I’m going to be grasping at straws for a little while tonight, because what I really want to talk about is something that lies so close to the core of me that it exists on a level that’s too fine for me to grasp. It’s like talking about what happens on the quantum level, where simply to observe an event is to change it, so that we are forever frustrated in our search for understanding. What I really want to talk about, though, are two ways of looking at the world, which for lack of better words to describe them I’m going to call the miraculous and the absurd.
I’m not going to be all modernist and claim that these are the only two possible ways of looking at the world, because that would be silly. I do however feel strongly that when it comes to me personally, they are the only options available. For me, if not for the rest of humanity, the world is either miraculous or it is absurd. There is no third choice.
What these two points of view share in common is that they both acknowledge that the world in which I find myself is much bigger, stranger and more complex than I am capable of understanding (I’m tempted to say, bigger than a human mind is capable of understanding, but I don’t want to get hung up on trying to make my experience valid for everybody–you can tell, right?). This doesn’t mean I’m skeptical about human knowledge, per se. I’m a strong believer in science as a set of tools for discovering more about our universe and how it works. What it does mean is that I’m skeptical that we will ever run out of things to discover. Even if we somehow were able to bring our picture of the world completely up to date, to completely define the world as it exists at this very moment, I think it’s quite likely that something completely new and unprecedented would pop up in short order to throw the whole thing into confusion once more. In other words, I have a deep and abiding faith in the universe’s ability to surprise us.
The way I see it, there are basically two ways to respond to a universe with an infinite capacity to confuse and astound us. One is to react with a deep sense of fear and anxiety at the uncertainty and instability of life, an anxiety that can ultimately only be held at bay by adopting a stoic fatalism, the iron-willed determination not to rely too much on anything or anyone. This is the perspective I call the absurd. The other possibility is to respond with wonder and amazement, to reach out to embrace the world in all its strangeness, to open onself to the sense of possibility and transformation inherent in a world in which the most amazing things are happening all the time. This is what I call a sense of the miraculous.
The thing is, these perspectives aren’t in disagreement over the facts. They basically agree in their picture of what the world looks like. The difference lies in how they choose to emotionally respond to those facts. There’s a story told of Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha that he used to say that everyone should carry around two pieces of paper with them, once in each pocket. On one is written “I am dust and ashes.” On the other, “The world was made for me.” The trick is knowing when to look at one pice of paper and when to look at the other. For me at least, the journey of life has been all about learning how to leave the “dust and ashes” paper in its pocket and reach for the “world was made for me” paper more often. When I confuse my friends by telling them I believe in a personal and transcendent God, this is more or less the practical, emotional content of that belief–that the sheer craziness of life is evidence, not of our separation and alienation from the incomprehensible “everything,” but of our deep connection and kinship with it, and that by making ourselves open to that connection, by turning aside when we see that bush burning in the wilderness, we can become active partners in the divine becoming that’s happening all around us.