By Joseph L. Mangina

In Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster movie Oppenheimer, the renowned physicist (played by Cillian Murphy) is twice heard quoting religious texts. One of these is the passage from the Bhagavad Gita that came to mind when he witnessed history’s first atomic explosion: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Nolan cleverly introduces the line earlier in the film, by having Oppenheimer read it aloud to his lover, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh); naturally, he translates directly from the Sanskrit. The viewer is thus prepared for his recalling of it in 1945 at Los Alamos.

The other “sacred” text referenced in the film comes from a Christian source. Before the experiment, U.S. Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the logistical manager of the Manhattan Project, asks Oppenheimer what the test should be called. The latter responds with a half-whispered: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” — the opening words of a sonnet by John Donne. Here, then, is his answer. He accordingly instructs Groves to dub the test blast “Trinity.”

There is a germ of truth to this story. In response to a query made by Groves in 1963, Oppenheimer wrote: “Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love.” That poem, however, is not “Batter My Heart,” but Donne’s “A Hymn to God, my God, in My Sickness,” an extraordinary meditation on mortality. Donne’s figural linking of Christ and Adam in that poem is justly famous:


We think that Paradise and Calvary,

         Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;

Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;

         As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,

         May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.[1]

Oppenheimer further tells Groves: “That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God.’ Beyond this, I have no clues whatever.”

It has been claimed that it was precisely Tatlock who introduced Oppenheimer to Donne’s work. The brilliant psychoanalyst (and ardent Communist) was the daughter of an English professor, and had studied literature at Vassar before entering medical school. Another possible influence is T.S. Eliot, a writer whom Oppenheimer admired deeply, and who played a key role in the 20th-century rediscovery of the Metaphysical poets.[2] It is no surprise that a man of Oppenheimer’s intellectual ambitions should be drawn to the polymathic and eloquent Donne.

But whatever the intellectual and literary sources informing Oppenheimer’s decision, what shall we make of the link he posits between the bomb and the “three-person’d God” of Christian faith? Between “Trinity” and the Trinity?

From a Christian perspective, naming one’s death-dealing device after the God who both bestows life and is Life itself seems like an act of supreme blasphemy. The uranium and plutonium bombs developed at Los Alamos were designed to be used. And used they would be, to devastating effect, just a few weeks after the Trinity test. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; many as a result of the blasts, others as a result of radiation sickness in the weeks and months that followed. Oppenheimer’s line “I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” was in this sense prophetic, even if horribly so.

Nolan’s film accurately captures the flavor of the debates that swirled around the use of the devices among U.S. scientists and politicians. With a few notable exceptions, among them Oppenheimer’s friends Isidore Isaac Rabi and Leo Szilard, most of those involved in the discussions were concerned with not whether but how the bombs should be used.[3] Oppenheimer’s position was that the scientist’s proper role is to develop technology, while it is the statesman’s burden to figure out how to deploy it. In other words, means and ends are relatively detachable from one another. In testimony before the committee charged with reviewing his security clearance during the McCarthy era, a result of his leftist activities in the 1930s, Oppenheimer said:

When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.[4]

Technical sweetness, in other words, creates an unstoppable momentum of its own. How could we curious, endlessly inventive beings possibly choose not to proceed with a technological development of such awesome power? Let the politicians (or let the public) decide what to do with it! If something can be done, it must and will be done. Alan Jacobs calls this the “Oppenheimer Principle”; his sagacious reflections on it are well worth reading.

The Principle combines great hubris with a touching naiveté. Oppenheimer’s technician assumes that tools are value-neutral, and that we simply need to “decide” how we’re going to use them. One only needs to read a few chapters of Ivan Illich or Marshall McLuhan to see that the reality is quite otherwise. Our tools shape us, as much or even more than we shape them. We are captive to principalities and powers that are much bigger than we are, and that will not hesitate to crush us if it suits them. One of the things Nolan conveys so well is a sense of Oppenheimer’s being swept up in a maelstrom of forces (cosmic, political, personal, sexual) that outstrip his powers of rational control.

Following his source material, a biography significantly titled American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nolan plays up the tragic elements in Oppenheimer’s story. The physicist is implicitly the Prometheus who stole fire from Zeus and bestowed it on humankind, thereby incurring eternal torment.

Oppenheimer, however, implicitly frames the development of atomic weapons not in terms of Greek tragedy, but in relation to the Christian story.[5] As he confesses, it is hard to know exactly what his motives were for his choice of the name “Trinity,” aside from a certain fondness for the poetry of John Donne. And yet the Donne connection can be probed for meaning, quite apart from Oppenheimer’s unknowable intentions.

Consider the sonnet in full:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Space does not permit the richly detailed reading this poem deserves. Let me simply make three observations that seem especially pertinent in this context.

First, the God who comes to expression in this poem is the addressable God. He is not sheer, untrammeled Power, a dark fate to which humans are subject. Precisely as the Trinity, the God of Christian faith is a God who invites human beings to call upon him.[6] To enter into such a relationship is already to acknowledge a fatal chink in the armor of one’s sinful pretensions. It means entering into a space of not being in control — the very opposite of technocratic or political mastery. “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” because Your foolishness is greater than my wisdom, and Your weakness greater than my strength (1 Cor. 1:25).

Second, the triune God herein addressed is the God of grace. The speaker of the poem knows full well that he is in no position to save himself. The poem reflects the Pauline paradox of the divided self, in which the “I” is a radically shifting and unstable quantity. The speaker is both the occupied city in need of deliverance, and the all-too-willing collaborator with the occupying power. He is a creature defined by his God-given reason, and one whose reason has proved unreliable — is “captiv’d … weak or untrue.” Not only is the speaker occupied by the Enemy, he is actually betrothed to the latter. Under such dire conditions, salvation can only be effected by a radical intervention from outside the existing system of power. God needs to invade the city, take the sinner captive, and effect a bill of divorcement between him and the Evil One. Paradoxically, the speaker must be “ravish’d” by God in order to attain the chastity and wholeness he longs for.

Salvation, then, as an act of violence — even as rape? We might well draw this disturbing conclusion, were the deity addressed here other than the “three-person’d God”; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; the triune God of grace, whose power is made perfect in weakness. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If [anyone] hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:29, KJV). In the poem’s opening lines, such “knocking” is dismissed as weak and ineffectual. Yet by the end, it seems to have done the trick. The poem’s speaker eagerly opens himself to that union with Christ that, for St. Paul, constitutes the very reality of salvation.

This brings me to my third point, namely, that the poem as a whole reflects the working of the very grace it invokes. The speaker calls on God to invade the city that is his soul. But aren’t the city’s defenses already effectively undermined? Isn’t the bill of divorcement signed, sealed, and delivered? The mere fact that the sinner is calling on God suggests that something is going on, however mysterious and invisible, to bring about deliverance. Or to put it otherwise, the poet’s invocation is a sign of faith.

Human cleverness being what it is, there is no limit to the ways we can rationalize our choice of the tools that will advance our projects. Questions of ultimate ends can be bracketed — leave it to the politicians, or leave it to our future selves — while we explore that which is “technically sweet,” and therefore self-justifying and inevitable. Such is the Oppenheimer Principle. It may be seen as the sin of willful ignorance in its specifically technocratic form.

The answer to sin in any of its forms, however, is grace — the grace that Donne so eloquently captures in this powerful sonnet. Perhaps Oppenheimer’s attraction to Donne can be explained by the latter’s ability to evoke an end — the End, in the Christian view of things — that transcends all acts of human making. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, says the Psalmist (Psalm 111:10). The same might be said of the LORD’s grace, which summons us to a humble acknowledgment of our limits — but also to proper and discerning modes of resistance to the powers that would rule our lives.

The world of the late modern, defined by nuclear weapons (which are still very much with us, nearly 80 years after Hiroshima), the ubiquitous computer, and aggressive surveillance capitalism, is our condition. But it is not our fate. As creatures of the three-person’d God, we are privileged to be participants in a much more interesting and gracious story, one that passes through this world, but is not ultimately defined by it.

[1] Donne’s poem reflects the traditional identification of Golgotha with the Garden of Eden. Medieval paintings of the Crucifixion often depict Adam’s skull at the foot of the cross.

[2] In the May 15, 1963, issue of The Christian Century, Oppenheimer included Eliot’s The Waste Land on a list of the books that had influenced him most. The full list may be found in “Plutonium and Poetry: Where Trinity and Oppenheimer’s Reading Habits Met,” by Patty Templeton.

[3] Rabi, a close friend of Oppenheimer’s, declined to be directly involved in the Manhattan Project, citing moral opposition to weapons of mass destruction. Szilard tried in vain to convince President Truman not to bomb Japan — a remarkable irony, in that it was Szilard who, in 1939, had urged Franklin Roosevelt to initiate the U.S. atomic program. See American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

[4] The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 7th edition, 2009, ed. Elizabeth Knowles.

[5] To be clear, I am not claiming that Oppenheimer was in any sense a Christian. As the Christian Century reading list suggests, he was a modern intellectual with an eclectic array of religious and spiritual interests.

[6] As a proof text, see Psalm 50:15; but really, the whole of Scripture is predicated on this assumption. Barth organized his entire ethics of Reconciliation around the theme of “invocation.” See Barth, The Christian Life, especially 44 ff.

About The Author

Joseph (Joe) Mangina is professor of theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

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4 Responses

  1. Matthew S. C. Olver

    I really appreciate this article (like everything from Joe Mangina!) and have seen the film twice.

    In terms of how Nolan presents Oppenheimer, I thought that it gave a disproportionate amount of time to his strange non-trial “trial” where his life was picked apart. While it seems fair to conclude that he was treated shamefully there, the structure of the film seems to set his work on the bomb against this other part of his life, as if his shameful treatment somehow functions as absolution or atonement for his participation in creation a weapon of mass destruction that our country used. But this seems to me both morally and spiritually confused and misleading. While the “courtroom” scenes were riveting (as well as those with the Robert Downey Jr character), I think an even more morally compelling version of the movie lets us in more on his genius as a mathematician and even on the “math” of the Manhattan Project and allow the moral ambiguity of Oppenheimer to focus instead on his struggle about how to speak and act in the face of the US dropping the bomb on two Japanese cities. He can never bring himself to say publicly that dropping the bomb was wrong, but he works hard to try and secure that it is never used again and that a hydrogen bomb not be built. Further, the way the film quote Donne in direct relationship to his choice of “Trinity project” as a name was (to me) a non-explanation explanation. It doesn’t really make sense! Well, it does, I think, if the film had let us wrestle more directly with the fact that to undertake this project is to become a god in a way that no one had ever been able to do before. This is hinted at at times (including the quote from the Gita and the rather off-handed little conversation about how there is a slight possibility that the bomb might light the globe’s atmosphere on fire). In short, there are deep moral questions raised by this rather singular story and figure; but I think the film put the emphasis in the wrong location.

  2. Neil Dhingra

    I really liked this post, too, especially as I interpreted the film a bit differently, with the Bhagavad Gita as thematic center. (The very unsubtlety of the scene in which Oppenheimer reads the Gita in Sanskrit to his lover, Jean Tatlock, seems to draw further attention to it.) Specifically, to me, the film was about how Oppenheimer, a genius with Promethean dimensions, not least in his rationalization of the atomic bomb as means to the end of all war and belief in his own agency to guide postwar American foreign policy, must learn detachment. Oppenheimer learns this painfully, as he doesn’t forcefully contest the revocation of his security clearance or gloat in his rehabilitation. “Just remember, it won’t be for you,” as Einstein tells him.

    • Joe Mangina

      I appreciate both Matthew’s and Neil’s comments. Matthew may be right concerning the film’s misplaced emphasis on the security clearance … but I wasn’t really writing about the film (as my title “Thoughts Occasioned by …” was meant to convey). It does seem true that the McCarthyite witch-hunt is meant to function as a sort of “atonement” for RJO’s sins with the bomb. As I look back on the movie, it occurs to me that Oppenheimer comes across as—how should I put it?—morally average. Rabi and Szilard have the moral high ground: they know that nothing good can come of the bomb. Teller is at the other extreme, having been bewitched by the possibilities of his “super-bomb.” Oppenheimer’s in the middle. Strauss seems to be quite right when he says near the end of the film that Oppenheimer wants to have it both ways, getting credit for the technical achievement, while maintaining an implausible distance from the decision to use—which he in fact supported! It’s all such a muddle. Though give Oppenheimer credit. As Matthew indicates, he did make an effort after the war to limit the spread of nuclear weapons; perhaps influenced by his friend and fellow Institute of Advanced Study colleague George Kennan. I need to read *American Prometheus* to learn more about this.

      Regarding Neil’s comments, I’m sure he’s right to say that from the film’s perspective the Gita is the thematic center, not John Donne. I very much like the point about Oppenheimer having to learn detachment. That makes a great deal of sense. It does help to explain why he doesn’t “fight back” against Strauss et al. on the security clearance, to his wife Kitty’s endless frustration.

      I saw the movie twice also—once with my daughter and her boyfriend in the U.K., then with my wife and son here in Toronto. It repays a second viewing.

  3. Raymond Raney

    I appreciate the argument about the politic concerning the naming of the first atomic test. Would it then seem only ironic that the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 – the Feast of the Transformation.


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