by David Nilsen
You don’t lose God all at once; He goes in pieces. It’s like your hearing being claimed by a disease, or your memory by age, or love by boredom; you don’t wake up and realize these things disappeared in the night. You wake up and see the nights of the last several years lined up like bread crumbs to a security you can never walk back to. No one tells you all this when the candle of faith is still burning brightly in the dark woods, guiding your path, and your own soul feels on fire with devotion. You figure it out for yourself halfway through the forest, long after the flame has flickered out.
I’ve read many accounts from believers describing the tremendous sacrifice required to devote one’s life to God. Too few of them have described the sacrifice that lies in the shadow of the first: the sacrifice required when you leave that God behind. Faith, it turns out, is a room with only one door, and outside that door waits a gauntlet of fear and pain that must be fought through whether you’re entering or exiting. The faithful don’t lack for heroes championing the austerity required to attain spiritual enlightenment, but those of us who left that enlightenment behind had far fewer voices to guide us. We know the cost of discipleship, but not the cost of ending it. And just as the awakening of faith can feel like an inexorable drawing out, an inevitability, so too does its weakening feel like something out of your control, totally divorced from conscious choice. I once held firm purchase on faith, trusting my weight to the hand I was hanging from. Then it slipped, and it didn’t feel like I was the one who let go. Now on the other side, believing nothing, it still feels sometimes like there are shadows, like a God might still be taunting me. There are worse things to be haunted by than a devil, it turns out.
Ingmar Bergman felt terrified both at the idea of God’s existence and God’s nonexistence. Throughout Bergman’s life and prolific filmmaking career, he wrestled with the specter of belief. He tried with his meager strength to keep Jesus nailed to a wooden cross where he belonged, because this son of God seemed always to be whispering doubts into his mind. He fought plenty of other demons, to be sure, and he put them to use. His films dealt with artistic failure and futility, sexual jealousy, romantic confusion, the humiliation that too often rewards sincerity, and the way shame itself can compound on itself like interest on investment. But more consistently than anything, he wrestled with the angel of belief and came up limping with the same wounds, regardless of whether he won or lost. To stop believing in God is not to be rid of him, and Bergman knew this.
In perhaps his best-known film dealing with eternal questions, The Seventh Seal, a Christian knight returning from the crusades famously plays a game of chess with Death. He can remain alive as long as the game continues, and this stalling gambit allows for the knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), to engage in a series of conversations with Death. In the most affecting of these exchanges, Antonius finds himself in a village church, and his angst breaks out in a confession to a figure he believes to be an anonymous priest, but is in fact Death himself. Antonius falls to his knees below a morbid and deteriorating crucifix with Jesus staring down at him, and pours out the fear and frustration that has tormented him for some time, while Death listens:
“Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses? Why does He hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to those of us who want to believe, but cannot? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in an humiliating way - despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I cannot be rid of?…We must make an idol of our fear, and that idol we shall call God.”
Flannery O’Connor described the American south as being “Christ-haunted,” and the mind of Ingmar Bergman was similarly afflicted. He did not believe any longer by the time he was making films; I do not believe now. But every time he tried to exorcise the God of his childhood from his adult mind, he became more deeply aware that it was a fool’s errand, an inverted Crusade. Once the cloth of your mind has been soaked and stained in the blood of Jesus, you can never really wring it out.
Bergman wrestled with these themes again in his trilogy comprised of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. The question of God’s existence is dealt with most explicitly in the trilogy’s middle film, Winter Light, in which a depressed and disillusioned Lutheran pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) must try to bolster the resolve of one of his parishioners (Max von Sydow), a fisherman whose fear of nuclear war has led him to existential despair. At this task the pastor utterly fails, as he sinks into a deeper depression himself. The parishioner kills himself. The film is rife with examinations of God’s silence, and it is especially poignant that this religious angst emanates primarily from a pastor—an individual tasked with sustaining the beliefs of those trusted to his care. He has nothing to offer them. His empty assertions of belief crumble in the harsh winter wind, and he knows it the moment he speaks them to a man truly tormented by fear. When the fisherman and his wife come to his office to talk to him about the problem, the pastor says, “We must trust God.” Von Sydow’s simple fisherman turns and fixes the pastor with a withering gaze, betrayed by his pastor’s inability to muster anything more than such a trite offering. Björnstrand drops his eyes, aware of his own failure.
If Winter Light deals with the seeming absence of God, Through a Glass Darkly deals with his terrifying presence. Most of the film is unconcerned with the eternal, focusing on the strained but devoted relationships between four members of a family. Harriet Andersson plays a woman succumbing to schizophrenia, while her husband (Max von Sydow) and father (Gunnar Björnstrand) try in vain to help her. In a scene at the end of the film, however, Bergman’s struggle with God shows itself. Andersson’s peace of mind fractures before us in a scene that develops with mounting electrical tension. Her character hears voices, and after emerging from an empty room that has called out to her throughout the film, she shatters in a rain of screams and terror. Once she is calm again, she tells her husband and father what she heard and saw. She saw a door, and believed behind it would be God and truth. “But the god that came out was a spider,” she tells them in despair. This spider-god climbed on top of her and tried to violate her, all the time locking her with his cold, cruel eyes. “I have seen God,” she concludes, despair and irony swirling in a toxic stew. He exists, and He is horrifying, Bergman seemed to be saying. If it is frightening to realize you no longer believe in God, it is nothing next to still believing in Him, but believing He is evil.
I grew up in a fundamentalist household. My father was a traveling preacher, and the fourth member of the trinity in my young mind. He abandoned his pilgrim’s journey for a church of his own to lead around when I reached adolescence, and we became evangelicals. In early adulthood, I trumped the devotion of my teen years by becoming a full Calvinist. This was the beginning of the end for me. Calvinism offered perfect mathematical answers to all my theological and ontological questions. But a sickness began in my heart as soon as I accepted the tenets of this particular system of belief. It became clear to me over time the God I believed in was not good. If the things I believed about Him were true, I was worshipping a monster the devil couldn’t dream of. In his memoir Images: My Life in Film, Ingmar Bergman writes about the rituals of punishment he and his siblings lived with under the reign of their father, a Lutheran pastor. Once their patriarch had established a child’s guilt in a particular situation, that child was banished until later in the evening. Then he was summoned back, and, before his siblings, he was forced to choose how many strokes of the carpet beater he deserved. Then his pants and underpants were pulled down, and the strokes administered. After this, the child had to kiss his father’s hand, the hand that had dealt the blows. At this point, forgiveness was granted, relief washed over him, and he was sent to bed without dinner. This bears shocking similarities to my own childhood, and to the soteriology I adhered to under the God of Calvinism. My throat is dry as I type this, and my hands are shaking. Praise be.
The Silence—which, for my money, is the strangest film Bergman ever made, though it lacks any fantastical elements at all—addresses God’s silence by being silent about Him itself. There is no mention of God. He is absent from the film entirely. Unless, of course, you read the bizarre, isolated details of the film as images of God, turning the entire movie into a catalog of distorted kingdom parables, inversions of those offered in the Gospels. The kingdom of heaven is like an important letter written in a language you can’t read. The kingdom of heaven is like a taciturn waiter you meet at a bar, have intercourse with in a church, and feel bashful talking about later. The kingdom of heaven is like a room full of costumed dwarves who wear lion masks and then dress you up in frilly dresses and laugh at you. The kingdom of heaven is like an attentive but creepy and incomprehensible hotel concierge who slips you chocolate and shows you pictures of dead people. The word of the Lord, reads the lector. Thanks be to God, utter the respondents. I suppose it’s not necessary to read the film reductively as either empty or full of God. A story that looks at God through both utter silence and total saturation simultaneously is a good enough image for the religious life.
“The loss of religious faith is a slow and fragile process, like the raising of continents. What can I say to you except that the process is complete.” Charles Darwin, that boogeyman lurking in the dark forests of many an evangelical child’s mind, wrote those words in a letter to his wife, a woman of devoted faith who worried for her husband’s soul in the face of his new scientific assertions and dissolving Christianity. Blinking in the light on the far shore from belief, the truths I once held on to seem more surreal than unreal. Try as I might, I can’t summon up the feeling of what it was to feel belief down in my bones. To be Christ-haunted, as Bergman was, is a different thing altogether from actual belief, even of the dwindling kind. Once it is gone, it is gone, even if it goes as slowly as any memory.
When it comes to Scandinavian directors obsessed with God, I have always favored Bergman over Carl Th. Dreyer. I’ve never cared much for Ordet (a film beloved by Christian artistic types) with its manipulative ending that shatters the tension of the first two hours of the film. Having set up a question that serves as a balanced litmus test for the spiritual inclinations of its viewers, Dreyer ham-handedly answers his own question definitively and grotesquely in the final minutes. He isn’t telling us what he felt about God, nor is he holding up a mirror and showing us what we might be feeling about God; he’s telling us what to feel about God. Even when my life still revolved around Jesus, I found this type of presentation frustrating. How can anyone who has fought through the gauntlet toward devotion present belief so flippantly? How can the reality of doubt be expunged so callously? And why can’t faith and doubt be held in tension, when they so often reside in the same heart?
Ingmar Bergman understood the way faith and doubt can grab opposite edges of a mind and tug with all their weight. He understood that sometimes the devil robbing your peace is the very God you were taught to cling to. His characters fought something they couldn’t see, and sometimes it was their own doubt, and sometimes it was a holy God waiting to wallop them in their feeble lack of faith, and sometimes it was a God who wasn’t holy at all, a God preying on their insecurity and fear. Sometimes it was cold silence. He never really resolved for the audience which of these was the real enemy, because that was never the point. They were all real. They were each real in turn as each one was lived, as each dark night was fought through, as each angel was wrestled with in the wilderness of doubt. He offered the questions rather than an answer, because the questions were the most real thing he knew. Is there a God, or is there nothing? Is He good or bad? Can He help us, or is He just a candle we hold up in the darkness to feel less alone? Yes, Bergman said across his films. It was the only offering he could make.
David Nilsen is a librarian at a public library, where he curates and leads the library's classic film program. He is the editor and lead critic of the Fourth & Sycamore literary journal, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Ohio with his wife, daughter, and irritable cat.