In the climactic scene of the 1998 movie The Truman Show, the protagonist, a man named Truman and played by Jim Carrey, has recently discovered that this entire life has been a TV show lived out inside a gigantic dome in which everyone but him was an actor. And he’s trying to escape.
He’s taken a boat across the water that has formed a perimeter around the “town” he has lived in his whole life. And then he reaches the end of the water, steps out, and touches the “sky” which turns out to be a solid wall. Then a voice from the heavens, Christof (the Creator), speaks to him and implores him to stay because the outside is no better. And then Truman looks back toward him, says his catchphrase, and walks out the door, which simply frames a blackened space, and enters the void.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better distillation of the misotheist spirit than that: the world as God makes it is a cruel stage, the open skies are merely solid walls, God himself is capricious and selfish, and the good life is leaving all of that behind, chancing it in the void where you can at least be free. The unchosen limits placed on you are a prison, solid walls that deny you freedom. Better to walk through the open door into the void.
This is a misotheistic take on the world, but I also think it is something of the default for most of us: the universe is a void and we’re simply trying to make it as best we can. The difficulty with this is that it doesn’t leave much room for common life or even just for another person; really the best you can do is try to respect someone else’s right to explore the abyss and, perhaps, assist them in that in some small way. But beyond that, there isn’t really anything above us, anything we aspire to, anything that can, even when we do not choose us, dictate to us how we should act. While it promises a kind of preference multiplication and, within that, the freedom of choice, I don’t think it actually delivers freedom and it certainly doesn’t deliver a common life or a beloved community.
We are born with a need of air and open skies. We need to live with an awareness of grandeur and transcendence, with a sense of our own smallness and of other things great enough and large enough that we can be lost in them, that our life can somehow be included in.
One of the keenest experiences I’ve had of this experience came in a wedding I was in over a decade ago. I stood next to the groom at the front of the chapel and saw the tears in his eyes as his bride walked toward him. I saw the way his bride smiled and then smiled so large that her eyes scrunched together and her shoulders arched, as if it were a whole body smile. And I remember standing there and thinking “sometimes there isn’t anything behind the curtain. What you’re seeing is real.”
There really are transcendent beauties that we occasionally encounter in this life and that we in turn get to participate in and pass on. They exist above us and beyond us and they call to us to walk in a certain way and not in others. But this isn’t because those beauties wish to imprison us; it is because there are only certain ways of reaching them.
So much of the formation we go through today, in schools and in jobs and in virtually every other area of life (church often included, much to our shame) inverts this ordering. The individual is made sovereign and reality is subdued to the needs and personal desires of the individual. And what we lose is honor. What we lose is that sense of the transcendent. And this brings me, by an extremely circuitous route, to Queen Elizabeth II, only recently gone to her eternal rest.
“The Crown must always win,” the Queen mother told Her Majesty once, almost immediately after her ascent to the throne. Her own personal preferences and ambitions would be sacrificed for the honor and duty of the Crown. But the world in which the Crown wins is also a world in which other things, likewise greater and nobler, can also win because it is a world in which we all recognize higher glories we aspire to together that transcend our own private desires and ambitions. When the Crown loses, when it is made subservient to personal desires and preferences, these other things seem to lose too.
What I wish to lament in the loss of Queen Elizabeth II is the loss of a world where honor and duty possessed a kind of compulsive force which could guide us toward the good. What is so remarkable about Elizabeth II is that she received this calling from her grandmother as a woman in her early 20s and she embraced it. She recognized that she was called to a life of duty and honor and sacrifice and she took that vocation up and she realized it.
“She never embarrassed us,” is what I recall reading in one of the many obits I’ve read about her. Rather, she took up the hard calling she received and she led with grace, poise, and courage, calling her people to a better way. I recall watching this broadcast in the early months of COVID with my wife. As it ended, Joie looked at me and was like “can we become British please?” The juxtaposition between the vain glory and ego of America’s leaders and the honor of the queen was that jarring. (Would that Britain’s elected leaders had possessed the same restraint and sacrificial spirit of Her Majesty.)
I’ve told stories before of my grandfather, a WW2 vet who cared for a chronically ill wife and three children on a railroad man’s salary in the post-war years not far from where I am writing right now. My mother and her brothers revered him. And he was driven by this sense of honor that I also observed in Elizabeth. Even when he was caught between two boxcars and suffered broken ribs, he didn’t miss a day of work because, he felt, it was his duty to his family.
Can this spirit become unhealthy? Of course, as can all things in a world cratered by sin. But I see little evidence, today, that we are beset by the evils that arise when duty and ritual rules us and love and personal virtue are hollowed out. I see rather the opposite; a world in which the individual has been lifted up into the heavens in an attempt to be made like God. And, like our fathers and mothers at Babel, we have crashed against a ceiling we didn’t know was there but that we ourselves have made through our lies about God, about God’s creation, about humanity, and about the good life.
The Crown must win because honor must win, because fidelity must win, because, ultimately, love wins. But this isn’t a vaporous love grounded in nothing save emotion and will; it is a fruitful and effective love that calls the lover to lay down her life in the hope that, like seed planted in the ground, it would spring up into something beautiful. Elizabeth’s life was such a beauty.