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Tenet and the Actual World

It’s funny that a science fiction film could tell us so much about reality but that is what I think the recent film Tenet does. Earlier this week I went to check this film out with some friends and was pleasantly surprised about some of the interesting ways they explored some important philosophical ideas. From the same director as Inception and Interstellar. I suspected that the film would explore some interesting ideas in a very entertaining and exhilarating way but I was especially impressed at the self-restraint of the film to not try and impose an explanation to what it displays. Like a good joke, a good film shouldn’t have to explain itself to be enjoyed.

Now I do not intend to write a film review but instead to explore the ideas that I think were expressed in the film and understand how they relate to a Christian perspective of the world. The first place to start with for that is the core idea behind the film. Much like inception, this film is based on a simple premise. There are people who can use a machine to reverse the direction of time. Now unlike a time machine they aren’t placed backwards in time but instead move backwards from the present moment into the past. Like living life on rewind. It’s a simple idea but has a lot of consequences and the film explores the novel implications of the idea throughout. For example since heat normally goes from hot to cold. When you travel backwards the heat goes from cold to hot giving us the counterintuitive situation of being frozen by an explosion.

So far this all sounds like a fun bit of sci-fi with no meaningful implications. It sounds like this simple idea if anything would detach us more and more from reality and not be able to tell us anything about our experience of the world but the film does a good job of choosing to focus itself on reality not away from it. When we think of time travel ordinarily we often think of how it raises questions of potentiality and possibility. If I went back in time and did this how would the world change? Could I stop this from happening? And so on… but this film instead subtly focuses on actuality not potentiality. It shows how potentiality is grounded firstly in actuality. As the film progresses we find the potential and possible outcomes of circumstances earlier in the film are revealed to be actualizations of those potentialities. Characters we saw earlier in the film and events that occurred turn out to be manifestations of characters in those scenes interacting with themselves backwards.

The ability to look at time in this two-way manner allows us to better understand the relationship between the potential and the actual. The events that actually happen in the film are always fixed in some respects. They are woven into the timeline and stay there whether the thread comes from the forward or backward direction. Every potentiality is grounded fundamentally in an actuality. In contrast to Inception for example where the film primarily focus’ on the potential and uncertainty of things which grows as the film progresses.

This idea of a potency that is grounded in actuality is very important from the Christian perspective as it is essential to the idea of vocation. Every individual is called to God in a particular way. There lays dormant in each of us a potentiality which we are called to actualize, by God, through participation with his grace. This actualization of potency is free but also fixed in a certain respect. In the film we see this very clearly. The characters freely make decisions throughout the movie to do certain things. When they start to go back in time they wonder if they can change the course of events by doing certain things. They find out though that in the course of trying to change things they end up actualizing the very thing they thought they might change. They find that the potential always pointed towards the actual. Now they were always free in their decisions and yet at the same time there was a fixedness and certainty about things. This certainty we know from our lives as the actualization of potency. When someone says to us I might go shopping next week we often say in response, but what will you actually do? The place where the potential is made actual is very important as it is the place in which we experience reality.

The Big Man - St Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas came across the ideas of Act and Potency from the works of the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle and Aquinas recognized how important these ideas were to understanding our vocations and the work of God’s providence. He saw, just like we see now in the film Tenet, that there is a certainty about the way things are when viewed from a certain perspective as we see when moving backwards and forwards in time in the movie. He also saw that from our usual personal experience there is an uncertainty and this we know as our free will. Now Aquinas understood that God is that being who is pure act and also who is eternal. As such God “experiences” all of time as the present and so when we think about God’s providence we see how from the “perspective of God” everything is fixed and certain. Just like how in the film despite going forwards or backwards the actual events in the film were always fixed in some sense. Yet at the same time from our view in time we see how we are always free to make any decision and how God respects our freedom with his divine plan.

Similarly we can understand how in our lives we might find our vocation existing inside us as potential and apparently changeable but from God’s view it is always there and certain. We must always keep these two perspectives in mind in our journey and remember how God quietly is guiding us through the actual and that the potential in our lives always points towards the actual. To grow in our vocations as followers of Christ we must actually do something because it is there in the actual that we meet God.

Deo Gratias!

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