Life as a Leftover

Indiscriminate evil ought to shut down theology, but instead it drives many us real-world Leftovers into more serious religious belief.
11/17/2015 12:14 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2016

The HBO drama The Leftovers defies easy classification. The New York Times lauded it as "the best spiritual drama on television.'' But while the show undoubtedly has strong religious themes, it steadfastly avoids any discussion of actual theologies. And God (or gods of any sort, for that matter) have yet to make an appearance.

Some are tempted to classify the show as science fiction, since the premise of the show is following the individuals "left over'' after 140 million people suddenly disappear. But this isn't quite right either. Science fiction takes place in worlds that are in some respect radically different from our own. Events like the Paris and Beirut massacres last week remind us that the actual world is one where men, women and children indiscriminately disappear, sometimes in sudden and coordinated bursts of horror.

Really the only difference between us and the fictional Leftovers (besides the numbers), is that we often take ourselves to have partial explanations of why people are annihilated while our fictional counterparts are grasping at straws. We appeal to theories about how terrorist cells set their goals, how tsunamis form, and how Ebola spreads to explain why some succumb and some survive. But in the final analysis, these theories offer us very little in our attempt to make sense of the sudden departures. And even when some logic can be imposed on the seemingly insensible, none of these explanations do anything to redeem the lives that were lost. In fact, sometimes I worry that in our rush to explain tragedies like these, we numb ourselves from the grief and vertigo that we ought to feel realizing that so many unique, important lives have been suddenly annihilated.

On the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the New York Times published several articles on the families of victims of the World Trade Center attacks. The stories all had a similar theme---a father or mother, son or daughter dressed up as they normally do, went to work, but never returned. At the time I was not particularly religious, but I was deeply disturbed by thinking of what happened to those men and women. I went to a church nearby to see if they would offer explanations for why events like this happen and how we ought to go on living like normal in the shadow of such death. The church (which I eventually joined), didn't offer me any theory of the sort, at least not then. Rather, it was a place where the parishioners and the priests recognized that there is and always has been extraordinary suffering in the world, that our explanations of it tend to fall short of answering our questions (and fall far short of healing it), that it is perfectly acceptable to hope for something more satisfying, and that is hard to go on long numbed to the losses.

One strange feature of HBO's Leftovers is how rarely the characters appeal to religious faith of any historical or theological complexity to find comfort in their predicament. There are some whiffs of Christianity here and there, but so far the group with the most developed belief system seems to be the nefarious cult---the Guilty Remnant.

Why is this? Well, I suspect it is because the show is targeting a mainly intellectual audience. And a common intellectual response to sudden, indiscriminate massacres is to think they are decisive evidence that (1) there is no God (at least not the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and (2) it would be irrational to turn to such religions for comfort or answers. Why think (1)? The argument going back to Hume is that if any all-powerful and loving God existed, he would prevent these senseless horrors. So there is no God. As for (2), if there is certainly no God, then there is no point in worshiping him or looking for answers in stories that are based first in foremost in theories about him. So Leftovers ought to learn to cope in new ways. In the show, this means turning to spiritual outlooks that are far less committal about whether there is a God. The Leftovers tend to have do-it-yourself attitude to finding meaning in their predicament---chain-smoking, burying birds in the woods. And most of the religion we see is ahistorical. There is very little interaction with formal theology including the obvious sources of theories for why we die and what is possible for us after death.

Back in the actual world, the common intellectual response is downright paradoxical. Indiscriminate evil ought to shut down theology, but instead it drives many us real-world Leftovers into more serious religious belief. There is a temptation to resolve this paradox by diagnosing the more observant Jew, or Christian or Muslim as engaged in some kind of misguided terror management. But I think this diagnosis underestimates the role religion can play in the life of a Leftover. Many committed churchgoers (and mosquegoers and synagoguegoers too), feel drawn to their faith especially because belief in God and the full-blown, theologically-complex religions of our ancestors seem to provide a glimmer of hope for making meaning out of these horrors. And only seeing evil as a premise in a philosophical argument for atheism misses how difficult it is to find any response to senseless killings.

Like our fictional counterparts, we face the horrific events of the past week with an urge make meaning out of them. Unlike our fictional counterparts, we have more resources to consult, especially in the form of the thick and messy theologies that take as their mission explaining the seemingly inexplicable. For some this is a consolation. For others, like our fictional counterparts, it might be best if we just spent some time confused and grieving for those lost rather than settling for knee-jerk explanations or succumbing to nihilism.