I came across an email the other day from an old friend who sent me his address at the time by way of saying that I might need it in case there were some imponderable about which I needed to speak with him. Usually I get to the imponderables during Advent, but this year I’m late. It’s taken until mid January for the winter of my discontent to set in with its perennial itch.
But here goes—of all silly questions (silly in our sense of benignly foolish and also in Chaucer’s sense of blessed) perhaps the most sophomoric is what is the meaning of life. I spent the summer of my nineteenth year with it nonetheless, not mooning over it in the abstract but attempting to decide whether I would continue on the career trajectory to which I had at that time committed myself. I had grown up in church, by no means a bad thing; and I had announced to my family and my peers at the end of high school that I thought I had been called to the ministry.
In due course I had been appointed a local preacher in the Methodist Church, which meant that I was permitted to preach under the supervision of an ordained pastor and that I might serve as an an assistant, or apprentice, minister in a church. In the summer of my nineteenth year after my sophomore year at college I had a job as youth minister of Central Methodist Church in Dalhart Texas, It was not a job that involved onerous responsibility; I had a lot of time on my hands. There were no young people my age around that summer in Dalhart. I thought of the church youth group I helped to supervise as my clients, not as friends, and socialized with them only in very limited ways.
There was one movie theatre in Dalhart—films changed once a week or so. The primary entertainment of an evening was to drive your car up and down the town’s main street and honk and wave at your friends. I joined in that activity to some extent, but lacking friends and feeling some discomfort honking and waving at my youth group clients, though they were perfectly civilized young people, I didn’t do too much dragging, as the driving and waving was called. I spent some midweek time, twice I think, visiting a girlfriend who was working as a camp counselor five hundred miles away in Kerrville, but that was exhausting. Mostly I read.
I’m sure I must have read plenty of trash, but what I most remember is that I read War and Peace, pored over the agonies of Pierre Bezukhov in particular, and speculated about comparisons between Napoleon’s marches and Hitler’s (drawn by Clifton Fadiman for the Inner Sanctum Edition I found in the Dalhart Public Library). I read War and Peace twice through and continued to reread parts of the novel until I had exhausted the experience. When a voice spoke to me out of nowhere and announced that the meaning of life had to be lived, I thought for the first time that I might find meaning in my own life by throwing myself into the flux and complexity of lived experience, though I remained uncritically sure that questioning the meaning of life ought to remain the constant occupation of a serious person.
My idyllic time came to an end in late July or early August when I preached a sermon at the Sunday morning service. I naïvely and irresponsibly explained to the good folk who came to hear me that day that I was in some doubt about heaven and hell and was becoming what I would have called a universalist had I known the term. I presented what I thought were fine arguments for my emerging views and invited any of my co-parishioners who were so inclined to come and talk with me about them. Afterwards, the kindly minister who was my supervisor suggested to me that perhaps I didn’t really want to be a preacher and advised that I might want to think about doing something else.
Fast forward to the present year: I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson’s new book, The Givenness of Things, which I like a lot with some reservations. I suspect Robinson of a similar universalism to my own, though she claims to be a Calvinist. Still, after owning that Robinson has read Calvin more deeply than I have, I’m skeptical, primarily because the reformed tradition with which Robinson identifies places more faith in logic and theological correctness than I do. Having worried ontological questions most of my life, I have much sympathy with Robinson’s rehabilitation of ontology. But my own ontological meditations don’t inevitably lead me to affirmation of the Trinity or to a literal belief in a created universe.
I have no trouble claiming solidarity with the ages in the Nicene Creed, which we Episcopalians recite in the plural: we believe (I suspect Robinson would demur); but my submission to the creed is a concession to formulations I am bound to regard as metaphors. After I recite the creed, the fundamental ontological questions remain for me. What is reality? What is being? What is my place in the cosmos? What indeed do I mean by the locution, I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty? If this means that I am promoting the questions of Greek philosophy as the philosophers confronted the death of their ancient Gods over those that must have guided the Hebrew prophets as they confronted the death of their ancient Gods, so be it. Actually, I dont think there is such a conflict, as Robinson seems to do. I think in both traditions wonderful minds were at work on inherited pieties, transforming them into the poetry of new historical epochs.
The Creed, after all, is a political document, as I think all creeds are: ideology in Mannheim’s original sense of formalization designed to forclose discourse. It takes some stretching to assert that it is scriptural. Its primary purpose at the time of its adoption was the defeat of Arianism, which was the Christian religion of a substantial minority in Christendom of mostly Germanic origin. Its adoption represented the triumph of Constantine and the return of Rome to Romans; though Constantine was obliged to wage wars most of his life in that cause, and Arianism survived well down into the eighth century. Arius, himself, declared a heretic in 325, was exonerated in 335 only to be declared a heretic again in 381 after he had been dead almost half a century. Robinson’s loyalty is to the earlier Apostle’s Creed, though she mostly speaks of a Trinity that involves two persons only, hardly mentioning the Holy Spirit (or Ghost, as we used to say).
Robinson spends a good deal of time arguing for a historical Jesus, something I’ve never seriously doubted; though like Dostoyevsky’s inquisitor I think the magisterium of the Faith, Gospels, Churches, Dogma, the rich inheritance of liturgy, the terrible and cruel inheritance of sectarianism, all of it could exist on its own even if there had never been such a person as Jesus. Years ago I encountered in a book of sayings of Albert Schweitzer the statement that the quest of the historical Jesus fails because that Jesus inevitably returns to his own time; whereas the faithful who encounter Jesus in their own worlds and lives possess a wisdom that transcends mere history. Robinson is content to leave issues such as predestination and the problem of evil out of consideration and to treat them as mysteries. Though I do not doubt the historical Jesus, I will confess here that I regard the existence of a God apart from the world of worlds (saecula saeculorum) who numbers the hairs of my head—as a deep mystery, though I revere (and hope I keep) the first commandment. As to the second, I have broken it so often, committed so many offenses against my fellow creatures and myself that I am acquainted with grief.
I still worry the question with which I began from time to time, but from a different perspective. Closer to my eightieth year than to my teens I wonder occasionally what it might mean, beyond oneself and one’s selfish pursuits, to ask if one’s life has meaning? One answer, a moral one perhaps, might be to wonder if, at life’s end the world in which one lived and acted were at all changed by one’s passage through it. The question is still naïve, one’s life being subsumed in historical processes over which one has had no individual control and which remain hidden by one’s immersion in them. It is like asking whether a lake (or an ocean) is changed because one swam in it, or whether the air is changed by the flight of a bird. And the matter becomes more obscure if one asks the question in ontological terms. Is the void to which one’s being returns at the end of life the same void out of which one’s being emerged. Is the void of not life changed, indeed, by the emergence and eventual dissolution of any single life, or even by the emergence of life in the aggregate. Is life in the aggregate an accidental, a momentary disturbance in the great peaceful eternity of not life. Or does the emergence of life argue for something like emergent evolution, a process in which a new creation struggles to be born.
Robinson likens the universe to a storm, seeking to appropriate insights from physics and contemporary cosmology. I have no quarrel with that image, though I am more attracted to T. S. Eliot’s image of a turning about a still point, with its Aristotelian and Thomist resonances. And I am attracted as well to the ancient conception of peace as the primary characteristic of the world of worlds, the universe of universes which we have in idea, a little handful, to paraphrase a poem I love. I also think it does not diminish humanity to take the psalmist’s view, “what is man that thou art mindful of him.” I have always mostly thought that art, science, religion, and philosophy all lead our understanding towards wonder. Robinson takes a similar view. The Givenness of Things is a meditation on such wonders as quantum physics, Shakespeare’s poetry, and human forgiveness. The presence in our limited world of such wonders argues for a kind of cosmic optimism, in Robinson’s view, with which I can only concur.
And that brings me to the parts of Robinson’s argument I like the most. Wonder first, which Robinson evokes most poignantly with respect to human forgiveness and the largeness and generosity of spirit that can often accompany it. Robinson finds these displayed preeminently in the plays of Shakespeare. She argues that Hamlet’s famed hesitation should be understood as a humane shrinking from revenge, to be expected, to be thought normal, in a king’s son, especially perhaps in a king’s son who has been to the university and longs to return. It is the genius of Shakespeare’s language to model such things for us without sentimentality. The prince’s dispatching of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a necessary act of self-preservation. His killing of Polonius and his complicity in the death of Ophelia must be seen as more than problematic. But he refuses to the end to play the hero of a conventional revenge tragedy, refrains from exulting in Claudius’ death, and is at pains to beg Horatio to tell his story truly, not as one done in by the sour necessity of revenge, but as one who was “likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royally,” as Fortinbras describes him at the close. I am thinking of something Sidney says in the Apologie for Poetrie as part of his argument that poetry limns a world that might be, a world that ought to be. He describes a scene that men of his time often carried on their persons inscribed upon medallions. “Who readeth Aeneas carrying olde Anchises on his back, that wisheth not it were his fortune to perfourme so excellent an acte?” And sometimes, as we can also see in Shakespeare, excellence is more than its own reward. What more unlikely than the restoration of Pericles’ daughter, whom Pericles had thought dead. It is “like a resurrection”. It “makes men glorious” as promised by the Prologue to Pericles, Prince of Tyre, “by allowing plausibility to drop away in deference to human particularity, human love and loyalty and worth.”
For Robinson the givenness of things is most displayed in the arbitrariness of our experience, which she links to what Jonathan Edwards called “the arbitrary constitution of the creator.” For Robinson as for Edwards, the fact that “We know only what we know only in the ways we know it or can know it” argues persuasively for “the creation’s arbitrary character, that is for its being composed to reflect the intentions of a creator, not as the elaboration of an order intrinsic to itself.” I think this is the weakest place in Robinson’s argument in that it requires the same unjustified leap from epistemology to ontology that positivists make in claiming that the limits of our experience require us to conclude that what we take for nature is of our own making. For me the givenness of things is palpable. I think of Wendell Berry’s reverence for topsoil. We cannot make it. It is my belief that we awake as humans (slowly, to be sure) to nature and culture as equal parts of our environment. I believe it is our gift as humans to stand apart from nature simultaneously as we are contained within it. That is what the story of the loss of Eden means to me. It is the measure of the problematic place of humans in the scale of being. “Who told you you were naked?” the Lord asks Adam in the cool of evening.
Yet it is that very problematic place that is our freedom, such as it is. Like Robinson I am unwilling to argue that the extremes of human sin are the price of that freedom. Such a conclusion is as vicious a reduction of experience as it is to claim that any chimpanzee with a typewriter would eventually write the works of Shakespeare. I am a brother to that chimpanzee. It is because I began my conscious life as a disciple of Jesus that I refuse the sort of arrogance that proclaims a human superiority that I cannot justify, since all I really know about my sibling chimp is that her thoughts, if she has them, are not mine. And I am as unwilling as Robinson is to reduce human nature to ‘hominid nature,’ as a friend of mind suggested in conversation a while back. The developed being is not reducible to her remote ancestor, however much we may agree about the genealogy. I think it was Annie Dillard who described the universe somewhere as feathered and free. I worry more silly questions: what accounts for difference, lissomness, the persistence of trees, turtles, cockroaches, and the thousand iterations of human excellence, pride, and meanness. I incline to the view that it is grace that accounts for these things at a level unknown to science or to theology; but I also believe that as regards culture it is we humans who must keep the balance. We seem now to live in a time characterized by meanness and the determination to reduce all of life to money. But I expect my little yard to bloom again this spring after I clear away my neighbor’s leaves. I expect science will deal with the virus that is presently decimating Missouri’s white tail deer herd. And because I began my life as a disciple of Jesus I hope for a resurgence of humanism in the world after I am gone. We need to learn again to love one another, to honor and to love the second commandment, however poorly we may keep it.