The Remarkably Bad Theology of “The Adjustment Bureau”
By Rev. Robert Barron
“The Adjustment Bureau” is one of the most explicitly theological films of the last 25 years. The only problem is that it proposes an extraordinarily bad theology. It tells the story of David Morris (played convincingly by Matt Damon), an up-and-coming American politician. Morris has just lost a Senate election but he has met Elise, a woman for whom he feels an immediate and overwhelming attraction. She gives him her phone number and David, despite his electoral defeat, is enthused about pursuing this new relationship.
Then the strangest thing happens. As he arrives at work, David notices that everyone in the office is frozen in place and mysterious men in fedoras are fussing with the head of one of his co-workers. Horrified, he tries to call 911, but instead he is chased by the invaders and hustled out of the office into a cavernous warehouse, where a number of agents are urgently discussing his “case.” It’s at this point that he (and we) discover what’s going on.
David, like everyone else, is part of a great master plan, managed by a shadowy figure called “the Chairman” (clearly God), and that his relationship with Elise runs dramatically counter to the Chairman’s intention. The men in fedoras aren’t ordinary human beings, but something like angels, and their purpose is to correct glitches in the Plan caused by chance or by stubborn free will. The bizarre invasion of the office and David’s kidnapping are part of this “adjustment.” Not cruelly yet firmly, 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.
So the central conflict of the film is established as a struggle between divinely-imposed fate and individual human freedom. Do we in 21st-century America really have any doubt which of these will win? Despite what he knows and despite the herculean efforts of numerous agents, David does manage to run into Elise and to foster a romantic friendship with her. At this point, a particularly powerful agent named Thompson (played by the English character actor Terence Stamp) comes on the scene. He kidnaps David and tells him why he mustn’t see Elise. According to the Plan, David is meant to become President of the United States, and Elise a world-famous dancer; but if they stay together, neither of these destinies will be fulfilled.
Enough of the plot. Suffice it to say that 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 presents two things that we human beings desperately want: a Plan and personal freedom. 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; for Fate and Freedom, we tell ourselves, are mutually exclusive.
This is why “The Adjustment Bureau” is informed by a bad theology. In the modern telling, evident in thinkers from William of Occam to Jean-Paul Sartre, God supremacy looms over and against a self-assertive human freedom. The two wills—human and divine—are locked in a desperate zero-sum game, whereby the more the divine will advances, the further the human will has to retreat. It’s The Plan—overwhelming, powerful, strictly enforced—against scrappy, determined human liberty.
But none of this has a thing to do with classical Christian theology. One of the most basic truths that flow 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 ingredient in it.
Let me try to make this clear through a simple example. A good piano instructor lays out a plan for her charges. In the course of many years, she takes them through a whole 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 write their own music. All this time, she is awakening and informing their freedom, pointing it toward the good, giving it purpose. Her ultimate goal—again, if she is a good teacher—is to establish perfect liberty in her students, that is to say, the capacity to play whatever they want. It’s not The Plan vs. freedom; it’s The Plan undergirding freedom. God, whose glory is that we be fully alive, is something like that piano teacher.
What he is decidedly not like is the shadowy “Chairman” of this film. God is the great Will, which is nothing but love. Hence his is a Plan that doesn’t compete with human freedom, but rather guides and fulfills it. Toward the conclusion of his great Divine Comedy, Dante wrote a line that is repugnant to the theology of “The Adjustment Bureau” but is perfect congruent with classical Incarnational theology: “in your will, O Lord, is our peace.”