Ingmar Bergman’s Vision of God and Man
For Bergman, love is the enabler for soul-to-soul communication whereby people leave untruth and leave debilitating illusion. However, Bergman leaves this love curiously formless and ambiguous.
THE FILMS OF INGMAR BERGMAN HAVE captivated and perplexed audiences for more than two decades. A central focus of his penetrating insight into the problems of contemporary life has been his vision of God and man. Bergman weaves together the religious crisis of our age—the question of God—with the existential questions of guilt, anxiety, alienation, illusion, and authentic selfhood. The cinematic result is at once demanding and rewarding for the viewer. It has been said that Bergman has made only one film over and over again. He works with his themes like pieces on a chess set. The same pieces are always used, but one or another is moved into prominence in a given film.
Bergman's film Through a Glass Darkly, made in 1960, deals primarily with the nature and destiny of man, the search for God, and the quest for truth. What is necessary, Bergman asks, for the realization of man as a human being? Does the search for God and the meaning of God for human existence play a central role in that realization, or does the "spiritual" process itself, which the film portrays, make the question of finding or not finding God meaningless?
The plot of Through a Glass Darkly seems to yield little by way of an answer to these questions. A writer returns to Sweden to spend a brief vacation on an island with his son, Peter, who is a student, his daughter, Maria, and her husband, Martin, a doctor. Maria is dying of a physical illness which slowly degenerates the mind causing psychological and hallucinatory aberrations separated by increasingly infrequent periods of lucidity. We learn that her mother died of the same disease. Maria discovers in her father's diary that he has come home to clinically study the course of her disease in order to use it as material for a new novel. She confides in Martin who confronts the writer with his callousness. The father, in turn, accuses Martin of wanting her to die as soon as possible so that he can be free from the burden of her illness, and then recounts his attempt at suicide and his discovery in that moment of a kind of love he cannot yet fully understand nor describe. Maria's illness progresses and she tells her brother of a vision in which she is in a room full of people waiting for a door to open and for God to come in and walk among them. He is terrified by her increasing insanity, but also attracted to her until at the command of the "waiting people" Maria has an incestuous relation with him. Finally an ambulance-helicopter is called to take Maria to the hospital and while waiting with her father and husband for it to arrive she sees God finally appear. But it is the appearance of a giant spider with a distorted and ugly face who attacks her. Martin gives her an injection to calm her and they leave for the hospital. In the final scene after Maria and Martin have gone, father and son have a brief conversation about God and faith.
It becomes clear that the meaning and significance of the film does not lie in the external action or plot development, of which there is little, but in the interiority of the characters and their dialogical interaction with each other. The physical isolation of the island setting emphasizes the tragic emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual isolation of the characters. The stark interiors of the old summer house symbolize the transience of life and the "not-at-homeness" of human existence. The dramatic tension of the film lies in the progress of Maria's illness and the reaction of the other characters to it. The tension is further heightened by the vacation interlude atmosphere of suspended "kairotic" time. The summer interlude becomes a spiritual pilgrimage, a process in which the characters are forced to come to grips with their own existence and self-understanding.
IN THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY MAN IS SEEN living under threat. This threatened nature of existence is symbolized by Maria's illness, insanity, and coming death. Various responses to threat are expressed by the various characters: there is innocence (Peter's unawareness of the darker side of human nature and reality), the writer's guilt and despair, and the doctor's illusion that he is in control and that Maria will recover. As the characters go through a spiritual process of self-discovery, they do not find redemption in a fuller awareness of the reality of threat from which their illusions and innocence have protected them. (The writer is further along. He indeed already knows the reality of guilt and judgment but submits to it initially in despair and attempted suicide.) The answer to threatened existence is not denial, evasion, nor submission. Neither is it, for Bergman, a God who "comes down" to intervene and remove threat. (In fact, God is perceived by Bergman as absence, silence, indeed, as death! When Maria finally sees the God she has been waiting for it is the horrible face of death.) Rather, the answer to threatened existence is love. There are all kinds of love, says Bergman, from the lowest to the highest, and only the highest is able to give hope in the midst of despair, the power to live with guilt, and the strength to live with the loss of one's protective illusions. This love also provides whatever affirmation of life and meaning to existence there is.
The process which leads to this conclusion is the interaction among the characters from illusion and hidden desires and intentions, to "revelation" of the truth about each other in confrontation, to resolution. For some the resolution is a rejection of "truth" and a return to illusion; for others an ability to communicate truthfully with others unhampered by debilitating illusion and guilt which separate people. The enabler for this soul-to-soul communication is love.
Bergman leaves this love curiously formless and ambiguous. It is on the one hand uncovered in the depth of interpersonal relationships (when people move beyond manipulation and exploitation to real concern for the other), and therefore something man has within him as potential; on the other hand, it is also experienced and received as something external to man which is given or "discovered" as hope in crisis, when defenses fail, when oppressive reality impinges, and death seems the only alternative. (This externality will be seen in the writer's description of his suicide attempt.) The writer makes the choice (decision) to affirm life in love in the face of, and in the midst of, judgment and guilt, despair and death. In this decision man finds his true humanness and the possibility for personal realization.
Is this strange love, perceived of as inner potential, but also as revealed gift, God? Bergman is equivocal at this point. He will not try to prove that God exists (since God is silent and absent), but in some way we are to believe that this special "agape-like" love which liberates us from self-centeredness to being-for-others is (for him) God. Bergman says that this hope sustains him, provides the courage to face life, and gives meaning to existence. This is seen in the final scene in which the writer has the first genuine communication with his son. Peter asks how he can now face life and whether God exists? His father replies that he will not try to prove that God exists but that it is his hope and belief that God is experienced in love. The experience of that kind of liberating love, paradoxically, makes the question of God's existence meaningless and one that can only be asked from a position of illusory self-sufficiency and uncommitted detachment.
IT IS CLEAR THAT FOR BERGMAN THE absence of God is not merely a benign condition conducive for the development of human autonomy and self-realization, but it is an absence experienced as threat and accusation. Bergman doubts not so much the existence of God as the meaning and power of "highest" love which seems so precarious and fragile in the face of all that opposes it. Can it really triumph over despair, guilt, and death? One can only live by hope, seeing through a glass darkly. The answer to the search for God is not the presence of a divine problem solver, a supernatural magician, but the answer is found in the experience of that kind of love and affirmation of man that enables the realization of full humanness in dialogue with others. It is a love that is beyond what we ourselves are capable of as people caught in the web of death, despair, illusion, and guilt. Yet it is a love which is accessible in interpersonal communication at the deepest level of our longings, fears, and hopes in the moment we fully communicate our soul to another and when our expressions of love become transparent to that highest love beyond, yet within us.
The doctor remains unchanged. He cannot admit that he wishes his wife to die because he cannot face his own contingency and powerlessness before death. He wants to be in control. When he can finally take Maria to the hospital, he becomes almost cheerful. For now he can act (pack clothes, make plans, give her an injection) in the illusion that he is effective. In fact, however, his actions do not change the reality of death and only prevent real communication with his wife, who does not want his paternal symphathy and professionalism, but genuine understanding and love. He is unable to communicate his real feelings about the situation and can only say over and over that everything will be all right. Maria, too, remains caught between reality where she faces death and her dream world where God will come to her in glory. Like Eve she seeks the face of God, the knowledge of good and evil, tempts her brother in seduction, and the voice of God in the garden becomes the face of death. Peter loses his innocence and knows the guilt of choice.
The real change comes in the writer (Bergman? Everyman?). Bergman often pictures fathers in his films as absent, or as stern, aloof, unloving characters. So also in this film the father has been absent, and when present has been unable to engage in real communication with his children. This distance between man and man is analogous to the distance Bergman sees between God and man. Once again though, this absence is not so much a physical absence as an absence of love and meaning. When the father finally finds meaning in love the distance between man and man is also overcome. When father and son make the first fumbling effort at real communication and understanding in the film's coda we feel that God is present as love and hope.
The key to the writer's transformation and new self-understanding is his suicide attempt. His confrontation with Martin over the contents of his diary is the dramatic turning point of the film. The doctor accuses him of a perverse detachment that would use even his own daughter for artistic gain. The writer replies to Martin that he had been so full of self-hate that he wanted to commit suicide. So he rented a car and was going to run it off a cliff. But just as he pressed the accelerator to run off the cliff the motor stalled. The car rolled to the edge and tottered on the brink of the chasm. Finally he crawled out of the car and lay shaking on the ground. At this moment he experienced love. It is a love which has brought him back from the brink of death. It has laid claim on him, forced him to make the decision whether to trust in guilt and death as the final word about himself and to respond in suicide, or whether to trust in this love which he does not understand but which requires at least that he understand himself in a new way. He chooses love and clings to it against despair, his own guilt, and the meaninglessness of his art as truth which he had valued above all else in life. (The publication of his first novel had been more important to him than feeling and sharing his wife's illness and death.)
So now he has returned to work out the implications for his life of this love. Although the process has only started, he wants to reconcile himself to his daughter whom he deserted in her illness to write a book and exploit for his "art." He also wanted to try to communicate with his alienated son. Because love has claimed him, he can confess to Martin the futility of his art as truth, as his god, which was full of lies and pretension. He now seeks restitution for the betrayal of his daughter and his isolation from his son.
One is struck by the Biblical allusions which Bergman has consciously or unconsciously used. The suicide "experience" is left formless and mysterious and is similar to the experience of Paul on the Damascus road. Paul interprets his experience less as the physical presence of Jesus or as a vision of God but as the experience of the presence and meaning of the Gospel. Bergman's writer does not say that the car's stalling was the miraculous intervention of God but only that he has found love. There is also a parallel to the story of Zaccheaus. Like Zaccheaus the writer has experienced an affirmation of his life, a meaning for life that enables him to give up a false ultimate trust (Zaccheaus in money, the writer in his art). He is able to confess his guilt and the destructiveness of his "god" for others. (Zaccheaus has exploited the poor for his gain; the writer has exploited his daughter and ignored his son.) Finally both seek restitution for their actions in order to overcome the isolation and alienation they have caused between themselves and others.
THE STAGES OF THE SPIRITUAL PROCESS which Bergman sees are represented by the characters' stances toward life. They are not all in the same stage. Maria's illness functions as the ground for the stances which Bergman feels is the nature of existence and the contemporary experience of God as threat and death. Against this concrete threat the other characters react. The doctor's stance is pride. He denies the possibility of being questioned or accused. He denies his feelings and makes the possibility of real communication and self-realization impossible. Peter passes through this stage of innocent self-centeredness, losing his illusory innocence in the discovery of the terrifying side of reality. His response to loss of illusion and the guilt he feels is despair. He wonders how he can face life. The writer has gone beyond the self-centeredness of the first stage with its illusions of righteousness and objective detachment, beyond the stage of annihilating guilt and despair to the discovery of hope in love.
The truth of the stages is that one cannot remain a spectator, seeing oneself as the center of all things, detached and aloof. One must make judgments, choices, and actions and take responsibility for them. But criticism, judgment, and action open us up in turn to being criticized and judged. If one accuses others and denies his own guilt at the same time, then he lives in illusion and hypocrisy. The illusion of this stage is that one can judge without being judged. (The doctor confronts and judges the writer but denies that the writer's accusation of him is true.) Bergman has exposed the futility of art (the writer) and science (the doctor) for providing a truth capable of giving an ultimate meaning to life. Meaning will not be found is aesthetic or scientific objectivity but in commitment and decision. Hence we are forced to make choices and incur guilt.
The second stage is further along the road toward becoming a person. It is the realization of one's real condition in life. It is the recognition of responsibility and guilt. But this recognition is not redemptive. Despair is not self-realization and when judgment is taken with ultimate seriousness its results are destructive of self and others.
Finally, there remains the question as to whether the third stage is also illusory. Bergman has been criticized for using the final scene of Through a Glass Darkly to make a clumsy presentation of a wish-fulfillment God in capitulation to the needs of the viewer. But the aesthetic stance of the critic, however necessary to his art, will not answer the question of whether there is an affirming love in which a man can trust beyond our illusory innocence and detached criticism, beyond our guilt and despair. Bergman would suggest that the answer to this question lies in our own experience on the existential road to self-realization. It comes from what we hear in the silence of God, from what we see in those puzzling reflections in a dim mirror.
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Søren Kierkegaard was also concerned with the ways in which a man could orient his life, what could be called life-stances or life-styles. He called these "stages on life's way" the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious stage. These are similar to the stages in the process of self-realization which Bergman's characters represent. But Kierkegaard also describes a fourth stage of self-actualization, for him the highest and most profound, the Christian existence. The careful reader will have anticipated this possibility in the discussions of Paul and Zaccheaus. The Christian faith not only proclaims that such a liberating love exists, but that it is grounded in something more than nebulous, ambiguous experiences such as the suicide "conversion" in Through a Glass Darkly, however mysterious and moving such experiences may be. It is grounded not in some ethereal spirit-world but in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We are invited to trust Him as the final word about ourselves. He is the real and absolute alternative to trusting judgment and death, to trusting illusions and enslaving self-made affirmations as the final word about ourselves. This Gospel needs to be, and can be, experienced when we trust in Jesus as the affirming friend of sinners, the fountain of the love of God for us.