Master Plan: The flawed theology of 'The Adjustment Bureau'
The Adjustment Bureau” is one of the most explicitly theological films of the last 25 years. Unfortunately, it proposes an extraordinarily bad theology.
The movie, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, tells the story of David Morris (played convincingly by Matt Damon), an up-and-coming American politician. After Morris loses a Senate election, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a woman for whom he feels an immediate attraction. She gives him her phone number, and David, after his electoral defeat, is eager to pursue this new relationship.
Then something strange happens. When he arrives at work, David notices that everyone in the office is frozen in place, and mysterious men in fedoras are performing a kind of operation on his friend’s head. Horrified, David tries to call 911, but is chased by the invaders and hustled out of the office and into a cavernous warehouse, where a number of agents are urgently discussing his “case.” It is at this point that he (and we) discover what is going on.
David, like everyone else, is part of a great master plan managed by a shadowy figure called the Chairman (clearly meant to represent God). David’s relationship with Elise, however, runs dramatically counter to the Chairman’s intention. The men in fedoras are not ordinary human beings but something like angels, whose purpose is to correct any glitches in “the plan” caused by chance or stubborn free will. The bizarre invasion of the office and David’s kidnapping are part of this “adjustment.” Firmly but not cruelly, the agents inform David that they will prevent him from establishing a relationship with Elise and that he must never tell anyone what he knows, lest they be obliged to erase his memory and identity.
Thus the central conflict of the film is established as a struggle between divinely imposed fate and individual human freedom. But does anyone in 21st-century America really have a doubt which of these will win? Despite what he knows and despite the herculean efforts of numerous agents, David manages to run into Elise again and foster a romantic friendship with her. At this point, a particularly powerful agent named Thompson (played by the English actor Terence Stamp) arrives on the scene. He kidnaps David and tells him why he must not see Elise. According to the plan, David is meant to become president of the United States and Elise a world-famous dancer; if they stay together, they will not fulfill their destinies.
Both David and Elise in the end decide to resist the plan, outfox its numerous enforcers and pursue their relationship with full romantic abandon.
The film deals with two things that human beings desperately want: personal freedom and a plan. We want, of course, to be free. Liberty is the supreme value in most Western societies. At the same time, most of us want things to make sense. We don’t want the world to be simply a jumble of chance occurrences, coincidences and meaningless pursuits. We savor the idea of a grand plan. But the simultaneous realization of these two desires is, it seems, impossible. Freedom and fate, we tell ourselves, are mutually exclusive.
This is why “The Adjustment Bureau” is informed by what I would term bad theology. In the modern telling, evident in the writing of thinkers from William of Ockham to Jean-Paul Sartre, God’s supremacy looms over against a self-assertive human freedom. The two wills—human and divine—are locked in a desperate zero-sum game, in which the more the divine will advances, the further the human will has to retreat. That is “the plan”—overwhelming, powerful, strictly enforced—against scrappy, determined human liberty.
None of this, however, has anything to do with classical Christian theology. One of the most basic truths that flows from the Incarnation is that divinity and humanity are not competitors. Jesus is not somehow less human because he is also divine. On the contrary, his divinity raises, perfects and enhances his humanity. Therefore God’s freedom does not suppress human freedom but rather enables and awakens it. Liberty is not repugnant to the plan; it is an ingredient in it.
Take a simple example. A good piano instructor lays out a plan for her charges. Over the course of many years, she takes them through a series of exercises and practice sessions. She introduces them to relatively simple pieces of music and then, gradually, to Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven; she invites them to play ragtime and boogie-woogie. She might finally demonstrate the process of composition and encourage them to compose their own music. All the time, she is awakening and informing her students’ freedom, pointing it toward the good, giving it purpose. Her ultimate goal—if she is a good teacher—is to establish perfect liberty in her students, in other words, the capacity to play whatever they want.
This is not a case of a plan in opposition to freedom; it is a plan undergirding freedom. God, whose glory is that we be fully alive, is something like that piano teacher.
What God is decidedly not like is the shadowy Chairman of this film. God is the great will, which is nothing but love. Hence God’s plan does not compete with human freedom, but rather guides and fulfills it. Toward the conclusion of the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote a line that contrasts with the theology of “The Adjustment Bureau” but is perfectly congruent with classical incarnational theology: “In your will, O Lord, is our peace."