First Reformed: Hope Without Optimism



First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, is, along with The Witch, at the vanguard of a recent renaissance of Calvinist cinema but still engages with themes of interest to Catholic audiences, such as the distinction between hope and optimism, stewardship of Creation, and free will. It tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller, who encounters Mary and Michael, a married couple struggling with whether to abort their unborn child because of the imminent environmental catastrophes that Michael believes will render their child’s life unbearable. Toller is drawn into Michael’s struggle with despair.

Hope and Optimism

First Reformed outlines the distinctions evident in hope, despair, optimism and pessimism. On a secular level, Michael and Toller have only a pessimistic view of Creation, as they see it being degraded without optimism for its recovery. However, this temporal pessimism causes them to struggle with spiritual despair, wondering if God will forgive humanity’s failure to be good stewards of Creation. They see the effects wrought by sin, which lead them to become temporally pessimistic for Creation’s future and to spiritually despair of salvation for humanity.

Now, this temporal pessimism is not necessarily opposed to the theological virtue of hope for salvation. One can know that future generations will struggle with sin and that this sin will damage human relationships and Creation yet still have hope that Christ will make all things anew. As St. Paul says in Romans 8, “the whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” (v. 22) and all Creation has suffered from the effects of Original Sin and will continue to suffer until hope is brought to fruition.

This is not to diminish sin, saying that hope for the new Creation allows us to exploit Creation with abandon. An obstinate refusal to be good stewards of the environment because it would hinder easy profit could be sinful. However, Michael and Toller do not seem to be aware of the distinction between temporal pessimism and spiritual despair. Catholics speak of having a sacramental imagination, in which the tangible things of the world make present the grace of God. Toller’s imagination is not sacramental but purely material: despite knowing that the ways of God do not necessarily correspond to human instincts, he sees humanity’s future and salvation firstly in terms of continuing generations of material existence. First Reformed shows many images of environmental decay, inevitably making the case for pessimism more vivid. As Steven Greydanus says, “Hope and despair struggle to the end, but the despair is anchored in crushing realities, while the hope is nebulous and chimera,” so hope is less obviously present in the film than despair.

A Faith with Political Consequences

Tied up with the distinction between secular optimism and theological hope is the way in which Christianity makes claims with both spiritual and political consequences. The Church’s teaching on the dignity of life from conception to natural death motivates political action to protect life at all stages, and its teaching on stewardship of Creation has implications for the way Creation is treated. The First Reformed Church of which Toller is pastor has historical significance because it was a stop for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad; it is an example of the Church acting for good within a politically-charged context. The question is whether First Reformed Church can act again to inspire the conversion of those who unjustly exploit Creation. However, the industrialist Edward Balq, who is identified as a prominent polluter sponsoring the church’s anniversary celebration, rejects any suggestion that the Church has something to say on the subject of environmental stewardship as merely political, and therefore something he can reject summarily. It might not be appropriate for clerics to propose policy from the pulpit, but the authority of Christianity’s moral claims does not evaporate upon leaving the front door of the church due to contact with “politics.” First Reformed understands the Christian moral vision must not be restricted to the private sphere but is concerned with the common good, and to achieve this common good must enter the public sphere; furthermore, it is not just secularists who want to prevent this entry but also Christians who do not want the moral claims of their faith to prevent them from acting as they would like.

Now, Christianity cannot be reduced to political activity; it is the hope in the Resurrection, in the new Creation and salvation, and so the question of forgiveness re-enters the analysis. God will forgive us for what we have done if we repent and do not despair of His forgiveness. Does First Reformed portray this repentance? Michael despairs and kills himself. Balq refuses to consider whether he is complicit in the degradation of Creation. Even Toller, although he lets himself become obsessed with the sins of humanity against Creation, rejects any notion that the non-marital sexual relationship he engaged in constitutes sin; he also believes the only option is to protest Balq by blowing himself up during the anniversary ceremony. This is where the characters most lose hope: not upon observing the deteriorating environment, but by rejecting the idea that they need forgiveness because they believe they do not need it, or that it would not be offered anyway.

When Toller loses hope and is only pessimistic for the environment, his actions lose their spiritual dimension and become purely political, with the end not of converting sinners so they repent of their sins and seek God’s grace, but of destroying the enemy so the temporal aim of saving the world might be advanced. He plans to become not a triumphant (or even resigned) martyr for God, choosing to bear witness to hope in salvation instead of sinning while believing that even in the depths of death he can encounter Christ Whose suffering he imitates, but a desperate mass murderer who has no hope of encountering Christ in the darkness and despairs of converting sinners. And the thing about political action is that it is something people do by their own power, as opposed to a hope in salvation enabled by Christ’s sacrifice and mercy. Schrader describes Toller as finding “the cloak of martyrdom that he can wrap around himself and turn its sinfulness into redemptiveness. That’s the virus he catches. It’s a pathology very well known in Christianity: the pathology of suicidal glory. The pathology that I can effect my own salvation through my own suffering” (think of Flannery O’Connor’s little girl who could never be a saint, but could be a martyr if they killed her quickly). In turning his planned suicide into a political martyrdom, he comes close to rejecting salvation by God’s action and trying to achieve it himself. He is not seeking hope in Christ’s Resurrection but optimism in action: the film compares to Islamic jihadism and a consequentialism justifying itself by political consequences.

Not all in First Reformed despair. Mary is determined to be a mother, and Toller initially portrays the unborn child as a sign of hope. Pregnancy is a sign of hope in the ability to pass love into the future and to spread it to all people. It is an eschatological hope; Ian Caveny says, in response to environmental activists seeking to reduce childbirth, that “eschatology and politics in the Christian faith both begin with the Incarnation of Christ.” This is because the long-awaited King, “the hope of salvation and the end of politics, arrived in the form of a little baby.” Therefore, Caveny argues that

…it is impossible for us to imperil the environment by testifying to the Incarnation that undergirds creation. Christian people will not tamp down our faithful hope: We will, instead, declare it with our lives. In a society growing more and more reticent to bear babies, it will be the Christians who will bear babies and, in so doing, bear witness.

Mary’s determination to bear her child affirms the humanity Toller ignores in his political enemies. As Alexi Sargeant says,

What holds First Reformed back from being a film that takes Christianity seriously, despite Schrader’s protestations to the contrary, is its Apocalypticism. The fate of Schrader’s universe once again comes down to a self-willed, manly moment of existential martyrdom. And yet any Christian versed in the rhythms of liturgy or the writings of the saints could tell him that’s a delusion. God calls us most often to slow and small and self-forgetful acts of service.

In and of itself, this child does not solve any environmental crisis, but it defends the dignity of human life alongside hoping for more responsible environmental stewardship, and participates in the renewal of Creation by assuming the role of co-Creator and raising new stewards.

Waiting for Toller to Blow

The problem with First Reformed is that while its beginning raises important questions, its ending drifts away from those questions. Instead, there are scenes of Toller looking at himself in the mirror while wearing a suicide vest and driving the streets at night while observing sin and debauchery, a clear allusion to the film Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote. That film’s protagonist, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) points a gun at a mirror and drives around New York City seeing debauchery. Bickle is a ticking time bomb and much of Taxi Driver is taken up with waiting for his violence to wreak havoc. Identifying Toller with Bickle primes the audience to expect violence from Toller. It also makes Toller’s violence seem inevitable, the result of inherent psychopathy like Bickle, instead of the result of despair. Therefore, much of First Reformed is waiting not for thematic insight, but to see how bad Toller’s violence will be. Sargeant says,

It’s not that there isn’t material out there for a religious drama about environmental stewardship. Pope Francis famously discussed the need for sustainable development and the dangers of pollution and climate change in his encyclical Laudato si’… If a pastor became convinced his denomination was too beholden to wealthy polluters, what could he do? How do you cleanse the temple?… But a film about this topic would have to take God and the earth seriously, rather than simply slouching towards a one-man Armageddon. First Reformed skims shallowly over theology and environmentalism, hoping to make up for it with the shock value of a reverend in a suicide vest.

To give a more generous (if not more convincing) interpretation, this inevitability may actually engage First Reformed’s themes of hope. First Reformed Church is Calvinist, and a prominent aspect of Calvinist theology involves predestination, wherein God has chosen from eternity to whom He will give mercy and salvation. We might see this narrative inevitability as, rather, the theological inevitability that Toller is deprived of mercy and living in a world that is incomprehensible to him because he will not see the new Creation.

This depends on how we understand the ending: Toller has donned a suicide vest under his vestments and is about leave his room to begin the anniversary ceremony when he sees Mary, still pregnant, arriving at the church. Not wanting to hurt her or her child, he removes the vest, wraps barbed wire around himself, and prepares to drink Draino. Mary enters and they kiss, as the camera, which had been still throughout the film, spins around them. Did Toller drink and die, and is he seeing a vision of glory, or is he alive and in ecstasy? Is he finding personal salvation amidst the decay of Creation? The whirling camera certainly suggests a new way of seeing. To some extent, his love for Mary and her child keeps him from committing the sins of murder and suicide, suggesting that love has some salvific effect. That would imply some freedom to choose to accept the salvation offered, despite the Taxi Driver-style impending violence. And if this inevitability can be thwarted, perhaps Toller’s temporal pessimism can also be thwarted. Or maybe he is too totally depraved to receive that love and dies nonetheless.

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1 thought on “First Reformed: Hope Without Optimism”

  1. Thank you for this review. I just finished watching FIRST REFORMED and found it compelling but quite disturbing. I think your review is a good look into the story, where it may be strong and where it indeed suffers. I found the whole film to feel as if I was living in the Dark Night of the Soul, but one in which there was really no hope of light ever. Not a night, but a permanent darkness, and that is why the film–while powerful and compelling and well done–does not ring true to me.

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