A simple question posed in Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida seeps inexorably into the foundations of the age.
Anna, a young novice about to make her vows to become a nun, is given time for final discernment. In fact, she is sent out of the convent where she has lived since infancy and required to meet with her only living relative.
Her encounter with her alcoholic, sexually profligate, Communist apparatchik aunt leads to the discovery that her identity is a habituation, not reality. Catholic Anna is really Jewish Ida, the orphaned child of a family murdered in the Shoah.
It also leads her, for a night, into the arms of a John Coltrane-playing nightclub saxophonist whose rendition of “Naima” is a shimmering trickle of sensuality against the East Bloc anhedonia that is Polish life in 1962.
The musician, unnamed in the film, seeks to woo Anna/Ida away from her pending wedding with the Bridegroom. He sketches for her enticing scenes of cafés, lolling beaches, even home and family. Every time she asks in a clear, calm, penetratingly honest voice: “What then?”
Not, it’s critical to note, “What next?” What next? is a consumer society question that would be ludicrous to pose in the late winter of a Marxist tyrant state.
What’s next? is a question of activity and satiety.
What then?, particularly as Anna/Ida poses it to her dreamily handsome seducer, is a question of ultimate meaning. Therein lies its undermining and overturning power. As such, it is the question that Christians should be posing to secularists. We should be asking it not just rhetorically but apologetically and inexorably as we seep into the cracks of the foundations of the age.
The question of the day, after all, is not really whether there are cracks in those secular foundations. There is, as Leonard Cohen taught us with his inimitable wisdom, a crack in everything: “That’s how the light gets in.” And if ever there were anything about to crack itself asunder from its own inherent fissures, it would have to be the underpinnings—intellectual, ideological, practical—of the secular age that is upon us.
After the exhaustion of skepticism, cynicism, hedonism, atomism, after perpetual experimentation becomes mere generic dysfunction and each succeeding all-star gnostic ideology is revealed as more impoverished and threadbare than the last, what then? As the absence of answers to anything but the most self-evidently material grows stale despite its aura of eternal adolescent exuberance, what then? As the anomalous historical fantasy of the self-created individual is exposed in all its ecological absurdity, what then?
Christians, of course, know the answer is Christ. For if the teleological question “why?” forms the foundation of all Christian faith in reason, then the existential question, “what then?” is answerable only through Him in whom that faith is placed. Placed, that is, not as a sociological proposition, not as a political project, not as a series of ethical imperatives or consumerist choices, but rather as the only answer that makes the question “what then?” even worth asking.
Pawlikowski’s movie illuminates this Christian truth even for the most die-hard secularist. It does so avoiding parlour-trick proselytizing and instead trusting in history itself. Every historically situated drama leads us along a path framed by the actual outcomes of the age. There is the internal truth of the fiction before us, but there is also the external elaboration of memory, of newspaper front pages, of our capacity to walk backward from current effect to original cause.
As Ida ends, we see Anna walking an ambiguous path leading, visually at least, we are not told where. She might be returning to the convent to make her vows. She might—possibly—be heading in the opposite direction. The story lets us decide for ourselves.
Yet we simultaneously know exactly “what’s next”—and more importantly, “what then?”—once she steps outside the final frame of Poland, 1962.
Outside that frame, a Polish priest awaits God’s call to become Pope John Paul II. Outside that frame, Polish workers wait en masse in Warsaw shouting, “We want God; We want God; We want God.” Outside that frame an exhausted, decrepit, tyrannical secularism waits to crack, then explode into irretrievable fragments.
What then? To ask that simple question is to renew our sense of how the light gets in as, in Christ, it always does.