2017-05-29

Things Happen for a Reason?

You’ve probably heard – and maybe you yourself have said – things happen for a reason. Do you believe that? I mean, obviously SOME things happen for a reason, but is there a reason – not just a cause, but a reason – for every important thing that happens to you? Or are some things just coincidence?

Maybe some of us have brains that are inclined to interpret events as the unfolding of a grand purpose. Others of us have brains that are more comfortable with coincidence: sometimes life-changing events happen for no reason at all -- flukes happen. Maybe this is a genetic thing: a predisposition toward placing events in the context of some kind of intentionality or prior narrative may be normally distributed through the population based on DNA. I don’t know.

I am, myself, by nature or by nurture, more on the "a coincidence is just a coincidence" end of the spectrum. But what I’ve learned is that we can choose to make meaning out of the coincidences of our lives. Whether or not there’s a prior narrative, we can connect events with a post facto narrative. Doing so is kinda fun. It has a playful quality.

The concept of meaningful coincidences was first introduced to me about forty years ago – in a bar. I was eighteen-years-old, an undergraduate at Atlanta’s Emory University. I was in that bar with a woman a couple years older, Madeleine, a fellow student whom I’d met in British Lit class. She had a deck of Tarot cards, and she looked like she knew how to use it. I eyed the cards skeptically.

“It’s not,” she explained, “that I believe that your psyche, or the world, or anything exerts some force upon the cards as they are shuffled, causing them to turn up the way they do in an order which your personality uniquely determines. I don’t believe that. I believe some things are random, that quite a lot happens that has no reason for happening. By random chance it just happens to happen. Some things do have a reason for happening – a lot of things don’t. The shuffling of the cards creates randomness. The cards I’m about to turn up for you will have the same probability of being turned up for anybody else. The fact that your Tarot reading produces, say, the Page of Cups here and the Seven of Pentacles there is simple coincidence.”

She was apparently conceding everything to the skeptical debunkers – except that the debunkers infer from the randomness of the way the cards come up to a conclusion that Tarot readings are useless. Madeleine didn't draw that inference. She set about to present me with a layout of thirteen cards – thirteen little mere coincidences, and she suggested ways that the cards in the different positions interrelated into an overall story. It was then up to me to choose whether to make this coincidence meaningful to me. I could decide to make it part of my identity that I’m the guy that the Tarot cards just happened on that particular day to produce that particular story and lift up that particular set of interwoven reminders.

I know that after that build-up, you would like to know what those cards said on that day, but I don't remember that. The point that I’ve carried with me is the idea that the way we make sense of our lives is largely a matter of deciding to give or see meaning in certain of the coincidences of life. Something like Tarot or palm reading or astrology or the I Ching affords an opportunity to think a little more about who you are, to exercise your faculty of deciding what meaning to make of chance events.

Consider, for instance, the year you were born. Certainly, we are made who we are by the world we were born into. Yet the exact specific events that happened to happen in the year of your birth are just a coincidence – available for each of us to creatively play with and fabricate stories of who we are. I happened to have been born in Richmond, Virginia in 1959 – a child of Yankee parents born in the capital of the confederacy, coming into the world the same year that the last surviving civil war veteran left it. That mixture in some ways identifies me. I grew up in Dixie – in small towns in North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia – but with the more Northern sensibility of my parents: not a northerner, but never quite at home among the pick-up trucks, the rebel flags, and the segregation either.

In 1959, Castro came to power, and the Dalai Lama went into exile: Cuba gained a dictator that many Cubans didn’t want, and Tibet lost a spiritual leader that many Tibetans dearly loved. That mixture also points to something about me: I’m suspicious of political revolution, while yearning for spiritual revolution.

An interplanetary future was dawning. 1959 saw the first moon landing, Russia’s Lunik II. The US sent up a couple of monkeys into outer space and brought them back alive. Also that year, jazz musician Ornette Coleman introduced free improvisation – a musical style of making it up as you go along. I remember these last two bits when I find myself feeling rather like a monkey in orbit, making it up as I go along.

Each of us arrived where we are today through some strange and winding series of accidents -- an unlikely and elaborate chain of happenstances. Yet here we are -- a unique and improbable agglomeration of personalities. What an amazing, glorious fluke! We come together to care for each other, affirm and strengthen our common values, work out a way to engage the wider world. We gather to make community, a home of what is of ultimate worth, and to awaken to everything included in this grand fluke.

2017-05-05

There Is No God, and She Is Always With You

Something called “Spiritual Atheism” is a growing phenomenon. An internet search will turn up lots of material, and recent books by Chris Stedman (Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious) and Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion) also support religion and spirituality without endorsing a traditionally theist, personal God. De Botton argues that atheists, instead of deriding religion should steal from it because
“the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.”
A decade ago, a spate of books appeared that were grouped together as “The New Atheism.” The new atheists included Sam Harris (The End of Faith, 2004), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell, 2006), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great, 2007). These books derided belief in God and also despised faith, spirituality, religion, and religious institutions. What we’re now seeing is a New New Atheism that doesn’t want to deride anything. While still disbelieving in God, this New New Atheism values faith, spirituality, and religion.

The idea that there is no God is actually a staple of Christian Theology going back centuries. The 9th-century Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena, for example, wrote:
“We do not know what God is. God himself doesn’t know what he is because he is not anything. Literally, God is not, because he transcends being.”
Got that? This is a Christian theologian saying that God does not exist. Eriugena also says God isn't nonexistent in the way that, say, unicorns or good mass-market American beer are nonexistent. Rather God transcends the categories of existence and nonexistence, being and nonbeing.

To get a handle on Eriugena’s point, consider the commandment in Exodus and Leviticus prohibiting idolatry. The prohibition may have begun as a practice of tribal identity: “We’re the people who don’t do statues.” It may have started that way, but the ban on idols ended up pointing the Hebrew people toward something important. As a statue is fixed and static and unchanging, a person might also have certain ideas, beliefs, concepts that become fixed and static. The commandment against idols came to be understood as not just about statues but about any concept or thought-pattern that has become fixed and rigid. By abjuring graven images, the Hebrew people were subtly reoriented toward a conception of God as dynamic, unfolding, and always beyond whatever you can imagine, always other than anything you think.

The divine creative movement of the universe is dynamic, changing. Human understanding is ever unfolding. Idolatry means clinging to a fixed, static conception; closing ourselves to new learning. This, I think, is what John Scotus Eriugena was on about. Any time someone says God exists, she has some idea of what this God is that exists. This is problematic because any concept at all, if you’re stuck on it, is an idol. As soon as you have an idea of God – any idea – smash that idol and return to a stance of total openness to whatever the world might present to you without forcing it into one or another of your preconceived conceptual categories.

If you were to sincerely practice living this way, you would find yourself saying a lot of things that contradict other things you’ve said. Congratulations. That means you’re not making idols of your past statements.

“God” might mean community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; or the cosmos. These, too, are concepts that could become idols. By saying “God” we are also saying more than all of these definitions. Or rather, maybe, less.

We’re saying X – while at the same time whispering “but remember, also not X.” By saying “God,” we are invoking a tradition which, for all its abuses and its nonsense, also includes the reminder that all our ideas are inadequate, a tradition which calls us to smash our idols, a tradition that says there is more there than our words can say – so much more that even our truest words are also false to the fullness of the mystery within which we live and breathe and have our being.

There is no God – that is, there is no possible concept that can encapsulate all of the wonder and the paradox that is this dear life – the wonder and the paradox that is directly staring us in the face every moment, saying, “hey you, knock over the idols of what you think you know and wake up.”

Whatever you think you know, this moment has something new and fresh to teach you. Are you listening? Are you looking? Always. For there is no God, and she is always with you -- whispering: “Pay attention.”