Inception's Leap of Faith: Christianity v. Neo-Conservatives

My wife and I went to see Inception this weekend and I’ve been mulling over it the past two days. I’ve been looking through the internet to find a good analysis and, not finding one fully to my satisfaction, look Tolkien & Lewis’s advice and just wrote my own. If you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know why you’re reading this but rest assured you will be lost. For those who did see it, I’ll see you after the break.

First off, I think we need to give the movie credit. It is very difficult to play mind games with your audience when the audience knows mind games are being played. Many movies (think “Fight Club”) simply play the games and only reveal at the end that there are games afoot. Many people mistake this for cleverness and brilliance, but “Inception” manages to play the games well even though the audience knows what’s going on and is trying to figure it out. So kudos to Nolan, the director, for a fine movie.

Now, many people are arguing about the ending: was it a dream or reality? That’s a fun debate to have. For my money, I think the fact that there are so many scenes in the beginning of the movie where we don’t know how we got there (which they tell us is the easiest way to figure out if you’re in a dream or not), particularly in light of the bracketing at Saito’s place, makes me think it was a dream. My wife tells me that makes me a mean person, and points out that the top wobbled and it never wobbled in the dream world.

Such debates can go on and on but I think we may get somewhere not by analyzing the tricks and logic of the movie but by analyzing the philosophy behind it. I think it might be helpful to go back to Nolan’s last movie, “The Dark Knight.” The end of the Dark Knight has Batman assuming the role of the villain so that the reputation of Harvey Dent as a hero may be preserved, as “Gotham needs a hero.” Although the truth of Harvey Dent as “Two-face” seems to lend itself more towards the Joker’s nihilistic view of the world, Batman & Gordon decide the only way to combat the Joker & htose like him is through the illusion of Batman as a villain. My understanding is that Nolan has similiar themes of reality v. deception in his other movies, though I haven’t seen any of the others.

This concept lines up neatly with the views of philosopher Leo Strauss, the man many claim is the father of the neo-conservative movement. One interpretation of Strauss’s philosophy (if I was going to claim it is the proper interpretation, I recognize I would need to write a far more scholarly analysis then I am doing at the moment) is that Strauss recognizes that Nietzsche is correct. There is no way to justify our own reality or social mores, etc. Strauss however differs from Nietzsche in that he finds Nietzsche “dangerous” for pointing this out. Instead, Strauss believes that this kind of questioning is appropriate only for philosophers and not for the general public (or non-philosophers). For the public, some kind of deception or falsehood is necessary for society to function properly. This includes religion, social norms, etc. Only philosophers who have the desire to question can handle the truth, so to speak. If people knew the meaninglessness of their lives, they cease to behave as society must, and chaos and anarchy would reign.

The similarities to “Dark Knight” and this interpretation of Strauss are obvious. The true philosophers know the truth, while the masses of Gotham are fed an illusion for their own good so that they may work towards building a better society. Both batman and Strauss believe that if the truth were known society could not exist.

Applying this to Inception, Cobb cannot function with the questioning of his reality. He has become more paranoid, cannot properly sleep with sedation, and is estranged from his home & family. As this article points out, the movie doesn’t turn on whether or not the ending is a dream or reality; it turns on the fact that Cobb doesn’t stick around to see if the “totem” stops spinning i.e. he no longer cares whether he is in a dream or reality. Even though Cobb knows this might not be real, he takes the “leap of faith” so that he can properly function, whether he’s truly functioning or not.

Under this idea, a leap of faith is used so that man can create a reality. Contrast this with the Christian view: a leap of faith does not create reality but instead opens ourselves up to it. That is, Christians believe that only through faith in God can one come to truly understand oneself and one’s surroundings. The difference is subtle, as both leaps allow us to properly function but only the Christian view believes that a leap of faith brings us closer to the truth whereas for Strauss the leap of faith leads us away from true philosophy (which for Strauss is fine for most as most people are not worthy of being philosophers-a fairly Gnostic position).

Now, I’ve been assuming that “Inception” is closer to Strauss based on my interpretation of the Dark Knight but there is some evidence that the Christian view is represented, especially if one believes the ending is reality (so in fact, the ending might be more important than I earlier indicated). It is clear throughout the movie that religion is important, though subtly referenced. Creation of a dream world is compared to building cathedrals, and Cobb relates part of the enjoyment he & Mal (you also must notice that “Mal” can be associated with “Malice”) had in Limbo to his state as to “playing Gods.” Yt this world is false. It fails to bring Cobb happiness (though apparently it pleases Mal) and so he leaves it and in fact ceases to build dream worlds at all. It’s only when Cobb engages in self-sacrifice to save Saito does he engage his demon and return to reality. Doing so requires a leap of faith and in so doing Cobb comes to be able to enjoy the world and his family again, like a Christian would say.

I’m not sure which interpretation is right, or if we’ll ever know. But the movie is interesting enough to make the discussion worth having, if for nothing else than to better understand our own faith and the approaches of other so that we can better evangelize the culture. So I’d really like to know what you thought of the movie.

25 Responses to Inception's Leap of Faith: Christianity v. Neo-Conservatives

  • Tim says:

    you may want to check out memento it could give you a deeper understanding on what nolan planned to do at the end of this movie, at-least with the open ending that requires your own interpretation and both answers are good answers

  • Shane says:

    So yeah, I thought the movie was brilliant for quite a few different reasons. He, I’m assuming intentionally, sets the viewer up to WANT to make a decision as to what the meaning of the film is – interpreted through the glass of whether he truly was in a dream or not. But as I have pointed out (and you cursorily suggested here yourself), they BOTH have issues. Questions like how did the grandfather know to be there, why were the kids the same age and in the same position as in his dreams come to mind trying to indicate it is still a dream. And yet, at the same time, the top DID wobble, and it was not a scene of, “how did I get here”.

    Truth be told I think the genius of the movie was not in the fairly amazing cliff-hanger at the end, but rather in the VERY thorough representation that both sides have their defects. If you take this in light of your interpretation using Stauss, then it becomes apparent that somehow Stauss is both, simultaneously, right and wrong. I like the analogy you pulled here for a few reasons. It is CLEARLY a movie which will be interpreted by philosophers for years to come, and I think it was intended to be such. He raised a very difficult question, said which side is right, and then on a less superficial level says, “what if neither of them ARE?”

    I could ramble on much more about this movie as I thought it was downright brilliant in its acting, its casting, and its directing alike, but I think this is a set of questions that will continue to be “up in the air” so to speak for a long time to come. I’d love to speak with you in person about the movie if you’d like.

    Pax Christi

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    For those who may not know who the heck Leo Stauss was, wikipedia does a fairly good job at the link below.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Strauss

    In regard to Strauss and religion I believe this passage in the article does a good job of correcting some of the misconceptions of the views of Strauss:

    “At the end of his The City and Man, Strauss invites his reader to “be open to the full impact of the all-important question which is coeval with philosophy although the philosophers do not frequently pronounce it–the question quid sit deus” (p. 241). As a philosopher, Strauss would be interested in knowing the nature of divinity, instead of trying to dispute the very being of divinity. But Strauss did not remain “neutral” to the question about the “quid” of divinity. Already in his Natural Right and History, he defended a Socratic (Platonic, Ciceronian, and Aristotelian) reading of divinity, distinguishing it from a materialistic/conventionalist or Epicurean reading (see especially, Ch. III: “The Origin of the Idea of Natural Right”). Here, the question of “religion” (what is religion?) is inseparable from the question of the nature of civil society, and thus of civil right, or right having authoritative representation, or right capable of defending itself (Latin: Jus). Atheism, whether convinced (overt) or unconvinced (tacit), is integral to the conventionalist reading of civil authority, and thereby of religion in its originally civil valence, a reading against which Strauss argues throughout his volume. Thus Strauss’s own arguments contradict the thesis imputed to him post mortem by scholars such as S. Drury who profess that Strauss approached religion as an instrument devoid of inherent purpose or meaning.”

  • Amanda says:

    Michael, did it remind you at all of a law school exam? Almost the same amount of factors for either interpretation are there, and you can interpret it either way. I kept thinking of the instruction: “It doesn’t matter which side you come down on, just pick one and argue it, but don’t forget about the other side”.

    The funny thing is, I still think my interpretation of the ending is right, and I’ll argue with anyone who picked the other one.

  • Interesting post, apart from the subtitle — I confess I’m really tired of seeing ‘neocons’ played as the token enemy absent — 1) a clear definition of who the ‘neocons’ were; 2) what ‘neoconservatism’ is.

    Likewise, as Robert Alter puts it, “it has become received wisdom that a direct line issues from Strauss’s seminars on political philosophy at the University of Chicago to the hawkish approach to foreign policy by figures like Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Bush administration.” Several books of late have challenged this: Steven B. Smith’s Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (Excerpt); Straussophobia: Defending Leo Strauss and Straussians against Shadia Drury and Other Accusers and “Will the real Leo Strauss please stand up?” (Nathan Tarcov, American Interest).

    The movie does sound interesting, however. =)

  • Tim:

    I think I’ve been sold on seeing a few more Nolan works, Memento being at the top of the list.

    Shane:

    The grandfather being there doesn’t bother me too much. Now, as far the kids go, the article I link to states that according to the credits, there are two sets of kids: one with the girl at 3 and one again at 5. That would be consistent with the kids changing, and the ending being reality not a memory-unless of course the different actors were one for the phone call and one for the screen time. You can play these games all day; nothing is a solid argument.

    Amanda:

    Now that you say that, it does remind me of a law school exam. Thank you for ruining the movie for me eternally.

    But what interpretation of the ending do you have?

    Don & Chris:

    You both may be right in that this isn’t Strauss’s worldview. As I said, I didn’t have the time to write an article about whether it is or isn’t his position. I do think however that people have ascribed it to him and that some who call themselves neo-conservatives have that viewpoint. I probably wouldn’t have used the term “neo-con” at all if I didn’t think that the Dark Knight represented a lot of things that the”neo-cons” approve of, but I agree with Chris that the term isn’t all that useful.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    I want to know if the movie is worth watching for someone like me that has at best a rudimentary understanding of philosophy.

    That and I caught a snippet of a review that it was a pro-environmentalist film (didn’t hear the whole review though).

    So I pretty much decided not to watch it in order to save my soul.

    But if the movie is worth watching and I won’t lose my soul over watching it, tell me without giving away the plot (I haven’t read MD’s post).

  • Art Deco says:

    I probably wouldn’t have used the term “neo-con” at all if I didn’t think that the Dark Knight represented a lot of things that the”neo-cons” approve

    Why not rummage through the writings of some folk associated with the Committee for the Free World &c. and tell us all why you think they were advocates of relgion-as-crowd-control? I’ll give you five names:

    Edward Banfield
    Midge Decter
    Joseph Epstein
    Jeane Kirkpatrick
    Robert W. Tucker

  • Blackadder says:

    Tito,

    If there was an environmentalist message to Inception it slipped past me.

    All of Nolan’s films are excellent. Insomnia doesn’t focus on deception vs. reality like the others, but is a fascinating reflection on conscience. And The Prestige involves the same themes as Inception and Memento.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Hmm.

    Since I’m bringing up neo-cons in my next post, I may as well link to a post where I discussed them before:

    http://joeahargrave.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/uncle-leo-and-the-neocons/

    One thing I never quite understand about people who take umbrage at the word “neoconservative” is whether or not they a) deny the existence of neoconservatism, placing it in the same category as the tooth fairy, or b) understand that it is a real tendency in political thought but is poorly understood.

  • I admit to an appreciation of the original neoconservatives — Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz — discovered by way of the original ‘Catholic neocons’ (Fr. Neuhaus, Michael Novak) of First Things which I digested back in college.

    But since 9/11, ‘neoconservativism’ has come to mean everything from a Straussian-Jewish cabal covertly manipulating the Bush Administration to practically anybody who supported military intervention in Iraq (ex. Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld are all labeled such).

    The term has become so amorphous (much like “liberalism”) that, if used at all, I prefer context and clarification.

    (Apologies to Michael D. for getting off-topic).

  • Art Deco says:

    One thing I never quite understand about people who take umbrage at the word “neoconservative” is whether or not they a) deny the existence of neoconservatism, placing it in the same category as the tooth fairy, or b) understand that it is a real tendency in political thought but is poorly understood.

    It was an intellectual circle of liberals disaffected with the run of political discourse in the Democratic Party, the media, and academic life. In some cases social policy was the primary source of disaffection, in others foreign policy and a general disposition toward the military and patriotism, and in others the degradation of the universities. Their views on most questions of public policy were variegated and a number (e.g. Penn Kemble) returned to the fold of the Democratic Party after the end of the Cold War.

    What was common to them was elements of biography and networks of personal association. Neither aspect includes an association with Leo Strauss. Norman Podhoretz’ mentor was Lionel Trilling, if it matters. The palaeobabblers who complain about ‘conservatism’ being hijacked by Trotskyists have likewise forgotten that the earlier cohort of publicists which assembled around WF Buckley was shot through with disaffected reds, Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham to name two.

    It isn’t ‘poorly understood’. It is a cuss word favored by the twits who don’t know crap from apple butter.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “It isn’t ‘poorly understood’. It is a cuss word favored by the twits who don’t know crap from apple butter”

    Precisely. This is a debate over foreign policy and has nothing to do with Leo Strauss and the handful of people who actually could be called neo-conservatives. What rankles self-proclaim paleo-cons is that most conservatives do not share their views on foreign policy. The neo-con charge is merely a tactic in the on-going debate and doesn’t say amything of substance in regard to that debate.

  • mundabor says:

    I have seen the movie the day before yesterday and I enjoyed it. Having said that, references to Christianity seem far-fetched to me.

    I can’t recall see anyone praying, or crossing himself; there is no sign of anyone of the main characters having any sort or organised religious life (going to Church, say), no single (serious) mention of Jesus in a film which obviously plays in the present days (the cars).

    ” The Book of Eli” was the last movie of which I could say that Christian themes were evident.

    I have seen more crossing oneself and faces put heavenward in prayer during the last Football World Championship than in a couple of years of films at the cinema. In a way, this is encouraging, we know Hollywood “doesn’t do God”, at all.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    we know Hollywood “doesn’t do God”, at all.

    Hence why they are out of touch with society and are slowly becoming irrelevant with each new movie release.

    Look at the bombs that Hollywood continues to make and the only real successes they have are ‘family’ films.

    Yet they don’t ‘get it’.

  • mundabor says:

    Fully agree, Tito.

    The last movie with Jlo about the woman who wants an artificial insemination (how so very funny, not) has already disappeared from London’s screens. But a movie like “The Passion” becomes a worldwide success.

    It is the same with bookstores, at least here in England. The best selling books are Christian books but you find everywhere huge “gay and lesbian” section and not much (and that, often stupid) in the religion section. Often there is not even a religion section, but a “spirituality” section with a lot of new age bollocks for aging wiccans and, amazingly, books from atheist authors.

    Then they complain that Amazon & Co. increase sales whilst they go bust (here in the UK, “Books etc.” and “Borders UK” alone in the last 12 months).

  • Mundabor:

    While I agree with the idea that hollywood is shooting itself in the foot by not pursuing more Christian movies, I disagree with the way you evaluate whether a movie has “Christian themes.”

    I don’t think it’s necessary to mention Christianity explicitly to touch on a theme that is represented by Christianity. In this movie for example, they discuss how they desire to create their own world, their own cathedrals is out of a desire to play God and the movie shows how this desire ultimately is destructive.

    The point isn’t whether Inception is Christian; that’s debatable. But I don’t think it has to explicitly show someone praying or mention Jesus to be Christian. Tolkien actually thought that such mentions detracted from the message, and he managed to produce one of the greatest and most Catholic works of literature ever in Lord of the Rings. I just don’t like the idea that Christian works & themes are found only in the Christian section of the bookstore.

  • mundabor says:

    Michael,
    I agree with you that to have a Christian theme, a film does not have to be explicitly labelled as Christian. As you say, Tolkien but also C.S. Lewis, the Italians Manzoni and Fogazzaro, or in his own peculiar way G.K. Chesterton come to mind.

    But in my eyes a couple of phrases in a two-and-a-half-hour film do not really qualify for the film to be defined in that way, nor does it the general theme of the film. The theme of the Hubris leading to self destruction is very old and certainly pre-Christian; many atheists would instinctively agree with the concept without becoming an ounce more Christian.

    In my eyes, as we still live in a world shaped by Christian values it is very easy that some concepts shared by Christianity find their way in a film, but I think “Inception” stops short of the insistence and pervasiveness of Tolkien’s, Manzoni’s, Chesterton’s message.

    Just my two cents of course.

  • Jon says:

    This movie is ENTIRELY about faith. Here’s how I interpreted the film…allow me to “enlighten” you: This movie is about Dom Cobb being stuck in purgatory. The movie starts with him there, washed up on the shore. He sees his kids, and falls alseep – from then on he is dreaming while in purgatory. God (Michael Caine) with the assistance of Angels (Ariadne, Arthur, Eames, Saito, Yusef) perform Inception on Cobb so that he may have emotional catharsis and accept his faith. So basically, Cobb is in purgatory, has a dream that allows him to forgive himself of his sin and take his leap of faith, and then wakes up on his plane “home” to Heaven with the angels. He is even greeted at the GATE by a guard (St. Peter) who says “Welcome Home.” God then personally escorts him to his children. That’s the true reason why it doesn’t matter if the totem keeps spinning or it doesn’t – since they are in heaven either outcome if justified. There is so much evidence of all this throughout the movie. Watch it again and find all of the religious references – there are TONS OF THEM! For instance, that scene where the walls are closing in on him?- Look at the screen right before he gets out. Everything is black, except for the BIG BRIGHT LIGHT at the end of the alley. He’s trying to get to it, but he can’t because he is not ready. When Cobb is training Ariadne why does she line up those mirrors that show them infinitely? She’s trying to show him eternity, but he’s not ready for it so it shatters. What is the basement where all the people who cannot dream go to dream? It’s hell. They are showing him what hell is like. Also pay close attention to Caine’s character who is simply seen as a father figure-it is never stated whether he is Mal’s Father, or Cobb’s. He is also a teacher, so: Teacher+Father to all=God. At one point Eames and Cobb were talking about how to perform inception. He then says that they need to start with the “relationship with the Father” (Cobb’s faith and relationship with God). ALSO, Fischer is Cobb’s subconscious. That’s why it’s so important that they make Fischer forgive his father and have his catharsis, since it really means that Cobb had his. Go see the movie again and you’ll realize that there are piles and piles of evidence that support this theory, and every single question gets answered. That’s why Cobb isn’t with his kids, because children get a pass from Purgatory. Mal doesn’t get to heaven because she committed suicide-which is an unforgivable sin, but in Cobb’s dream in purgatory, Mal is the devil taking the form of Cobb’s love, knowing that Cobb will just assume that Mal is his own mind’s projection. She then uses temptation and guilt to try and convince Cobb to stay in Purgatory. THIS IS JUST A TASTE of WHAT I”VE FOUND! SEE THE MOVIE AGAIN AND FIND MORE EVIDENCE ON YOUR OWN. Interpreting this film is a fulfilling adventure that just might help strengthen your own faith.

  • lkluna says:

    I’ve seen reviews comparing this movie’s worldview to Buddhism. Can someone explain that to me?
    I think one would have to BE a Christian to see any comparisons to our faith in “Inception.” The leap of faith references in the movie had nothing to do with religion, per se. I agree with the article’s explanation of the Christian “leap of faith”, which is NOT created from our dreams or imaginations or false beliefs. It is created by God through incarnate Christ. This movie was meant to be psychological, not religious.

  • We’ve gotten for the stage wherever a film that wanders remotely away the reservation stuns and wows us and leads us to believe it is terrific. “Inception” isn’t a terrible dvd. It’s definitely improved than something else Hollywood has to provide this year. Neither, having said that, is it wonderful.

  • Handmaiden says:

    Just one little point that you can discuss with your wife. The totem wiggles but we don’t see it fall But remind your wife that the point of having the totem is that it would only work if no one else touched it. They couldn’t be allowed to know the exact weight and shape and feel of it. In this case cobb’s totem was compromised when he washed up on the shore and the Asian man played with it.

    I think it was a dream because all the characters at the airport continued to look at him, like he maybe wasn’t suppose to be in that persons mind.

    In general i liked it and can’t wait for it to come out on DVD so i can watch it again. I just refuse to pay another $10 to see a movie in the theatre.

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