly, there are two types of darkness experienced simultaneously: the first is one on account of the light, the understanding of God to be too great for human conception, leaving only negative space. The second is the darkness of human existence, rendered all the baser in comparison, via its proximity to God’s light, even if that light is rendered dark in its unintelligibility.

Returning to Michael’s question: “will God forgive us?” As Toller himself does, multiple times during the film, repeating the question in person to his superiors, and writing it on the billboard outside the church, presumably indicating the theme of what may be his final sermon. His answer to Michael initially is a predictable “who can know the mind of God?” However, we should consider that Toller, in being so shocked by Michael’s suicide, cannot be said to know the mind of Man, either. This is not to denigrate Toller’s perception; rather it is to note that humankind may share with God certain degrees of imperceptibility. Here is where we may perceive the first focal point at which questions of univocity and apophasis meet: within the frame of postmodern philosophical thought, in which the concept of human nature is distinctly compromised, the darkness on of God’s divine intangibility may also in fact bleed through into the darkness of Man’s baseness. Accordingly, this encounter with death – perhaps crucially, reminiscent of Mainländer’s hypothesis – is the first significantly spiritual moment of First Reformed. Encountering Michael’s body is to encounter physical manifestation of the univocal unknowability of God/Man – an encounter that induces Toller later to remark to Mary his belief that Michael “was standing on holy ground when he died.” Moses and the burning bush are connected. The suicide vest becomes the religious fetish, not as such that it may manifest conviction / belief as it does for the traditionally conceived suicide bomber, but rather as the manifestation of nothing as an un/doing – the obliteration of the container of the base darkness, and its elevation to a higher darkness. Annihilation becomes the religious act, the spiritual encounter. As Toller straps on the vest, he remarks “I have found another form of prayer.”