In the first episode of his influential 1980 PBS series Cosmos, famed astronomer Carl Sagan boldly declared that the cosmos “is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”1 There is nothing beyond the borders of the natural world—nothing that can hurt us and certainly nothing that can help. All we have is each other and whatever else we can scrounge within the confines of this natural order—what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame.”2
But what if that is not enough?
This was the question that came to my mind after watching writer/director Christopher Nolan’s morbidly engrossing new film Oppenheimer, an epic saga of intellectual brilliance, hubris, and “the drive to do great or terrible things,”3 to quote from another Nolan film. It charts the moral calculus that allowed otherwise intelligent men to talk themselves into dark ethical corners and then try to outrun their guilt, only to find that, in the immanent frame, escape is not entirely possible.
Oppenheimer follows the development of the world’s first atomic weapon and its aftermath through the eyes of its enigmatic inventor, brought to life in a revelatory performance by Cillian Murphy. Unfolding much more like a science fiction cautionary tale than straight-ahead biopic, Nolan tells this story in two parts he cleverly titles “Fission,” covering the development and use of the bombs, and “Fusion,” covering the aftermath where Oppenheimer goes from man of the hour to enemy of the state. To quote from yet another Nolan film: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”4
In “Fission,” the film takes us back to a time when the world was on the brink, not only of a second world war, but of discovery. The exciting new field of quantum mechanics, with its embrace of the uncertain and the unseen, held the promise of answers to humankind’s biggest questions. It was a heady time, with the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and other giants of physics scrambling for resources to divine the ways of the atom.
When the government comes recruiting for their secret weapons project code-named “Manhattan,” Oppenheimer and his colleagues weigh their ambition for knowledge and glory against the prospect of building a device for taking human life on a mass scale. “Fission” treats us to the fascinating spectacle of men of science working uncomfortably outside their immanent frame wheelhouse where, as the late Rev. Tim Keller put it: “Science can tell us what is but never what ought to be.”5
The rationalizations they manage to assemble range from the somewhat defensible—while the allies may not be trustworthy when it comes to the bomb, the Nazis certainly aren’t—to the downright naïve, at least in hindsight, as the following exchange between Oppenheimer and Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) illustrates.
Bohr: “Is it [the bomb] big enough?”
Oppenheimer: “To end the war?”
Bohr: “To end all war.”
This is not to say that these men are depicted as cavalier towards the prospect of inflicting maximum casualties. From the dialogue to the visual compositions to the performances, everything in Oppenheimer conveys a gravity bordering on solemnity, with Murphy’s Oppenheimer always coming across as a man carrying a heavy burden.
This burden may be the universal knowledge that, sooner or later, we will succumb to our survival instinct at the expense of others—that, in the end, we may be the villains after all. Writing to Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul described this reality as finding “evil close at hand”6 in everything he did. And since the days of Adam and Eve7, self-justification is how we cope with (or more often avoid) this burden. The gravity that permeates Oppenheimer, however, argues for the possibility that—to paraphrase an oft-repeated line8 in the film regarding the limits of theoretical speculation—self-justification will take you only so far.
Fittingly, the most dramatic scene in the film is where Oppenheimer’s self-justification apparatus finally comes crashing down around him during a war victory rally at the Los Alamos research site. At this moment, exposed and alone, Oppenheimer discovers, to his dismay, that the guilt burden he so assiduously tried to evade throughout “Fission” has been patiently waiting for him on the other side, ready to be picked up.
In “Fusion,” the film takes us through the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for Oppenheimer, where he becomes an outspoken supporter of nuclear nonproliferation, arguing for international cooperation and against further weapons research. This new position does not make him any friends in Washington, as the country is in the middle of a new “cold” war with the Soviet Union, which now has atomic weapons of its own.
Using an infamous 1954 security clearance hearing for Oppenheimer and the 1959 senate confirmation hearings for one of his chief political enemies, Lewis Strauss (a fantastic Robert Downey, Jr.), as framing devices, the film portrays this period in Oppenheimer’s life as a very public fall from grace brought about by political opponents looking to punish him for being insufficiently loyal to American interests.
But the film also indicates that there may have been another reason why Oppenheimer chose to follow this arduous path of opposition and public humiliation.
You think because you let them tar and feather you that the world will forgive you? They won’t.
So says Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) to her husband at a low point during the security clearance hearing. In Nolan’s telling, after the bombings, Oppenheimer was looking for more than assurances of a peaceful, weapons-free future. He was looking for absolution. And absolution could only come from the outside—from an external judge. As Alan Noble puts it in his book You Are Not Your Own: “Identity always assumes an other to whom we are presenting ourselves and from whom we seek affirmation. Meaning inherently feels external or it isn’t worth the name.”9
Within the immanent frame, however, external judges are not entirely trustworthy. We soon find that those to whom we might turn for absolution are busy with burdens of their own. In the film, Oppenheimer learns this the hard way when, at every turn, the confession of his misgivings and moral failures is met with contempt or resigned fatalism.
In the end, it falls to Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), whom Oppenheimer and his colleagues had dismissed as a relic of an earlier scientific era, to finally lay out for the “father of the atomic bomb” what he can expect from the immanent frame when it comes to matters of absolution.
When they’ve punished you enough, they’ll serve you salmon and potato salad, make speeches, give you a medal, and pat you on the back telling all is forgiven. Just remember, it won’t be for you… it would be for them.
Thinking about the film afterward, I was suddenly reminded of a Bible story I had not thought about in years. Matthew 9:1-8 tells a story about a paralytic brought to Jesus for healing. Paradoxically, and perhaps not prudent given that there were religious leaders in the audience, the first thing Jesus says to the man is, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus’s words scandalized the religious leaders. “This man is blaspheming,” they said, because according to the Mosaic law and Hebrew sacred writings (which Jesus knew well), only God, who transcends the immanent frame, can forgive sins. “For which is easier, to say,” Jesus continued, aware of his critics, “‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” Jesus went on before turning his attention to the paralytic. “Rise, pick up your bed and go home,” Jesus commanded, and to everyone’s wonder, the paralytic did just that.
Watching Oppenheimer’s agonized search for someone to lift his guilt burden, I could not help but wonder what he would have done had he come across the itinerant rabbi from beyond the immanent frame with the authority to forgive sins. I also wonder, knowing what we know about the unbearable weight of guilt, if the forgiveness of sins was, in fact, the greater miracle in Matthew 9.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is about many things, including obsession, weapons of mass destruction, and politics. But its main preoccupation may be the burden of guilt and the inability to find lasting relief within the confines of the immanent frame.
- Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, directed by Adrian Malone (PBS, 1980). ↩︎
- Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age (Harvard Univ. Press, 2007), 542. ↩︎
- Nolan, Christopher. Batman Begins (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005). ↩︎
- Nolan, Christopher. The Dark Knight (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008). ↩︎
- Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Penguin Publishing Group, 2013), Kindle Edition, 37. ↩︎
- Romans 7:21, ESV. ↩︎
- Genesis 3:12-13, ESV. ↩︎
- “Theory will take you only so far.” Oppenheimer (Universal Pictures, 2023). ↩︎
- Noble, Alan. You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World (IVP, 2021), Kindle Edition, 72. ↩︎