Faith in the Future is No Faith at All: Disney’s Weak Theology

For a film inspired by a Disney theme-park subdivision, Tomorrowland has a lot more going for it than one might expect.

Above all, the film is, now and again, surprisingly moving—a story about a quest to save the world, maintaining hope despite the odds, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Good stories about heroes and hope make the heart swell. And may it ever be so.

But exactly what kind of hope does Tomorrowland extol? Who is to hold this hope? On what grounds? And with what result? What is Tomorrowland asking us to hope in and hope for? And what is it asking us to do?

These are the kinds of questions a theologian in my own tradition might ask, especially if he or she were concerned with what we call “critical eschatology”—theologies that engage today’s realities against the horizon of an ultimate divine future.

Would this kind of theological critique affirm Tomorrowland’s take on hope?

In the film, Tomorrowland exists in a dimension alongside our own. It is a place where imagination and innovation are given free rein, where technology is not driven by markets or utility but by the sheer joy of play and exploration. This sleek, apparently classless, beautifully multicultural, and apparently infinitely-resourced tomorrow (or is it a parallel today?) takes a dark turn when its inventiveness leads to the discovery of a means of warping the space–time continuum and of, therefore, peering into the future of the world as we, the audience, know it.

The technologists of Tomorrowland discover that our world will fall prey to an unspecified catastrophe that will immediately and completely extinguish earthly life. The plot of the film centers on identifying a person who has the creative smarts and technical skills to change the future by finding a way in to Tomorrowland and dealing with this technology “that should never have been built.” Critically, this person must still truly believe that change is possible.

It’s the standard fairy-tale formula: the idealistic, pure-hearted person who does not quite fit in turns out to be a chosen figure plucked out of obscurity for a fantastic quest. Here, though, the fairy godmother is an android, the exiled and rehabilitated king is a despondent inventor, the maiden in distress and the heroic dragon slayer combine (quite interestingly and refreshingly) into our quick-thinking and passionately driven heroine, the dragon is a piece of highly advanced technology, and the kingdom to be saved is our own quotidian world, our own reality, marked by our own short-sightedness.

Like all fairy tales (and Disney movies, apparently), this story is meant to convey a moral message about what is truly, rather than apparently, good and about how we should conduct ourselves in light of that. The moral message of Tomorrowland concerns hope. It is the loss of hope, the film tells us, that lies at the heart of our global woes.

There is a good case to be made for this, philosophically and theologically, as critical eschatologists unhesitatingly affirm. But the version of hope that Tomorrowland champions is, from a Christian theological perspective, not necessarily the one we are lacking.

The theologians of the early twentieth century who witnessed the horrors of World War I helped us understand that the late-nineteenth-century liberal Christian belief in ever-increasing human progress was a fantasy. But this fantasy returned in the years following World War II in the form of a general fascination with human mastery of the future. With advances in science and technology, such thinking went, humanity would be able to create a world free from want, disease, ignorance, and inequality—maybe even from death itself.

Christian theologians like Edward Schillebeeckz, Johann Baptist Metz, and Jürgen Moltmann began to question the revived myth of human progress embedded in this futurological view.

How, they asked, does a future that arises solely out of present circumstances produce anything other than more of the same? How can any human creation—a technology, a political or economic system, or anything else—avoid reproducing societies with “victors” and “losers” until that very idea has been eliminated from human hearts? In short, unless the future reality referred to in Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry as “the kingdom of God” somehow enters into the present to change at the root how we relate to one another, the perfection longed for by those with faith in the future will remain a pipe dream, a utopian mirage.

But this is exactly the the vision of global flourishing on offer in Tomorrowland. Creative ingenuity and technological advance are the drivers of a better—even paradise-like—world. Even when such advances also lead to Tomorrowland’s and our planet’s potential downfall, a technological remedy is sought. Moreover, the film ends with a sequence in which agents are dispatched to recruit gifted people able to rebuild Tomorrowland’s futuristic Eden, and to make it even better than it was before.

A critical eschatology would contend that there is a disquieting materialism about all of this that connects all too well to the contemporary view that suffering and evil are problems we can solve by employing the proper gene sequence, algorithm, or pharmaceutical, on the one hand—or public policy, economic theory, or surveillance scheme, on the other.

Associated with this is Tomorrowland’s problematic reduction of hope to optimism.

It’s certainly true that we are saturated by media that offer an enervating doomsday narrative that we do well to resist, as Tomorrowland pointedly recommends. The film, though, seems to suggest that resistance might lie in ignoring harsh realities rather than by contending with them. It places the media in the hands of an evil cabal that is broadcasting “negativity” and “hopelessness” into the minds of humanity in order to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of destruction. This plot device has the unintended effect of blaming “the news” for the state of the world.

It’s true that news and other media shape our attitudes, which in turn shape our realities. And it is true, as the character behind this scheme observes, that the more the media turns up the volume on our collective awfulness, the more the public appears to embrace it. But Tomorrowland never asks why this might be (except to posit a general unthematized, solipsistic nihilism infecting the vast majority of the global population), nor does it ask us to take a closer look at the consumerism, gross inequality, and ecological rapaciousness that lie behind those news stories—never mind asking us to take action against such conditions (or even simply to demand better journalism!).

It therefore insinuates that things are not as bad as we have been led to believe. And it counsels us to remain positive, not to succumb to the negativity into which we are being manipulated. In Tomorrowland, hope reduces to remaining “upbeat” and “positive” in the face of adversity, even if that means bracketing out the troubles of the world.

And here is where a theological reading provides a useful counterpoint. There’s a difference between hope and optimism: hope can be maintained even when optimism can’t, because in theological terms hope is funded by the promises God has made to the world and not by human ingenuity. Christians are asked, in this reading, to immerse themselves in the world’s suffering rather than to look away from it. A Christian eschatology features, of course, the resurrection—the guarantee of an ultimate condition that far surpasses anything that human beings can envision, let alone achieve, on our own. It tells us there is life on the other side of even the most acute suffering.

This, of course, is not to say that oppression, suffering, and death are good. It is only to say that they are not final. This is what gives hope. Maintaining hope in the eschatological future of God—the promised coming of the kingdom that Jesus preached—empowers us to work now with God to create conditions that look more rather than less like the promised kingdom of liberation, joy, and life.

Eschatological hope allows us to join people in their suffering rather than ignoring it, or “staying positive.”

Eschatological hope, therefore, is active. It demands engagement, as Schillebeeckx, Metz, Moltmann, and their theological allies make passionately clear. This is not the case for Tomorrowland’s futurological optimism. In this Disney-world there are a select few who are chosen to go to Tomorrowland as the innovators who will shape our future. Our hope is in them. Our hope is that someone else will do the work needed to right the world’s wrongs. We can go about our business, confident that someone out there is doing what needs to be done. We can  feel free to ignore what is causing those problems, to avoid asking who benefits because of them, and to neglect considering what it would take to fix them.

As in the film, when something momentous occurs, it won’t be on account of us. We, like them, will simply raise our smartphones and post pics. Doing something to change the world? That’s for the elites. For the chosen. Not for me.

Of course, the writers of Tomorrowland certainly mean for us to identify with the heroine. We are supposed to understand ourselves as one of the chosen, with a contribution of our own to make. However, the trope of the Chosen One in such stories always entails the fact that there are many more who are not chosen than who are, more who stay at home than who embark on the hero’s quest.

From a futurological perspective, this makes perfect sense. Building a better world is for those with requisite aptitude and training. From an eschatological perspective, though, this is anathema. The theology of active, worldly engagement that a critical eschatology extols takes its model from Jesus’ open invitation to all to turn toward and labor on behalf of the kingdom of God. All are charged with loving God with their whole hearts and minds and with loving their neighbors as themselves, which means that all carry the responsibility of contributing to the furthering of God’s eschatological mission.

There are to be no spectators.

In stark contrast, Tomorrowland exhorts us to take comfort in the existence of an elite cadre of gifted technologists who, among themselves and apart from most of us, will “make the world a better place.” This is a false messianism that short-circuits hope.

Eschatological hope, on the other hand, causes us to question our world without ceasing because we know that no human technology or system comes without a cost to someone somewhere. It causes us to address suffering and injustice where we find it because that’s what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. Unlike holding out for a hero, this hope charges us all with taking on that responsibility. The exceptionalism of American-style individualism has no place in eschatological hope, which is held in common for the common good by the common disciple.

And this hope is justified even when optimism fails, because it does not depend on us, as optimism does. Rather, because it is rooted in the transcendent source, sustainer, and perfecter of life, we depend on it.

Tomorrowland may be a fine fairy tale, but it is important to recognize just how conservative and politically quietist this movie’s message is.

It never asks anything of us, other than to continue being optimistic that technological savior–heroes will arise to cure our world of violence, hatred, and environmental catastrophe, often using the same methods and tools that created these conditions in the first place.

But the theological—and political—vision I have described here demands that we each do our part. No special invitation needed. No person excluded. No heroics required.