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When Time Isn’t Time: Augustine on Tenet

March 10th, 2021 | 15 min read

By Paul Frank Spencer

The greatest living movie maker (Christopher Nolan), director of the greatest movie ever (The Prestige – we will have to discuss it another time), has done it again, though you would not know it if you relied on the popular review pages. According to many, Tenet is just one more stupendous caper, one that is successful in stunning the eyes and in pretending to be highly cerebral; perhaps Nolan out-Nolaned himself this time.

But if we find a way to put aside the quibbles that this work of science fiction does indeed employ some fictional elements, if we suspend our disbelief in the unexplained physics (The Protagonist is even told “Don’t try to understand it”), we are free to find surprising depth of meaning in the philosophical arc that animates the plot and characters. We are free to engage the ethical consequences and theological explanations of Nolan’s unique version of time-travel.

A basic description of the fictional physics is only the first of basically all the spoilers, so consider yourself alerted.

In the future, a nuclear technology is discovered, one which reverses the entropy of affected objects. These now move backward against the normal flow of time. It is important to distinguish this “reverse-chronology” from our typical ideas of time-travel. Instead of people or things being sent from one discrete moment in time to another, possibly creating a paradoxical second timeline running concurrent with the first, reversed entropy causes the affected objects to stay on their own continuous timelines, going backward at the same rate the rest of the universe moves forward.

Though this takes some of the most exciting elements of our traditional notion of time-travel off the table, that is not to say that reverse-chronology is uninteresting. The visualization of these inverted objects is fascinating, and Nolan’s creative team gave extraordinary attention to making particular scenes wonderfully spectacular. We see a fistfight between Protagonist and himself travelling forward and back, a car chase with different cars driving full speed backward and others forward, and in the climactic scene, we see a full-fledged battle with battalions of troupes converging through time toward one moment.

The first inverted object we see up close is a handgun cartridge that Protagonist seemingly levitates off a table into his hand. Instead of a palmed magnet or jedi force, Protagonist does this by “dropping” the bullet in the future. He is told, to make it move, “You have to have dropped it.” Inverted objects respond to their causes in our future, reversing our commonplace time-conditioned understanding of the order of cause and effect, though there are still no causeless actions. The bullet would not have moved if Protagonist had not put his hand above it. It is good that we have the present perfect infinitive tense – “to have dropped” – paired with the present finite verb – “have” – to encapsulate this concept in English (though we have to flip it on its head to refer to actions accomplished in the future).

At first, we are made to understand that the international organization that Protagonist ends up working for is only finding random scraps of inverted material here and there, possibly “the detritus of a coming war.” Soon enough we see that they also have inverted weapons and anything else they could want because they have their own “turnstiles,” machines that invert objects in the moment and send them backward (or forward, if already going backward).

This technology, though developed in the future, could be inverted itself and sent backward at any point in the future to any point in the future’s past; it eventually finds its way back to the movie’s present. One of Protagonist’s collaborators, Priya, explains to him that the antagonist, Andre Sator, can easily communicate with the future. “We all do, don’t we? Emails, credit cards, texts. Anything that goes into the records speaks directly to the future.” In the same way, if we in the future’s past knew where to look, we could easily find inverted messages and objects delivered to us, the future’s inverted-posterity.

Based on numerous reviews at its release, simply watching the special effects of the complex and counterintuitive physics of reverse-chronology may be all that most viewers get out of Tenet. I’ll be honest and say that the visuals do indeed satisfy a popular appetite for entertainment, but we overlook Nolan’s movie-making genius if we only stop to see his cinematography (which is itself genius). We must search a little deeper to find philosophical considerations of the sort that Nolan characteristically builds his movies upon. Tenet engages enduring paradoxes in an attempt to reframe some of humanity’s enduring concerns.

The most basic premise explored is the grandfather paradox. Protagonist discusses this with his handler, Neil.

Protagonist: “We’re their ancestors. If they destroy us, won’t that destroy them?”

Neil: “Which brings us to the grandfather paradox… If you went back in time and killed your own grandfather, how could you have been born to commit the act?”

P: “What’s the answer?”

N: “There’s no answer. It’s a paradox. But those in the future clearly believe that you can [destroy the past] without consequence.”

P: “Are they right?”

N: “Doesn’t matter. They believe it. So they want to destroy us.”

P: “This reversing the flow of time, doesn’t us being here now mean it never happens, that we stop them?”

N: “Optimistically, I’d say that’s right.”

P: “Pessimistically?”

N: “In a parallel worlds theory, we can’t know the relationship between consciousness and multiple realities.”

In another similar exchange, Protagonist asks Neil what would happen if Sator was to kill his estranged wife, Kat (who Protagonist has a good willed interest in protecting), in the past. Neil again emphasizes the nature of paradox:

P: “He threatens to kill her in the past. If he does, what happens here?”

N: “It’s unknowable.”

P: “But what do you believe?”

N: “What’s happened’s happened.”

“What has happened has happened” is a grammatical structure worth breaking down. The first “what has happened” is a relative pronoun – “what” – followed by the present perfect infinitive – “has happened”. These three words combine into one subject for the next present perfect infinitive verb – “has happened”. So the noun, the action, that which has happened, we are told, has happened; ergo, the deed is done, neither past nor future interference could undo it.

In one sense, the movie affirms Neil’s instinct again and again. We see the inverted future consistently interacting with the forward-moving present in a visual statement that says that what will be done by future agents in our present reality is already affecting the present in the only way it ever will. There was never a present in which the future was not acting as it would.

That said, though Protagonist and his cohort know that Sator is alive in a future beyond the operative moment that becomes the climax of the movie, they still seek to kill him in that moment. Whatever difficulties are avoided by the reality of what’s-happened’s-happened, the plot ultimately hangs on the enduring paradox through which the future can change the past, e.g. where Sator’s timeline ends when once it did not. Maybe without this paradox intact, a story about time-travel would end up being not so suspenseful or interesting.

Interestingly, even without Nolan’s science-fictional time-travel, modern physics affirms the reality that the future influences the past through a concept called entanglement.

Quantum entities are “wiggly,” literally spreading what can be measured as a discrete particle across a range of space as a wave. I say “can be measured” because quantum entities only remain uncertain and wiggly so long as they are not measured or located. Once the discrete particle is observed in a particular location, the uncertain wave collapses, but so long as it is not measured, uncertainty abides. In this sense, we are taught in high school physics class that light is both wave and particle.

The very strange bit about uncertainty and entanglement is that even a future observation of the quantum entity is enough to collapse uncertainty in the past, forcing a particle to do something it had not done as a wave. Everyone is familiar with the idea that the future is contingent on its past, but through entanglement, the past is also contingent on the future. Physicists have been saying for decades that, in this sense, the future definitely affects the past. And if we pursue the implications of entanglement across all time, anything that has ever been affected by uncertainty ultimately remains entangled in a chain of uncertainty until it is grounded by some final physical reality at the end of time, whatever that might be. Once the future is completely actualized, only then will the full effects of entanglement ripple backward throughout history to solidify the uncertainty of what we currently perceive as a linear Newtonian reality.

Modern physics can take the consequences of Nolan’s science fiction seriously, at least in this limited sense, and Christian theology can engage Nolan’s ideas just as genuinely. For a surprisingly thorough introduction to the scriptural support for causes and effects that run counter to or regardless of time, we need only to look at one verse.

“For by a single offering [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). This verse is another sentence with an overly complex verbal structure. We are told that at one time Jesus “has perfected” (present perfect infinitive) “for all time” those who “are being sanctified” (present progressive passive) presently in time. In other words, what was done once has already and always taken effect on what is currently being affected. In similar terms, Neil tells Protagonist that what has happened has happened, even as it is happening or even as it will happen.

For a fuller view of the Christian position on divine interactions with a time-conditioned world, we might turn to one of history’s preeminent philosopher-theologians, Augustine of Hippo. In two of his most enduring works, City of God and Confessions, the bishop philosophically dwells on the nature of time and theologically considers how God acts in time. Augustine must first establish what time is:

“Things which happen under the condition of time are in the future, not yet in being, or in the present, already existing, or in the past, no longer in being. But God comprehends all these in a stable and eternal present.” (City of God 452)

Everything that is confined within time (time-conditioned) will fall into one of these three categories; past, present, and future. The past has passed and is not. The future has yet to come and is not. The present is an infinitesimally thin sliver of everything that has being, is ever-occurring, and is in the proper sense of the term. So when Augustine states in the quote above that God comprehends, experiences, or actualizes all of time in a “stable and eternal present,” he is clearly stating that an eternal God is not conditioned by time, as his creation is. His eternal present is the abiding reality, and a world conditioned by time is another kind of thing altogether; it is less real.

“If we are right in finding the distinction between eternity and time in the fact that without motion and change there is not time, while in eternity there is no change, who can fail to see that there would have been no time, if there had been no creation to bring in movement and change, and that time depends on this motion and change, and is measured by longer or shorter intervals by which things that cannot happen simultaneously succeed one another?” (City of God 435)

Time was created simultaneously with space; creation’s ever-changing reality in space concurrently measures and manifests time. The funny thing about Tenet is that motion and change are inverted back over the same space so that occurrences that succeed each other in time are also simultaneous, contradicting Augustine’s definition. Obviously, basic rules of time are being broken (or maybe just bent), and in a way, the characters are experiencing something divine, experiencing past and/or future in the present. But this is only dabbling in the divine. Time is still passing. The characters are not experiencing the totality of the Divine experience, not even close.

“[God’s] vision of occurrences in time is not temporally conditioned.” (Confessions 221)

“In the eternal, nothing is transient, but the whole is present.” (Confessions 228)

Christopher Nolan is not engaging with the concept of eternity, not in a formal sense anyway. And he certainly is not engaging with anything that approaches divine interaction or intervention in the domain of man. Nolan has avoided divinity in his movies, relying instead on whatever he can dream up that allows man to access depths of reality otherwise reserved for God. One of the most powerful lines in The Prestige is from a magician who recognizes the disappointing reality hidden behind his illusions:

“The world is simple, miserable, solid all the way through.”

Nolan keeps his worlds solid (at least as solid as theoretical physics demands) and generally miserable too, though not always simple. Regardless, God does not get to come in and work miracles in Nolan’s plots. Protagonist can dream up a world with a counterfactual reality, contradictory to common sense notions, but his collaborator Priya reminds him that a solid world rejects paradox:

Priya: “If that universe can exist, we don’t live in it.”

Protagonist: “Well let’s try…”

Priya: “You’ve done your part.”

Protagonist: “My part! I’m the protagonist of this operation.”

Priya: “You are a protagonist.”

Protagonist only sees reality from his personal perspective, as his own protagonist. His is a privileged perspective, as he is one of a very small number of people who know the means to operate in a timeline folded onto itself, but it is still a time-conditioned perspective where the shape of eternity cannot be known and divine paradoxes cannot be unwound. Protagonist holds onto an impossible (not only improbable) certainty in his robust ability to change history and overcome a solid world, a thing that others will not allow themselves to do, a hope that makes him a unique Nolan character. His dialogue with Sator, a man bent on bringing the present to apocalypse for the sake of the future, shows the very different points of view between active hope-against-all-hope and conceded hopelessness.

Sator: “My greatest sin was to bring a son into a world I knew was ending. I think God will forgive me.”

Protagonist: “You don’t believe in God or a future or anything outside of your own experience.”

S: “The rest is belief, and I don’t have it.”

P: “Without it, you’re not human, you’re just a madman.”

S: “Or a god, of sorts.”

From Sator’s perspective, as a fatalist skeptic, nothing outside of his experience can be logically confirmed, depends on belief, and thus holds no value for him; he will not act on faith of any sort. Bringing children into a broken and dying world is one of the most hopeful acts a human can knowingly commit to; to do so with full acceptance of hopelessness may indeed be a terrible sin, a sin so presumptive that it would make he who commits it some wickedly compassionless, self-affirming demigod.

At the beginning of the movie, Protagonist is warned about the cold war that is raging across time, as future hopelessness went to war with its own hopeful past – “To even know its true nature is to lose.” This is the type of pronouncement that can be made against sin, especially a pride like Sator’s that would lead to self-consuming despair. Fortunately, Protagonist certainly does not know its true nature. His hopefulness insulates him from Sator’s viewpoint.

From that protected perspective, after the climax of the movie is behind them, Neil and Protagonist reflect on their responsibilities. Just minutes ago, Protagonist witnessed Neil’s dead body, his future body, killed as he helped complete the mission on one more backward pass through the action. Protagonist believes in the paradox, that it is possible to create a new timeline. Neil does as well, otherwise he never would have engaged in a mission to kill Sator in the past, a thing that could not be done with Sator having lived in the future. But these two characters disagree on the nature of the paradox. Neil believes strongly in the component of free will, particularly in the uncertainty it creates. Though it seems the future is set already, he will not shirk his duty and risk apocalypse on a wavering and reckless choice:

Neil: “We just saved the world. Can’t leave anything to chance.”

Protagonist: “But can we change things if we do it differently?”

N: “What’s happened’s happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”

P: “Fate?”

N: “Call it what you want.”

P: “What do you call it?”

N: “Reality… now let me go.”

Reality: eternal reality unconditioned by time – predestined, if you will (a time-conditioned term trying to characterize eternity) – paradoxically still beholden to those things that occur in time. Neil believes in a determined future; he just saw it himself and knows what he is committing to. He accepts his responsibility to choose freely and help determine the future by redeeming the past.

Could he choose differently? We’ve already seen him dead. Perhaps not. Perhaps he is pre-destined to bravely die apart from any will in the moment. But he still decides to reject a final temptation, the thought that he should behave differently. His conviction is his, and he acts on it. He chooses to go to his death for the sake of a more blessed future, one that depends on his sacrificial obedience to the good.

In the final scene, Protagonist ensures that Kat stays safe in her future. This time, he has to save her from Priya, who is surprised to find Protagonist one step ahead of her with a gun to her head:

Protagonist: “I told you you’d have to start looking differently at the world.”

Priya: “I have to tie up loose ends.”

Protagonist: “That was never your job.”

Priya: “Then whose was it?”

Protagonist: “Mine. I realized I wasn’t working for you, we’ve both been working for me. I’m the protagonist.”

In the end, Nolan cheats a little to make his movie and this exceedingly complex plot make sufficient sense, but the nuance is easy to miss. We see Sator’s timeline end where once it did not, a paradox. We see Neil commit to his responsibility to choose and to sacrifice, a refusal to rely on paradox to undo what we just witnessed, what he should do (timshel). And we see Protagonist navigate it all on a single timeline, without paradox, with it all making sense from his nameless, any-man perspective. The movie only makes sense from this perspective, from the things that Protagonist has seen and experienced, not what other characters might have. He only sees the world through his eyes, and the world is paradox free for him on his timeline. Because he is our protagonist, we too might be satisfied by what has happened.

Nolan resolves Neil’s concern about not knowing the relationship between consciousness and multiple realities: Protagonist’s consciousness and his reality are the only ones with which the movie comprehensively engages. If this is unsatisfying to those intellectuals who are unwilling to see the world from a single perspective, I have not much to say except that our reality is just as unsatisfying. We only ever see the world from our own limited, time-conditioned point of view, no matter how empathic or high-minded we think we are.

That which abides in God’s eternal reality is ever abiding; even though we may see it meet a time-conditioned end, it is. That which is ultimately condemned to the oblivion of hell in God’s eternal reality is already dead in ours; even though it may appear to exist, it is not. The paradox is uncomfortable and unresolved from the human perspective; it melts away from the divine perspective.

“If anyone finds [God’s] simultaneity beyond his understanding, it is not for me to explain it. Let him be content to say ‘What is this?’” (Confessions 8)

God has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that we cannot find out what reality is from beginning to end (Eccl. 3:11). Can we find peace in the mystery, in the paradox? Nolan seems to, and so he invites his audience to say, “What is this?”

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Paul Frank Spencer

Paul Frank Spencer is the owner of By Grace For Glory Publishing and author of Marvelous Light. He earned a BA and BSBA from the University of Pittsburgh and still lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Keep up with Spencer's reviews and creative writing at