You gotta love Woody Allen. Most atheists claim, and some vehemently, that finding meaning in a God-less universe is no big deal. Not so Woody Allen. His honesty about the matter is nothing if not refreshing. In a piece in The Wall Street Journal about an upcoming PBS documentary about the prolific filmmaker, we find the following:
[We] are in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Mr. Allen points out the house where he grew up, happily until around the age of 5. That’s when, he says, “I became aware of mortality—it ends, you vanish forever. And once I realized that, I thought, ‘deal me out, I don’t want to play in this game.'” Even now, as in his movies, Mr. Allen nurses the notion that the certainty of death makes life a cruel joke: “We all know the same truth and our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.”
There is no popular film maker, or artist of pretty much any type today, who deals with this stark reality so honestly: if there is no there there, how can we pretend otherwise.
I’ve been attracted to Mr. Allen’s work for over 30 years because so often his stories end in despair, sometimes in subtle and at other times in overt ways. There are so many one can refer to in his films, but one that comes immediately to mind is in his 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The film is so typical of Allen. Romance leads to hope of meaning in life. Nirvana ensues for a short period of time, only to end in disappointment and resignation that life just can’t deliver. The scene that plays over easily in my mind is the Scarlett Johansson character, Cristina, going down (or up?) an escalator in the airport, leaving Spain with her hopes dashed written all over her face; a perfect visual metaphor for Allen’s lifelong fruitless quest for meaning.
It is just this fruitless search that has proven over the years to endear Woody Allen to the faithful. I came across an article last month in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog titled, “Woody Allen and evangelicals: A surprisingly romantic pair.” I didn’t even have to read it to know exactly what the author was talking about. Christians and other people of faith in the transcendent believe strongly that getting rid of God is not the leap to joyful autonomy atheists claim it is. I’ve often told people who come to me with the problem of evil that getting rid of God doesn’t make the problem of evil any less problematic. In fact I always argue it makes it worse. In a God-less universe, evil and suffering have absolutely no intrinsic or practical value; it is just a brut fact of existence that you have to deal with. At least if there is a God, you can lash out at the injustice of it all and vent your anger at the supposedly omnipotent all loving deity.
And with God there is always hope, be it in this life or the next. Not so much with the atheist, at least the consistent one, and Woody Allen is Mr. Consistency.