In God We Trust
The fellow who picked me up at the St. Louis airport was the same fellow with whom I’d made all the arrangements for my trip to the college. Throughout the months-long process, I’d found Tom Calloway a complete pleasure to work with, and it was therefore a comfort to me that my companion for the hour-long trip to the college would be the same fellow who’d already become my buddy through phone and email.
One necessary arrangement prior to my visit had been the decision about just what I might talk about in my presentation to the college community. In recent years, my main topic for an hour-long stand-up-monologue had been the idea that the moral division in contemporary America should be seen less as an occasion for conflict between some “Us,” who are right, and some “Them,” who are wrong, than as a challenge to all of us to find some higher wisdom that can bring together the parts of the truth that each side possesses. When the college had first expressed interest in my speaking there, it was this I’d supposed I’d come talk about.
But the president of the college had read The Parable of the Tribes years ago and proposed that I present my core idea of that work– about what had happened to humankind in the ten millennia since the evolution of civilization had begun, and about how anarchy had turned our species’ apparent freedom to invent its way of life into a cruel subordination to the rule of power.
There were two reasons I was hesitant about doing that topic. For one thing, eight years ago I’d stopped doing it because I felt it was time for me to move on to other things, for the sake of my creativity. I didn’t want to become like Eugene O’Neill’s father, who played the Count of Monte Crisco for so many years that it had stifled the unfolding of his art. Re-entering that old space seemed like reviving an old self. And I didn’t feel eager to do that.
The second reason for my hesitancy was my trepidation about how my perspective on human destiny might clash with the nature of the college. The college was quite definitely religiously-based, not just in the residual way of many of those fine liberal arts colleges founded long ago by people with a religious mission on their minds. This college existed for the sake of providing the youth of its denomination with a good education that would strengthen their practice of, and identification with, their faith. My theory of the evolution of civilization was built upon a Darwinian foundation. Although it contained a vital space for the idea of the sacred, in my account the human drama unfolds without a Creator in the cast. Would my presentation, I wondered, run afoul of the basic worldview of the audience?
The president and I discussed this. At my request he reread the first chapter of Parable –he’d read it long before he’d come to this college– and afterward he reiterated his request that I present those ideas.
So here I was, on a snowy evening in January, driving together with Tom Calloway in the college van, when he asked me what I was working on these days. I told him about my “unfolding” project, starting with my initial idea that there is a beauty and a wisdom to letting things unfold rather than trying too much to impose control upon them. “That’s how my wife and I travel,” is what Tom offered right away as a response. I encouraged Tom to tell me more, which he seemed glad to do, having just recently come back from a winter-break trip to India. Each year, he said, they do something similar in one part of the world or another.
“We study up, before we go anyplace, so we have at least some notion of the general nature and lay-out of the country we’re going to.” I thought immediately of how it is the “prepared mind” that’s favored by the course of “accidental” unfoldings. Tom continued, “And we book some place to stay for the first couple of nights, so we can get our bearings and recover from jet lag, and such. But beyond that, we just try to tune in sensitively on the signs and signals around us, and just let the rest of the trip unfold till it’s time to come home, taking our adventures where we find them.”
Right away I remembered that caller (the traveler sans itinerary) to my show about “the forces that shape our lives”– remembered, too, what I’d not thought to ask that caller but came to wonder later: just what was it –in himself, in the world, or in the interaction between the two– that the caller imagined could be trusted to allow that “unfolding” approach to work? So now I asked Tom.
Tom’s answer was quite straightforward. “I know that, if I put my faith in the Lord, I can trust He’ll see that things unfold right. God is always there offering to give us just what we need, if we but pay attention to what He is telling us.”
Faith in God’s providence. I doubt that’s the answer my more hippy-sounding caller would have given. My thought went back to the idea that the greater one’s trust in the forces operating independently of one’s own controlling will, the less one will feel a need to impose control on the flow. And what more reassuring trust could there be than the belief that the Almighty Creator of the Universe continually provides everything we need, if only our frame of mind is sufficiently receptive.
In God we trust. This old and venerable idea had arisen early in my project but one that, I now realized, I’d not pursued very far– probably because it did not fit easily into my own customary belief system. Here was a chance to go back into it. I asked Tom if he could give me any concrete example from his recent trip that would illustrate the workings of God’s providence.
Tom said that in fact there was a fine example, and he then proceeded to tell the tale of how he and his wife had managed to get home from India. There were problems, it turned out, with their return tickets. He and his wife had thus found themselves, the day before they were supposed to come back, with no apparent way to return. Because of the time of the year, moreover, every seat on every flight was booked. It did not look good. To one without faith, Tom suggested, their situation might have looked hopeless. But they put their faith the Lord and, as it turned out, by a couple of happenstances –being in the right place at the right time– lo and behold they were given seats on a flight to London. (From there their previous reservations put them in good stead.) So they made it home without the terrible inconvenience that, at one point, had looked to the objective eye to be inevitable.
I asked Tom a few questions to make sure I understood how events had unfolded, and then, after pondering the picture a while, I asked Tom if he minded if I –as a man of little faith– asked him some questions about how he comes to his interpretation of those events. He was entirely open to it, he said.
“I’m glad that everything worked out for you and your wife,” I began. “At the same time, if I were to go through precisely the same experiences you did, I’m not sure I’d see the hand of the Almighty at work in my deliverance. For example, I imagine that in the course of your life there are times when things do not fall into place as readily as they did with the tickets out of India. Am I right?” And he agreed that, yes, sometimes things don’t work out so smoothly. “So, let me ask the question this way. Well, first, let me ask you what a worst-case –or at least a bad-case—scenario would have been with these tickets in India?” Tom indicated that it had appeared they might have ended up being stuck in India a week or so longer than they had wanted. “OK,” I continued, “if things had worked out that way –which, I gather, sometimes in your life they do– how would you have interpreted it? Would you have assumed that somehow staying in India a week, instead of getting home on time, was what you really needed?”
“Maybe that,” Tom replied. “More likely, I’d conclude that I hadn’t listened well enough to what God was trying to tell me.”
I pondered this a while, as the windshield wipers swept back and forth across the van window so that we could see the dark paved road ahead of us despite the swirling snowflakes. “Is there any scenario, then, that you can imagine that, if it happened, you would see as evidence against the proposition that God is always offering you everything you need?”
Tom thought some, and then responded, “Can’t think of any.”
Test of Faith
Envy. That’s at least a part of how I respond to faith like Tom’s. The world he sees himself as living in is a friendlier place than the one I inhabit. And I’d prefer his.
From growing up in a home where I could trust that my parents were looking out for me, I knew something of the comfort of such security. It was a feeling that I’ve sometimes missed since I’ve been out on my own. I’d like to have Tom’s faith in a providential God. Or the faith of Rosemary Daugherty, of the previously-mentioned Shaleem Institute, that “God is in love with us.”
But I cannot find a basis for such faith. The night that Tom delivered me to the college, and to my quite comfortable accommodations there –at least I could agree that the college was providential– I had a few hours before my usual bedtime in which to read and think and do yoga. It occurred to me that a major obstacle to my believing in Tom’s all-caring, all-providing God was deeply connected with the very matters the college had asked me to come to talk about: the way that history has unfolded in such an agonizing, destructive, nightmarish way.
How do you maintain a belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, good God, I wondered, in the face of the terrible things that have happened to people throughout history –that continue to happen to people all the time? Not to the evil only, sparing the good. Not to the infidels only, sparing the faithful. History is not a record of justice of any kind, as far as I could see, by any criteria. History looks, I thought, as I skimmed over my Parable in preparation for my talk the following evening, like just what you’d expect if things were simply unfolding in an ungoverned system, one that cannot see even as far as its headlights, having no headlights and, for that matter, no road ahead. Bushwhacking in the dark.
Our world has been one where people get ground up in the wheels of power, which unfolds its reign, unchecked, in the anarchy that obtains when a creative animal inadvertently forges an evolutionary process into terra incognita. Here was a line in Parable: [get precise quote} “It is said that the meek inherit the earth, but too often it is only enough earth to cover over their bodies.”
After I returned from my speaking trip, I got an email message from my friend Phil –the fellow who’d cohosted that show about creativity in our lives. Phil was forwarding a variety of little jokes and other entertaining messages that had come his way. One of them read:
“This is God. I will be handling all your problems today and
will not need your help.
So have a good day.”
I laughed, and thought enviously of those friends of mine who wake up every day to such a message. I decided to call one of them. Who is there, I asked myself, with whom I can talk about what’s on my mind? It should be someone who possesses that faith I lack, and who’d also not be affronted by my skepticism about the possibility of reconciling that faith with the evidence, or by my voicing my suspicion that such faith is held independently of any assessment of the evidence whatever– as with Tom’s inability even to imagine a disconfirming scenario.
The person who seemed right for such a conversation was my friend Merle, the Methodist minister who, earlier in the project, had written me about the value of surrendering to the will of God. I called him at the church, where the secretary told me that he was out. That evening I called him at home, only to get a machine. As I was doing a radio show the next day, I didn’t leave a message, in order to spare him the trouble of calling and getting my machine. Merle’s often not that easy to reach, so I figured I’d leave a message if I didn’t get him the following evening.
But lo and behold, on that try twenty-four hours later, Merle himself picked up the phone.
“Merle, is it really you?” I exclaimed. “What a privilege to reach his reverendship himself!” I joked, and then, upon noticing the phrase I’d just used, I broke into singing, in the tenor range, one of my favorite hymns, “What a privilege to carry….” At which Merle said, “You surprise me once again. So you know our hymns, too?”
“I love the Protestant hymns,” I replied. “In fact, I was thinking just the other day that two things I really treasure from the Christian tradition are the old Protestant hymns and the sacred choral music.”
“Yeah, they’re pretty good,” Merle conceded. “But I’d put the promise of eternal life right up there, too.” And we both laughed with great vigor, the humor being, I suppose, our both knowing that however great I might acknowledge that third treasure to be, it wasn’t one that I, faithless skeptic that I am, could have put on my list.
Which led reasonably easily into the subject I wanted to talk with Merle about. So I told Merle about Tom’s faith, and about my sense of the evidence of history. And Merle made mention of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People to indicate, I supposed, that this is long-standing problem. This was a book I’d read as part of my researches for Living Posthumously, and I’d been favorably surprised by it, having thought that a book so popular would be offering up some shallow pop spirituality rather than the humanly rich exploration that I found. Here was a man of faith, wrestling with the implications of the torment suffered by his son, a child born with a congenital disease that eventually killed him.
“The rabbi who wrote that book,” I reminded Merle, “ended up feeling that the evidence of the bad things that happen required him to relinquish a crucial part of the traditional image of God. An all-powerful, all-good God, he figured, could never allow an innocent child to be subjected to such torture. Something had to be thrown overboard, so the rabbi gave up the idea of omnipotence. He ends up with a God who cares a lot, but can’t control all that unfolds. Is that what you do with it, Merle?”
“No, it isn’t,” he responded in a quiet, thoughtful tone.
“So how do you look at the problem?”
“I see it as a major test of faith,” he responded.
“And how does one pass, and how fail, that test?” I asked.
“To believe is to pass the test.”
“Well, I’m a Schmookler,” I replied. “And I was brought up to understand the pass/fail system differently. One of my father’s funny and earthy expressions was that one should ‘Grab the bull by the tail and look the facts squarely in the face.’ And so I can’t see how to pass the test on your terms. I feel like Luther nailing his Feces on the door at Wurm and declaring, ‘I can do no other.'”
“I can’t get over how much you –a heathen like you– know so much more than a lot of the folks in my faithful flock about their own tradition.”
“Knowing much, yet can’t pass the test.”
Be Not Afraid
The feeling was a first cousin of that disgruntled feeling I’d had a while back when Calvin had been celebrating the joys of trusting the universe, a feeling composed both of thinking that I knew better and suspecting that I might be missing out on something important. Is the world as dangerous and anarchic a place as the evidence seemed, to me, to reveal? Or are there in operation invisible forces that afford protections that those of little faith, like me, fail to apprehend?
In the midst of such disgruntlement, I received an email from Louise. She’s that artist in New Mexico who’d written earlier about the Taoist vision, about how that informed her way of creating her art, and how she hoped that I’d write a Taoist classic as I pursued the question of unfolding.
Of the various elements of her warm and chatty message, the one that most caught my attention included a brief passage from somewhere: “Fear is so fundamental to the human condition that all the great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to overcome its effects on our lives. With different words, they all proclaim the same core message: ‘Be not afraid.'” 
I really liked the passage. And I didn’t know what to make of it. Was it wise? Was it just glib? I remembered those Meir Baba posters some people I knew had on their walls in the late 1960s: they read, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Of course, that feels better. But how does that square with, say, the Aesop’s fable about the ants and the grasshoppers. Who wouldn’t rather be a grasshopper– if only ours were a world where winter never comes? Of course, we might assume that ants do all their preparations for winter without the burden of any physiological worrying. But what are human beings to do, not being wired to do instinctually all that is needed to secure our future? We have to contend not only with the world we evolved in, with its sequence of seasons, but also with the world that we create by exercising our powers that are both unprecedented and unregulated by instinct. Would “Be Not Afraid” be good advice for a creature that may be bringing onto itself and its planet a catastrophe of global climate change?
Fear is no fun. It is, in the terms I’d used in my conversation with Eric about the value –or lack of it– of the jackal approach, a “negative motivator.” In that, it is like guilt and shame, and indeed it is part of the working of guilt and shame.
I recalled now how Eric and I had briefly discussed fear. Why, I’d asked him, was it so obviously a bad thing (or whatever the NVC equivalent of “bad thing” might be) to make some use of fear in one’s dealings with people, to motivate them and/or to shape their character? Of course, whatever could be accomplished with the use only of positive motivators, like love and compassion, ought to be done that way. But why was it self-evident to Eric that it is a mistake to employ fear in dealing with a child –like “If I find your toys scattered all over the house like this again this week, I’ll put them away myself, and you’ll not be allowed to play with them for a week”– given that fear (e.g. the fear of falling) works as a natural and constructive motivator in helping us navigate our way safely in the natural world?
The resulting exchange was similar to our discussion of anger. Eric questioned my assertion about fear playing a natural and constructive role. As with the case of anger, he’d not accepted my argument that fear is a natural part of our evolved emotional repertoire. But what I recollect more clearly is what we said about the question of fear’s constructive value.
I maintained that I’m glad to have a bit of fear in me when I’m driving –enough fear, anyway, to remind me that, at 65 miles per hour, a collision would be very bad news, enough to keep me motivated to keep my eyes on the road, even if I might prefer to be looking at something else. Eric had replied that he thought that fear actually interfered with driving well, and made some argument about the debilitating effects of fear. I’d responded with a brief comment differentiating between fear, which I thought could be useful when appropriate, and panic, which could well interfere with a competent response to danger. But by this time, I knew that Eric and I were not going to get anywhere on this, and I dropped the matter.
Now, here was Louise with that lovely passage about “Be Not Afraid,” and I was stewing in a mix of puzzlement and disgruntlement on just what to make of it, whether to embrace it as wisdom, or reject it as comforting folly, or what. Out of this stewing, I cooked up this message to send Louise:
“‘Be Not Afraid.’ I like the sound of it, but it raises questions in my mind: Is ‘be not afraid’ good advice? If it is, why is it?
“Is the idea that there’s nothing to be afraid of? That’s a tough one for me. As I see the world, it’s a place where terrible things can happen. Or is the idea that they’re really not so terrible as they seem, that even if you get oppressed or tortured or killed, there’s a heaven or some such Bigger Compensation that makes them unimportant?
“Is the idea that even if terrible things might happen to us, it’s not of any use to experience fear in relation to them? I’m not sure I understand that one, either. Fear, as I see it, is something we’re built to be able to experience for a good reason, same as we’re built to be able to experience hunger and love and joy. In some circumstances, fear gets us to do what we need to do. Or are we to believe that our fear response is a mistake in our design?
“(I think of something I once heard about in my adolescence. There was a kid in my aunt’s neighborhood who had some congenital condition which prevented him from experiencing pain. My first thought was, boy, that would be great! Then I learned about the problems. The kid evidently did things like jump out of trees. And, partly because of his less cautious behavior, he’d suffer various injuries, including broken legs. And because he couldn’t feel the pain, he didn’t know he’d hurt himself. He’d not protect his injuries, or get treatment, so those injuries would not heal well. It turned out that feeling no pain was not such a great blessing.)
“Or is the idea that we are likely to experience more fear than is necessary to alert us to dangers, that for some reason we go overboard in our fear response and could do as well with just a fraction of the fear? (So maybe the idea could be toned down to ‘Be less afraid’?)
“Is the idea that even though the fear we experience does serve some useful purpose, the experiential costs of that fear on the quality of our lives exceeds the benefits that it confers? Might it be, for example, that our fearfulness was appropriate under the circumstances in which our design evolved, but has now become, in our more secure circumstances, a useless and unpleasant atavism, a burden we no longer need to carry around with us?
“Anyway, I have no difficulty in understanding how much more wonderful our experiential space would be –in any given moment– if we were able to follow that injunction, ‘Be not afraid.’ I don’t need to have it explained what the costs are of carrying fear around. I observe the effects of fear in my own daily and moment-to-moment life. I understand that –so long as I’m taking care of all that needs to be taking care of– I’d be a lot happier, more open to life’s joys, etc., without that fear.
“But why it would be that we would be filled with fears that we ought not to have, or to a degree that is not called for?
“How, then, should we regard that injunction, ‘Be not afraid’? I’m genuinely struggling with that question, and I’d appreciate any help you can offer me with it, Louise. ANDY”
##”It’s the opiate of the people, as the still-apt saying goes.” This was my friend Carrey, whom I’d told of my conversations with Tom and Merle. (I hadn’t said anything to him about my “Be Not Afraid” emailing with Louise.) “Don’t worry yourself about it.”
Carry had again just dropped by, and again, we were off on one of our bushwhacking walks.
I reframed my concern in terms of the unfolding project. “It’s really an important question what kind of cosmos we live in. If it’s a friendly place, or at least ruled over by some benign Being, or Force, that fact would bear on how uncontrolling we’re wise to be in our posture toward the world.”
“For centuries,” he replied, “the world was obviously such an unfriendly place –famines, pestilence, and the other Horsemen– that it would have been hard to bear without positing a whole unseen realm of Providence on whom –despite all the evidence– one could rely. So people in the grip of these terribly unfriendly forces carved out a little place in their imagination where they could lean back into the arms of Something that cared about them.”
“Well, I’m not sure that’s all it is.”
“Whatever. Anyway, speaking of opiates, I’ve been thinking about how tough it can be to adjust to having less pain. More particularly, I’m aware these days of how the folks in the hard-scrabble country where I live are, in spiritual terms, kind of beached on the shores of the newfound affluence of recent generations. It’s mostly a blessing for these people, I suppose, that the era of economic growth has made their survival less terribly precarious than their grandparents’, let alone that of their more distant ancestors. But it brings problems, too. Like the problem of finding a way for life to be real.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“When life was hard, it was the desperation itself that made things real. When you’re right up against it, you don’t need to do anything to discover a connection with reality, with meaning. It may not be pretty, but it’s real– if you’re hungry, if your delirious with fever, if you’re having to bury your children. Maybe more reality than you can take. (At least without an opiate.) But what happens when, in the space of a relatively short time, people manage to rebuild their world so that the hard hand of the barest necessity is no longer on their throats. They can relax, some. But into what? What’s going to fill the reality gap that was left behind?
“What I’ve been thinking about is how it’s hard for these people to make their lives seem really vital these days, not having any long-established traditional resources to see the world in terms of their opportunities instead of just their dangers. That’s their spiritual challenge. And mostly, so far, I see two approaches, neither of them all that successful. One is to keep going in the old Bible-thumping way; the other is to just enjoy the consumerist pleasures of TV and beer (and raising hell when they’re tired of the first and had plenty of the second). The old-time-religion approach seems kind of desiccated, now that it’s not being fueled by the harsh necessities of the old life. The consumerist approach seems flaccid and empty.
“It’ll be interesting to see what they’re able to create for themselves in the next few generations, if the world of economic plenty is able to keep going that long.”**
A few days later, Anton Berg invited me out for a walk. In view of his age, the walks we took were along the country roads, not bushwhacking like my hikes with Carrey. But his pace was pretty strong. Put Anton on a relatively smooth surface and he’d tick right along.
“I found myself wondering,” Anton began, once we were on our way, “what use you’d made, if any, of that conversation we had about George Washington. I know that it was percolating in your mind.”
I confirmed Anton’s expectation that our conversation about Washington had stimulated my thinking, and told him how it connected with an immediately previous conversation I’d had with someone (Eric) who denied we had any need whatever for the elements of control. To him, there was nothing “ideal” about the kind of top-down ordering that Washington represented, what with his firm command of his temper (at the intrapsychic level) and his commanding presence (at the level of the newly-forming nation). From there, I told Anton how our Washington conversation had led me back to my theme of recent years concerning the polarization of American culture on matters of moral vision, and how my train of thought had concluded with the idea that each side of that polarization tends not to honor that dimension of the sacred represented by the other, one side denigrating the nature within us and the other rejecting the structures imposed by ordering principles.
Anton listened to all this intently. “That’s quite interesting,” he said when I’d finished. “Partly, but not entirely, what I’d expected.”
“What else had you expected?”
“There was your quote from John Adams,” Anton replied, “where he declares that he’s a warrior, so that his son could be a statesman, and so that then his son might be a poet, or some such thing. Did you go anywhere with that?”
I admitted that I’d not, that in fact it had slipped my mind. He indicated his suspicion that there might be more of possible value to my project for me to harvest out of the issues we’d touched on together.
“I would not be the least surprised,” I said, evidently with a note of exasperation, for it was that note to which he responded.
“What’s behind that tight-lipped comment?” he asked.
“What’s behind it, Anton, is that –after all this– I still sometimes feel in over my head in this endeavor. There’s plenty I’ve traveled through, plenty of riches I’ve accumulated along the way. But I don’t feel I’ve surveyed and mapped the terrain very adequately. (Not like your buddy George!” I jested to Anton, bringing us back to his hero, Washington.) “So much matter to form together. So little insight into just how it should all be ordered.”
He commiserated. Then he comforted. Then he reassured. “Give what you’ve got. That’s all there is to do. If you don’t pretend to be doing any more than that, you’ll be of more use at least than those who pose as knowing more than they do.”
“Which brings us,” I replied, “back to that other hero –old Soc– doesn’t it?”
For the rest of the walk, we dealt with entirely other matters. So it was not until later in the afternoon that my thoughts returned to that previous conversation about George Washington as one embodiment of the ideal, and about John Adams pointing the way to an ideal progression of concerns from generation to generation.
This time I tuned in on what Anton had said about Washington’s role in the formation of a nation during a chaotic period when things might have gone in different –perhaps dangerously different– directions, as we’ve seen in the unfolding history of many other newly-formed nations. Just as I’d hypothesized that the more trustworthy and benign the forces in operation, the less the need for control, so also contrariwise: in an imperfect and dangerous world, the best possible embodiment of the ideal will have a large proportion of control in the mix. A warrior, a ruler, an upright man– fitting for a world where disordering passions can lead to strife, and where the play of power remains problematic.
Not for nothing, I thought, have civilized societies –perennially threatened by the disorders of tyranny and anarchy– held the just ruler and the fair-minded judge among the most positive emblems of the human good.
At the same time, the quote from John Adams pointed to an aspiration, a direction toward which the human project would ideally be heading. The greater the disorder of the world, the more need we’ll have of the rigid figure on horseback to help make the world safe for— well, for whatever kind of beautiful flow of which we might be capable. Safe for the tranquility of the Buddha, sitting not on the steed who can carry him into battle but directly on the earth, beneath the Boddhi tree, looking not outward to navigate through the dangers but inward toward some sacred spring accessible at our core.
An intriguing parallel now struck me: just as I had written about how it has been necessary for the concept of sin to evolve along with the evolving circumstances of human society, so also can we aspire to an evolution in the nature of the human ideal. New circumstances make new demands, I’d said, that may stretch us past where our nature directs us, thus leading to an evolution of sin. At the same time, I now thought, the successful displacement of dangerous chaos by good order makes possible an evolution toward a more flowing, less controlling human posture.
In a perfectly ordered world –the thought came to me– the direction where things naturally tend to flow would be identical with where they would ideally go. Mathematically, perhaps it could be expressed as an equation in which x + y = 1, where x equals how closely the natural tendency corresponds to the ideal, and where y equals how much of the dance needs to be comprised of the element of control.
Humankind might conceive its aspiration –its challenge– as being to create so well-ordered a world that x displaces y in the equation.
My conversation with Eric had revolved around his maintaining –taking a position consistent, it seemed, with the views of the NVC movement– that y already equals zero. From such a viewpoint, what’s to appreciate about a man like Washington?
In a completely well-ordered world, the virtues of a Washington might be unnecessary. But we’re not in that world yet. (Neither the world that surrounds us nor, it seems to me, the world within us either.) A world thus ordered, I thought, is something that still awaits our putting it together.
The Evolution of Sin (the final installment)
It was by now a familiar pattern. When I stopped pushing to get somewhere, I made progress. As if there were some current that carried me without my paddling. When I put the task aside, some piece of it would get done. As if there were something playing elves to my shoemaker.
In the evening after my walk with Anton, I felt like taking a break from a task that seemed so often to impress upon me the vastness of my ignorance. The next day I decided to pick on some jobs my own size. I got up and did some yoga to loosen my tight places, and went out to do yard work, starting with the gathering of branches that had blown down in some more secluded but not wholly wild parts of our property. From there I graduated into gathering rocks from the woods and planting them in a little trench I’d prepared some days before to form a boundary separating a flower garden from the driveway. My mind was blessedly free of Big Questions. And then, while I was shaking the dust out of a rug off our back deck, I realized something: I was ready to complete that piece I’d begun on “The Evolution of Sin.”
Perhaps the last piece of that puzzle had been jogged into place by my image of that well-ordered world that awaits our putting it together.
The essay on “The Evolution of Sin” had embraced the paradox that seemed to run through this whole question of flow and control. The paradox that everything, at some level, was flow. And yet also, that we, in the midst of that flow, are called upon to make the effort to exert the necessary controls. The paradox that some moral principles must be as carved in stone in our hearts; while at the same time even what is carved in stone must be liquid enough to flow as the human project itself unfolds.
The last passage thus far in the piece had read: “We need channels to govern our unfolding. And we also need to build those channels of materials that are themselves capable of unfolding. The channel controls the river. But it is also true that the river cuts the channel.”
All of which connected with another paradox in the human condition, as I saw it. Whereas people like my friend Merle and like Tom Gallaway (whose God had provided a way for him and his wife to get back safely from India) saw us as flowing in a river already laid out by the Omniscient One, I saw us as moving into spaces into which nothing, and No One, had gone before. Whereas they saw us as tenants in an establishment already fully constructed by an Eternal Landlord, I saw us as being both the creatures of some cosmic evolutionary process way beyond ourselves and the necessary creators of an order that does not yet exist.
The order we inherit won’t do– neither the overarching system of the cosmos, nor the biological order out of which we emerged, nor the cultural order that has developed thus far in history. We are pioneers, and we need to make our own maps.
I looked at that final phrase I’d left in order to point toward the next segment of the unfolding of my essay –it was “The Moving Boundaries of the Larger Wholes”– and I saw that where the piece wanted to go was into the heart of the problem underlying the parable of the tribes: the anarchy obtaining among societies, the overarching lack of order that has made the world so persistently dangerous for humankind since civilization emerged out of the evolution of life.
I’d already argued that sin was to be understood as something not fixed for all time but continuing to evolve in tandem with the changing circumstances of humankind– a point I’d illustrated by showing how, as the sphere of human interaction widened, the moral demands pressed upon people intensified. The example I’d given was the progression from the kind of family-based band society in which we had evolved biologically to the larger and more complex social systems that followed upon the breakthrough to civilization. Moral systems –exemplified by the Ten Commandments– were then needed to press our inborn human nature into a new form.
But the process that necessitated such adjustments was not completed in one move. It has continued to unfold. One illustrative arena of moral controversy in our own times is the clash between the traditionalist adherents to the ideals of strict national sovereignty and the progressive advocates of movement toward greater world order. Just as I’d tried earlier in the essay to use the perspective of “the evolution of sin” to illuminate the meaning of current controversies over environmentalism, so now I wanted to conclude the piece by highlighting this other dimension of harmonious order humankind is now challenged to create –a more integrated world order– as both the possibilities for achieving it and the potential costs of failing to do so increase in the contemporary world.
I went into the house, and this is how I concluded the essay.
The Moving Boundaries of the Larger Wholes
Morality has always had boundaries. And the boundaries have always been a function of how far social evolution has moved toward knitting together the larger human system.
It is clear that those commandments handed down at Sinai were not universal in their scope. “Thou shalt not kill” referred to murder within the social body, and that commandment was definitely not to be understood as the endorsement of a universalized pacifism, for the same God who forbade this killing also commanded His children to wipe out peoples who stood in the way of their manifest destiny. The same God who commanded that we not steal also sent His people soon thereafter to seize the lands of the Canaanites.
Why this inconsistency? Is it a form of hypocrisy?
No, the reason for this moral boundary lies elsewhere. What is constant is the question, “What is life-serving?” The variable is the answer that can be given under different circumstances.
Since the emergence, in the last several thousand years, of the great religious traditions of humankind, there has been a continuous impetus toward the universalization of our moral strictures. But the tendency toward universalization of human morality has continuously bumped up against the fact of the fragmentation of the human system.
Moral injunctions like the Ten Commandments began to govern when the knitting together of many families into a larger society became both necessary and possible. That scope of order inevitably came much sooner than could the knitting together of diverse societies into one morally ordered Humankind. Among sovereign societies, the human system has remained fragmented.
In a fragmented system, one continually confronts the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which can be stated: “What happens if I act unselfishly, but the other –or all the others– act ruthlessly toward me?” At the heart of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is the inability of the actors to effect an agreement for cooperative action that will serve all the parties’ best interests. If we cannot make a solid arrangement to act in concert, conduct that is moral –that is, altruistic, unselfish– is liable to be unreciprocated. And the unilateral practice of altruism can prove, for the practitioners, not life-serving but life-destroying.
Every extension of the application of moral rules, therefore, represents a kind of peace treaty. Each actor pledges, in exchange for similar pledges from the other actors, to follow those rules that would characterize the healthiest possible whole.
At each point in human social evolution, the scope of moral principles has depended on the answer to the question: how large a whole is it possible to create for whose benefit the parts can reasonably be exhorted not to act selfishly?
Such wholes emerge gradually; fragmentation is not an all-or-nothing thing.
Even in a highly fragmented system, a limited amount of cooperation might be achieved. Among some desert tribes of old, for example, where societies’ relations to each other were virtually confined to the zero-sum games of raid and skirmish and warfare, it was considered positively a virtue to lie, steal and cheat when dealing with those outside the group. Even where that remained true, however, in time the same desert tribes that might plunder each other in some situations were able to enshrine, as a central moral obligation, the ethic of hospitality.
“Take care of the well-being of the traveling stranger” is a moral notion that –representing a kind of peace treaty– made the world a safer place for all. It preceded any more comprehensive peace-making because such hospitality could be extended without great risk to the one who practiced it, even in a disordered system where the reciprocation of others could not be enforced. In this case, the costs of being the only altruist –the unreciprocated good host– are not disastrous.
The impetus to universalize morality is thus continually struggling against the reality, in a fragmented system, of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
In our times, the increasing knitting of the world together into one interconnected system is making it steadily more possible to displace the old zero-sum conflicts with moral synergies. To the hospitality of the desert tribes, we are now struggling to add mutually beneficial agreements about national conduct such as nuclear non-proliferation treaties and planetary accords on global environmental matters.
Stability and Evolution
Conservatism is an inherent aspect of life, and indispensable to it. That’s why we wear a lead apron when we get our teeth x-rayed. We understand that random mutation is, almost always, a form of damage; we want to keep our genetic heritage unchanged so that we can convey it intact to our offspring.
At the same time, if there were no mutations, we’d still be one-celled creatures –or less!– afloat in the seas. From moment to moment, in the history of life, conservation of “what is” predominates; but this “what is” must be understood not just as continuity, but also, over the long haul, as the accumulated product of countless changes. And in times of rapid environmental change, it is the adaptable who prove to be the best able to perpetuate the heritage of life.
If the human project is going to work out, it is important that we bear forward the ancient moral understanding that we are not free to do whatever we wish; that there are some things we should do and some that we should not; that, because of the freedom and powers that humanity has gained, we are obliged to consider a bigger picture than that contained in our own immediate impulses, and to conform our behavior to the needs of the larger wholes in which our immediate pleasures are contained; that we have a duty to avoid sin.
But, at the same time, it’s also true that if this human project is going to work out, this ancient moral understanding must make room for the evolving, and not static, nature of sin. For we are embarked upon a journey into terra incognita, and there’s no one who’s gone on ahead to scout out the way.
We are indeed challenged to create wholeness in our part of the cosmos. But as for how to go about it, we’ll find no Owner’s Manual from the manufacturer.
A couple of hours after I’d finished the piece, I got a message from Louise apologizing for not having gotten back to me in answer to my “challenging and pertinent” questions. She explained that she’d been running a retreat for educators, and promised to write again soon. I then felt moved to send Louise a message of reassurance –“I’ll be glad to hear from you when you can get to it”– and on an impulse included as an attachment the draft of my “Evolution of Sin” piece.
Does That Settle It?
It was the spring of 1999, and the brewing human catastrophe in Kosovo had erupted into a major international conflict, with the nations of NATO trying use force to compel the Serbian leader to discontinue his program of systematic crimes against humanity.
For me, the situation was an agonizing one– and not just for the reasons that such violence is always distressing. On the one hand, I felt encouraged to see that great powers were using their strength not, as usual, to advance their own interests but to defend certain fundamental values, indeed, to assert the very sort of ordering principles whose violation has been the bane of the human project for millennia. Never in history, it seemed to me, had a war been launched for better, more altruistic reasons. On the other hand, it was far from clear that this altruistic use of force would end up having benign consequences.
In the perspective of my understanding of the fundamental challenge of human history, the main question about this Kosovo conflict was, “Who will learn what lesson from it? Will future tyrants, when they consider committing systematic genocide or ethnic cleansing against a weak people, look back at what happened here and say, ‘I’d better not do that, because I don’t want to suffer Milosovic’s fate’? Or will the international community, contemplating some such future horror, say, ‘Let’s not get involved, because look at what a mess they got into when they tried to enforce decent order back in that conflict over Kosovo’?”
The jury, it seemed to me, was still out. And the whole agonizing nature of the process underscored for me how difficult it is, even when we have the best intentions, to know precisely how to go about constructing the wholeness that we yearn for in the human order.
Discussing this on the radio, during a “Caller’s Choice” show, one caller spoke of the need to bring God into the discussion, to consult the Bible and let it show us the way. After he’d gone on a bit about how foolish we were to forget about such guidance, I asked him the obvious question: “So what would the Bible would tell us to do?” And I was then surprised to hear him go around in circles finding different passages that pointed different ways. “Love thy neighbor” was the first passage he was trying, but then even he wasn’t sure whether that meant we should be helping the Kosovars, or whether it meant we should not use violence against the Serbians.
The next caller was a fundamentalist minister whose voice I recognized readily as being the same gentleman whose call about homosexuality had figured in my piece on “Graven Images.” He had a passage that he saw as pointing clearly toward the justification of the present action. When Solomon was King of Israel, he said, he did various acts iniquitous in the eyes of the Lord. And the Bible relates how the Lord stirred up the animosity of neighboring nations against Solomon, using them as a way of punishing Solomon for his misdeeds. So it is, he concluded, that nations can be used by God to do the work of His justice, and that is how it is now with the use of U.S. airpower against the Serbian tyrant.
By some route I don’t recollect clearly, our conversation about this led the caller to express his belief that, more generally, any disaster that happens to a people should be understood as an expression of God’s justice. Natural disasters, for example, befall a nation because of its people’s lapsing into sin. Earthquakes and floods and such, he said, are all part of God’s moral order, lesser forms of the kind of destruction that God sent against Sodom and Gomorra. Had he, I asked, seen clear evidence of such a correlation? He thought so. I mused about how it was an at least theoretically testable proposition: one judge might assess the level of righteousness or iniquity of a great variety of peoples throughout some stretch of history, while another researcher –entirely independently– charted the occurrence of natural disasters, and then one might calculate whether the relationship that the caller is asserting actually does obtain. And I expressed my own skepticism about whether it would.
It was not the next caller, but the one after that who returned to that line of the conversation. It was a woman –a first-time caller– who wanted to set us straight. The Bible speaks clearly, she says, and it was an error to suppose that natural disasters were God’s just punishment. The truth of the matter, she said, can be discovered in the passage –which she cited — where Jesus says that this world is ruled by Satan, and so it is Satan who sends earthquakes, floods, etc. Does he send them to peoples around the world randomly, I asked, or does he have some basis for choosing on whom to inflict such destruction? She maintained that his motive, actually, is to strike back at Jesus. Now that Jesus Himself is beyond Satan’s reach, she said, what Satan does is to strike at the followers of Jesus, at the righteous. I asked the woman how it is that, if the Bible speaks clearly, the previous caller did not seem to understand the truth that was so clear to her. She suggested that perhaps the previous caller just hadn’t read the Scriptures enough, to which I responded by noting that from what I’d heard from that gentleman –who is not a young man– I got the impression that he’d been reading the texts quite a lot for quite a long time.
And finally, I noted that the two of them had diametrically opposite hypotheses about what kind of pattern we would find in history, the one predicting that the iniquitous would be the most afflicted, the other that it would be the righteous. I for one, I concluded, really like to subject my beliefs to a reality check, to let reality speak and to listen to it with a willing spirit.
Opening to Life
“I really liked the way you framed those ‘Be Not Afraid Questions,'” Ed said on the phone that night. “And I thought you might be interested in hearing my take on them.” I assured him that, indeed, I would.
“For starters,” he started, “I think the real message here is not ‘Experience no fear,’ but something else– something like, ‘Don’t be possessed by your fear.’ Or, to put it another way, ‘Don’t let fear run the show.'”
“What do you mean, ‘run the show’? After all, if someone says, ‘Hey, let’s jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and see if we can make a perfect Olympic splashless entry into the water, and I go with my fear that it won’t work out that way, am I not letting my fear govern me?”
“Let me see if I can make this distinction clear,” Ed replied. “I would say that a wise person listens to his fear and sometimes follows its counsel. But he’s the one making the decision, weighing the fear along with the other inputs. Treating them as advisors, not as governors.”
“That rings a meaningful bell for me,” I said. “What comes to my mind is a story Parker Palmer uses in that book I told you about. A teacher keeps being asked every year by principal to take a certain kind of workshop, and the teacher keeps on turning it down. He gives excuses for not going, but he never really gives his reason for avoiding it, which is that he’s afraid that his field has left him behind, that the workshop will expose his inadequacy, and that maybe he’ll end up losing his job. And finally, one year, he stops acting from his fear and instead steps back and comes from a place where he’s able to be open about his fear. He tells his principal what he’s been afraid of, and out of the conversation the result is that he and the principal have a wonderful conversation, and decide to go do the workshop together and it all works out. 
“Is that what you mean?”
“You got it,” Ed responded. “It’s not a matter of whether you have fear, or let the fear speak, but of whether the fear dictates. So that’s my first point.”
“You mean, there’s more?”
“Yeah, there’s something about faith.”
When Ed mentioned faith, I was apprehensive that we were about to go down one of those conversational paths where Ed and I split up at the fork. And that apprehension only increased when he added, “Faith that, in some sense, one can let go of the fear and act secure in the knowledge that things will work out.”
“But things don’t always work out,” I said, taking off on my usual fork. That evening, I’d been watching more news coverage of the terrible events at a suburban high school in Colorado, where more than a dozen students had been killed by a couple of their fellows. So an illustration of that point came readily to my mind. “For those students in Littleton,” I said, “such faith would have been misguided, wouldn’t it? I mean, for those people, the sense of security with which they went to school that day was really a false one. Terrible things really do happen, even to people with great faith.”
“Yes, it’s true. But there’s more.” For a moment, Ed seemed to be groping for just what it was that he wanted to say. While he was searching, I recalled something from the newscast that led me to another point.
“If you say, Ed, that believing that somehow things always work out as they should is good for one’s mental well-being, I have no quarrel with that. April and I were just watching this very moving interview of the father of the African-American kid that was killed in the high school library, and at the end of the interview, the father is asked if he’s going to seek counseling to get through his terrible loss. And he says, ‘I’m a Christian man. I’ll get through this all right. I know that everything happens for a reason.’ When April heard that, she turned to me and said, ‘Faith really helps people, doesn’t it? I don’t know how well I could get through something like that. I don’t believe that his son was killed for some “reason.”‘ And neither do I.”
“Here, let me try it this way.” I could hear in Ed’s voice –picking up energy like some bloodhound who’d at last had picked up the scent on the other side of a creek– that he was back to knowing where he wanted to go. “The world is dangerous. Shit happens. The school proved to be a killing field. But what would you think about a mother who, after this shooting, decides she’ll never let her kid go to school again?”
“That would be excessive.”
“What I think ‘Be not afraid’ is about –or might be about, anyway; or maybe should be about– is something like that. I mean, the way that we all, in some way, tend to respond to our pain like that hypothetical mother. We get fearful, and we close down. We shut something off, making ourselves less alive, because we give ourselves over too much to fear.
“That’s what I work with a lot of the time. Especially because my work focuses on trauma. Around some heavy trauma, people can form some kind of overriding program of ‘Be Afraid,’ some strategy of constricting or closing up or giving up their faith in life– a strategy whose purpose is to never be vulnerable again. So the possible ways their lives might unfold get truncated. The process of healing –a kind of redemption– involves reclaiming parts of the self for life.”
“I think I get it,” I rejoined. “People get stuck on fear, over-generalizing from something very painful about just how dangerous a place the world is, putting fear into the driver’s seat.”
“Something like that.”
Then I suddenly saw a way this might connect with my earlier thoughts about the quote from John Adams, about how –as the world becomes better ordered– each successive generation can become freer to be more open to the unfolding, less wedded to the controlling approach to life. I started mentally adding to my file about “the more trustworthy the world, more open can be our approach to life”: if, because of the traumas of our history, we see the world as more dangerous than it actually is, we can make progress by letting go of fear. The idea of “Be Not Afraid” might, it occurred to me, be especially fitting for people like us Americans, with our affluence and our power, for whom the world is comparatively safe.
But then I realized that Ed’s formulation –about traumatic overlearning– did not really solve my original puzzle about fear.
“But, Ed, why should our reaction to things be maladaptive? If evolution hasn’t equipped us with a life-serving set of reactions to danger, why hasn’t it? And if it has, why is it that we need to revise the way we learn from traumatically painful experiences?”
“Good move.” Ed was thinking, and I was silent, hoping for some way out of the impasse. “OK. The closed-down approach that comes out of trauma may be advantageous for survival. But it strangles life. There’s more to life than just survival. There’s also being alive!”
Once again, the Adams-progression –from politics and war through philosophy to poetry in the course of three generations– came to my mind, some idea of a abrahammaslovian “hierarchy of needs,” and a way of looking at humankind being able to progress gradually toward a safer world where we can be more open. So this time I articulated what I’d been thinking before on those lines. The way the thrust of Ed’s response differed from my thought was most interesting.
“I don’t know,” he began. “One might think so, but I’m not sure greater safety is the key. In fact, sometimes it’s precisely when people have been through the most intense fire of destruction and danger that they come to the higher realization of the value of getting beyond fear. I think for example of that Vietnamese guy, Trich Nat Han: seeing the worst, he nonetheless comes to a place where he realizes that what’s of value in life will be murdered if we simply surrender to the trauma. And he breaks through to something more alive. (The time of Jesus was also a pretty traumatic period, incidentally.)
“The human spirit doesn’t seem to realize its full potential in the most optimal of experiences. It’s the hottest fire that forges the strongest spirits.
“Not that pain and trauma are so great. I mean we shouldn’t go around inflicting it on people as if we’re doing them some great favor. A lot of people just get destroyed by it. But among the most comfortable, there’s often just the being born once, and what they’re born to is often not the deepest life. But in the smithy of some terrible history, some of those who manage –or refuse– to be destroyed emerge with the secret of how to live at the highest and deepest levels: Be Not Afraid.”
More Than Is Dreamt Of
When Louise finally got back to me, it was by telephone and not email (“If I waited for a convenient time to write, I don’t know when you’d hear from me”) and it was not to talk about the “Be Not Afraid” questions (“I liked your puzzlings, but haven’t come up with any solutions that are ready for prime time”) but rather some thoughts evoked by reading my “Evolution of Sin” essay.
“I want to make sure you understand,” Louise said, “that I appreciate what you’re doing in that piece. I found it stimulating, and in places even inspiring. So my reservations should be understood in the context of my really grooving on the ideas and taking pleasure in the plying of your craft.” I conveyed that I understood, and gave her permission to proceed with the less laudatory part of her presentation.
“You seem so content with your image of a mechanistic universe– anarchic except for obeying the coldly indifferent physical laws of science,” Louise said. “I just wonder, are you really so confident this image captures the essential truth of the matter? Is the larger cosmos really all in pieces, lacking any kind of order corresponding with our own experience of meaning? Are we just creatures who need, and must construct, an image of wholeness out of a universe that’s driven by entropy into chaos?
“I’d really like to think otherwise, Louise,” I said. “I’d like a net under the trapeze as much as anybody. I’d like my soul rocked in the bosom of Abraham just like the next guy. But in the absence of any reason to believe such comforting things, I’ll take the coldly and dangerously indifferent universe that presents itself to us.”
“So you’re asking, ‘Why believe otherwise?’ then?”
“Well, I wasn’t exactly asking. But OK. What reason is there –what good reason is there– to believe there’s some kind of caring order at work in the cosmos?”
“Doesn’t it give you pause to note that at the core of virtually every major human culture –the Chinese, the Indian, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic, and so forth– there’s a powerful and pervasive notion of there being some kind of profound order –‘caring,’ you might call it, or ‘moral,’ or at least benign– in which we’re embedded?”
“It doesn’t seem like a huge mystery why that would be,” I replied. “There’s something in us that craves a meaningful connection of that sort with the cosmos, that recoils at the idea of our inhabiting a cosmos in which things just happen, driven by forces lacking any moral meaning or empathic connection to us. I experience it, too, that desire for the more humanly meaningful cosmic order of the great religions.
“But wishing is one thing. Having good reason to believe is another. I don’t have much truck with believing something just because one wishes it were true.”
“So it’s just wishful thinking, as you see it? OK. Let’s say Everyman goes for wishful thinking. So, no wonder the Hebrew-on-the street attributes the vulnerability of his pitiably minor nation (sandwiched between great powers) to their failure to pay sufficient heed to the commandments of Yahweh . No wonder the average person imagines that God’s always listening to every prayer, and prayers are being answered, even if the answer is ‘No’ as often as ‘Yes.’ But… But…
“What about the fact –I think I’m talking about empirically observable stuff here– that a great many of the people throughout history who, in other more tangible matters, seem quite wise, also tend to believe in such an order obtaining in the cosmos? Just take a look –across cultures, over the centuries– at the best and largest of the human spirits that have shown up. My impression is, they seem overwhelmingly to see the universe as having order to it beyond what is discovered by our materialistic science.
“Are you maintaining that these are the kind of people who also come to their beliefs on the basis of simple wishful thinking?”
“You know, Louise, funny you should make that argument. I’ve confronted myself with it on occasion, and yes, it does give me pause.” At that moment, I smiled, picturing how April, when something gives her “pause,” will sit up with her hands held in front of her like a dog’s forefeet. “But then, after the pause, I don’t know where to go from there except in the same direction I was already heading. The evidence of other people’s beliefs is only indirect, no matter how wonderful the people. Where’s some real evidence?
“I look at history, and what I see is hardly justice. I look at the web of life, with all its disease and parasitism, and I see pure opportunism. I look at the movements of the cosmos –with asteroids having obliterated countless species on the one living planet we know about– and I see matter and energy in motion, obeying physical but not moral laws. So, where’s some real evidence that there’s more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in my dismally material philosophy?”
“You know, Andy, I don’t have evidence that the cosmos is ruled by the kind of forces you and I and everyone else, as you say, might crave. But I do see evidence that forces may be operating that go beyond the impersonal and indifferent cosmos of your –and science’s– supposing.”
“Pray, tell. (Here’s one prayer I expect will be answered.)”
“Have you heard of ‘synchronicity’?” she inquired of me.
“Yeah, it’s when things happen around the same time, as if connected, as if in some kind of meaningful relationship with each other, despite there being no evident cause-and-effect reason why they should or could be connected. Like the universe sending you just what you need when you need it. Or like throwing the yarrow sticks to get a reading from the I Ching and their supposedly falling in such a way to get you just the advice you need.”
“That’ll do,” Louise replied. “Yes, it’s kind of a sign that some kind of forces are at work in the universe weaving our lives together, making things unfold in some meaningful and right way. As if it’s the world surrounding our own pursuit of purposes is not so purposeless and accidental as our materialistic science presents it as being.
“Anyway, I’ve been reading about the workings of this synchronicity in a book called The Tao of Psychology. And when I read your ‘Evolution of Sin’ piece, it struck me that maybe we’re not so much on our own –in having to create wholeness– as you think.”
“Say more about the connection you’re proposing here.”
“Here, let me read you a couple of passages I noted before I called you this evening.
“In this one, she cites the famous scientist, Wolfgang Pauli, as saying that ‘parapsychological phenomena including apparent coincidences were the visible traces of an underlying, untraceable principle in the universe.’  Which I take to mean that Pauli found evidence of there being connections of the kind that indicate at least a partial weaving together of the universe’s unfoldings, something beyond the mere mechanistic pieces.
“And then Bolen herself writes about synchronicity as being a way that we experience the Tao, and says that what we know intuitively through such experiences ‘is that we are not lonely, isolated, insignificant, and meaningless creatures, accidentally evolved from organic rubbish on a minuscule dot in the vast cosmos.’ And she says that synchronicity ‘gives us a glimpse into the reality that there is indeed a link between us all, between us and all living things, between us and the universe.'” 
“That’s very lovely,” I responded. “I can really get into the appeal of such thinking. Just like I can groove on Luke Skywalker hearing the voice of the presumably slain Obe Wan Kanobe telling him, as he zeroes in on the target on the Death Star, ‘Trust the Force, Luke.’ I love that stuff. But ‘Star Wars’ is a work of the imagination, and with such nifty fictional worlds we’re supposed to suspend disbelief.
“But you and I are talking about interpreting the real world, and in that context, I don’t know what to make of this business about synchronicity and these meaningful ‘links’ that connect us into a meaningful narrative of the universe.”
“Andy, do you mean to say that this synchronicity business does not connect with your own life experiences? That all you can draw upon to support the idea is a lot of fictional devices, like apparently lower-class Dickensian orphans who find their way –by sheer improbable coincidence– back into their true, aristocratic families?”
“Sure, stuff happens all the time, and some of the coincidences are pretty interesting. But of course it’s only the remarkable and seemingly meaningful synchronicities that we notice. We notice the time that we’re thinking of someone –someone, maybe, we’ve had no contact with for ages– and suddenly the phone rings guess who it is calling us! And it’s fun at such times to sing the ‘Twilight Zone’ theme music. But we don’t notice the thousands and thousands of times we have thoughts that the universe neglects to link up with. Just by chance, of course, sometimes the remarkable would happen. Just by chance, no matter how long the odds, somebody wins the lottery.”
“Just chance, then?” Louise probed.
“Reminds me of something I see on the news now and then. Like the person who was supposed to get on the flight that crashed, but somehow didn’t, and then there she is, in front of the camera, saying ‘God was just watching over us.’ And I wonder, what about the two hundred people who did get on the plane and are dead? They’re not in front of the camera asking how come God wasn’t watching over them.
“How can we think straight unless we see the apparent ‘miracles’ in the context of the whole universe of events, and in the perspective of statistical probabilities?”
“So, you feel you can dismiss the amazing synchronicities described by somebody like Bolen, and experienced by a lot of people, as mere coincidence? I see the sense of your argument, but haven’t you ever noticed things happening that just seem too improbable to be coincidence?”
Pushed in this way by Louise, I found my take on the question starting to shift. In fact, the sense of things happening in mysteriously connected ways did sometimes come upon me in striking ways. For years, I’ve noticed that events will unfold in a way that seems uncannily like something I recall having dreamt many years before. These experiences make me wonder just how adequate my customary image of the cosmos and its workings really is. But then, I’ll also wonder whether that supposed dream sequence that I remember from, say, twenty years before was something I ever actually dreamt, or whether some neurological quirk may just be giving me some illusory sense of its being a memory.
But there are other kinds of connections that occur. A couple of quite recent instances came readily to my mind. Like the fact that, right after my conversation with Merle about whether or not there is a God who looks out for people, I turned on the radio and what just happened to be playing at that instant was a choir singing a hymn, with the words, “help of the helpless.” And then there was the exchange of news between Ed and me in our most recent conversation. I asked Ed about his efforts to set up a workshop he and a friend of his wanted to do on the subject of treating trauma. And Ed told me about a couple of amazing ways that obstacles apparently in their way had just been lifted, almost miraculously, by people approaching him –spontaneously, unexpectedly– and proposing this, and requesting that, and offering this other thing. So that it all seemed to be falling into place as if the cosmos were doing the arranging. Which now was part of the additional synchrony that it came at a time when –through Louise– the issue of synchrony was about to present itself to me as a challenge.
And another strange thing: sometimes, in my life, it seemed that these coincidences did not occur in a random sort of way. The unexpected linkings seemed more likely to happen at times of greater spiritual openness. Did that show that the universe was somehow relating to me differently in response to my special state? Or was it that it was just at those times I was more likely to interpret events in such a way? In psychiatry, there’s the concept of delusions of reference, where people think that everything happening around them is a personal message for them, fraught with meaning. Maybe we’re all inclined to get into states of consciousness that incline us somewhat in that direction. Maybe the state I call “spiritual openness” involves getting a little bit crazy in that particular way.
What I ended up saying then to Louise was simply, “I really don’t know.”
“Well, from experiences I’ve had, and other people I know, and from what I read in this synchronicity book, I just don’t see how it’s all just coincidence. I don’t see how some of these things can be explained by mere statistical probability combing through a sufficiently vast sample of events, like the proverbial monkeys at the typewriters.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“There were some good ones from the book. I don’t have them marked, but how’s this: I’ll email you something.”
I agreed, and after a bit more chatting we said good-bye.
The next morning I went to check my Inbox and found that, though there was nothing yet from Louise, there was a message from Ed.
“Wanted to add something to our conversation about fear and faith,” Ed’s message began. “When we talked, I pretty much rolled over for the idea that terrible things happen, and by implication, that faith in some kind of protection is just a comforting kind of illusion. (I think I wasn’t up for dealing with your usual hard-to-counter, just-like-Dad hard-headed logical-empirical seemingly-completely-reasonable arguments.) But, upon reflection, I do believe something other than that and I wanted to express it. So here I am.
“It’s true that a lot of things just do seem to happen. Without a lot of rhyme, reason, or justice about them. To the righteous and to the evil, and all that. And it’s true that a lot of people have had faith, and offered deep heart-felt prayers, yet had events roll over them as if their faith and prayers amounted to nothing. And it is not my belief that, in those instances, God was answering their prayers and that it’s just that His answer was No.
“But at the same time, I have seen faith move mountains. And I have seen things happen that sure seemed to indicate that prayers were being answered. It does not look random to me. Even if it is maddeningly, mysteriously hit-and-miss. “I don’t understand it. It’s as if the link up between us and some divine ordering principle involves an appliance where the connections are not tightly welded and so they work only intermittently.
“But in any event, I do think that there’s a connection there. It isn’t just an illusion– about that I have great faith. And it’s faith based on some real life experience. And it makes a difference whether one has that faith: not just in how one feels, but even in what happens. And I mean what happens in the world out there, not just in the obvious ways that your state of mind affect how you operates in the world, or how people respond to you. Something not visible also seems to respond differently. “This I believe. ED”
I thought some about Ed and belief, how he is the brother by far more given to faith, to crediting the mysterious “truth.” And in my eyes, he believes a variety of things that I simply do not believe are true. And yet, also, he seems sometimes to see things that I am missing and that feel meaningfully true, and I sense that it’s limitations of mine that underlie my missing some things that Ed rightly sees. I see his folly in holding his beliefs in a certain credulous way. And I see the profound wisdom that he manifests from his sense of God’s readiness to work through us. Some beliefs just work, whether they are true or not. My amorphous non-committalness is not nearly so powerful a channel as a fixed and clear system of belief, like that of my friend, the prison-minister who experiences himself quite vividly as a conduit of love from the Lord and Savior Himself. That belief strengthens his ability to give from that sacred space.
Maybe sometimes part of the art of flow and control involves constructing dogmas, beliefs that will stay put and not be brought into question.
During the afternoon, Louise’s email arrived.
“I don’t know when I’m going to be able to get together those examples of synchronicity that I thought you would find impressive. One that I recall from Bolen’s Tao of Psych. involved a session the great Jungian psychologist Carl Jung was doing, working on a dream his patient had recently dreamt. A major symbol in the woman’s dream had been a golden scarab, and at a crucial point in their discussion of this symbol, there was a scratching at the door and when Jung went to check it out, lo and behold, there was an unusual scarab-like beetle trying to get into the room. Pretty far out, no?
“But anyway, what I did want to send you now, in lieu of the examples that, presumably, I’ll get together sometime for you, is something else from Bolen. She cites the work of a Dr. Gertrude Schmeidler who did ESP research in which believers in ESP and disbelievers in ESP were divided up in order to test their abilities to manifest ESP abilities. In the study, she found that ‘believers scored consistently higher than disbelievers’ and that, in addition, those who did not believe that ESP was possible scored lower than chance. 
“Seems really like an example of ‘Believing is seeing.’ Which suggests that the universe may impose some kind of a ‘skepticism tax’ –or at least a disbelief tax. And perhaps also a corresponding reward for trust.
“Anyway, I do appreciate your carefulness about matters of belief, Andy. And I also recognize that you are not one of those ‘Skeptics’ like in that publication Skeptical Inquiry, where skepticism is just a fancy name given to reflexive debunking. But I do also want to suggest the possibility that some of what’s true may be visible only in that open frame of mind that has already made room somehow for that truth. I guess that’s what the believers call faith.
“Which is not to say, admittedly, that I know just what to do about faith either. I’d like to be open to faith, but with eyes open too. Not blind faith, maybe, but faith of the wide-open and seeing kind. Hope that’s all right with the universe. LOUISE”
Trust but verify, I thought again.
Lousy First Drafts (final installment)
My explorations had taken me into a great many interesting inlets, and the adventures had been rewarding. The main questions of my inquiry continued to loom above me, with their mysteries and complexities. I knew that I’d not be able to accomplish any satisfyingly finished product, any indisputable and clear resolution. To part of me, that was OK. But another part of me wanted completion, like the perfect resolution that Mozart –in his abstract medium– gives us at the end of one of his modulating progressions.
Love the quest, I told myself. That is one way of embracing the mystery.
After the recent excursions –especially what I’d just heard from Ed and Louise– I was entertaining the view of the cosmos as already having more of the lineaments of wholeness in it than I, with my skeptical eye, generally see. But at the same time, I conceived the wholeness as less complete and established than the faithful suppose. And I wondered what it might mean for there to be such an incomplete and unreliable cosmic order– that “intermittent connection” aspect. It’s not how you’d think you’d make it if you had the power to make it better.
At one level, such an image suggested that there could be reasons for trusting in the flow, but reasons also for vigilance and the exertion of control. With an incomplete safety net, you might get caught or you might go splat. So there’s room for faith in the unfolding, and room for the kind of fearful attention that keeps one on his toes.
But at another level, it seemed to suggest the intriguing notion of a cosmos still putting itself together. As this thought crossed my mind, something clicked for me. I went back to look at the work I’d done in the two previous installments of that piece of mine, “Lousy First Drafts”– that piece first born in frustration, from the sense of my having squandered myself in false starts, and then extended at another point of frustration, when the complexities and ambiguities of my unfolding project had left me uncertain I knew how to find my way.
I looked over where that second segment had taken me. Harnessing an energy coming from my own personal frustration about the project, I’d explored some of the difficulties besetting us both as individuals (with me as case in point) and as a species when we try to create something whole out of the mess we’ve been brought to by the apparently blind unfolding of our histories, during which we could see no further than our headlights. How hard it is to try to make something just right out of the ‘lousy first drafts’ into which we wander!
And then I’d stopped, at a point where I was wondering whether the mind of the human animal can ever achieve the wisdom required to create wholeness in the extraordinary and powerful niche into which we have emerged out of our primate and primitive and archaic origins. Stopped and set it aside, after making a notation of some thought vaguely floating across my mental screen, “The universe is a mystery.”
Now I felt ready to begin again– indeed, to bring the piece to a close. After setting down a little bit of thought-music about my new way of working in my creative life –the fast-break first-draft approach instead of the set-offense, completely-outlined approach– I noted the tribulations and difficulties, but then said, “But so far, the costs to me of this new way of working are outweighed by the pleasure of the adventure.”
And then I went on to conclude the piece:
And now, as I think about that mystery of the way this universe unfolds in so groping a fashion, rather than emerging fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, or heading toward a desirable destination as if the motive force behind the whole thing knew where it was going, and was not just at best following its headlights, I wonder if my own experience offers any sort of a clue.
A part of me, certainly, hungers for perfection. Each time I put pen to paper, I long to see truth and beauty realized right there on the page. I want myself, whole. I want history, progressing. I want my species, godly. I want paradise. The Garden of Eden not as a starting place soon to be lost, but as a place in which to dwell.
I don’t know why creation doesn’t work that way. With such a question I am admittedly even further than usual over my head.
But if there is a Creator of some sort behind the whole thing, perhaps He’s somewhat clueless Himself. So we get not perfection but lousy first drafts –or perhaps, rather, incomplete or inadequate, or at least not final first drafts– representing His best shot at the moment, while He and His Creation find their way in the dark.
Omniscience, if we adopt such a concept of the Creator, goes out the window. But how sustainable was that idea of the all-knowing God, anyway? An ancient idea has it –for example, in some Islamic theology– that the Creation is the means of God’s process of self-discovery. Which in itself suggests there’s more for Him to know.
Perhaps even God is but an imperfect, incomplete first draft. Having an adventure –painful at times, maybe, but so interesting, so creative– just like us. And if there is no God? Then author and text are the same (just as we ourselves are in our own lives, trying to move from folly to wisdom). The universe is in a ceaseless process of revising itself. There is no getting away from the lousy first drafts, for they are also the author of the drafts that follow. And, like each one of us, the universe can start from nowhere else than where it is, and can give no more than what it’s got.
Even the idea of perfection, by which so much falls short, is part of the universe’s way of making better drafts possible.
 Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 57.
Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. .
Jean Bolen, The Tao of Psychology, p. 84.
Ibid, p. 96, p. 103.
Bolen, Tao of Psychology, p., 79.