A reader writes:
Thank you for continuing to engage Terrence Malicks's criminally under-attended The Tree of Life. Even as an atheist, I believe the film to be a masterpiece and an extraordinary source of beauty. I'd like to correct, however, Fr. Barron's otherwise lovely meditation on the film. He characterizes the encounter of the two dinosaurs as an example of "nature," and describes one dinosaur as "dominating" the other. In fact, the scene depicts both "nature" and "grace" - or, rather, the development of one following the other. The dominant dinosaur is shown pushing the injured dinosaur's face into the ground. This is "nature," as Fr. Barron describes. But the scene does not stop there. The dominant dinosaur then appears to effect something akin to mercy and backs away from the injured dinosaur, leaving him in peace. It would appear that Malick has shown us the birth of "grace."
While I'm personally a Christian - and I was knocked out by Malick's film every bit as much as you were - I left the theater feeling it was a devastating, almost unanswerable challenge to the Christian message. If the film is asking whether the universe tilts toward nature or grace, I would say Malick puts his thumb on the scales every-so-slightly in favor of grace. But I had a powerful feeling in my gut that it's all just nature.
In one cut-away in the film, you see a wounded dinosaur approached by another hunter-dinosaur. When it looks like the hunter is about to finish off the wounded prey, it inexplicably walks away. Grace? Maybe. But I had the sinking feeling that the human experience of grace isn't any different in kind or meaning than a dinosaur deciding for some unknowable reason to walk away from its wounded prey.
Measured against the staggering scope of cosmic time, even the most meaningful personal events - or traumas - really are insignificant, even meaningless. That's the overall impression I carried from the film.
Peter Tyson, NOVA scienceNOW