We’ve been getting some sorely needed rain over the past couple of days, but today it’s merely overcast and damp, so this morning I went out for my first walk with a camera since last Sunday, heading straight up the side of the ridge above my house. My boots made almost no sound on the wet, moss-covered trail. Every breeze precipitated a small shower and a clatter of acorns.
About three-quarters of the way up the ridge, a flock of grackles suddenly came flying low over the treetops from the northeast. As I was focusing on that, a larger flock swept in from the other direction and the two of them met almost directly overhead. They wheeled about in one great spiral, doing exactly what I had tried to provoke the flock on Sunday into doing without success, their wings making a sound like the crashing of surf, or perhaps an angelic applause. Then they flew off toward the south and I didn’t see or hear another grackle the rest of the morning.
See, this is what I mean when I say I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more. Do I think this encounter was a sign from God, or some kind of omen? Hell no, because I don’t believe the universe revolves around me. Those birds all have their own lives, each as significant as my own. Should I say it was a mere coincidence, then, and let it go at that? Not quite. Because what’s that word “mere” doing in there? Aren’t coincidences, in fact, pretty goddamn wonderful? My reaction instead was to smile. If I believe, the joke is on me. If I don’t believe, the joke is still on me. The universe seems to have a pretty good sense of humor sometimes.
I watch the increasingly acrimonious public debate between religious fundamentalists and scientific fundamentalists with dismay: like the blind men with the elephant, each is partly in the right and all are in the wrong. Reductionism, though a powerful tool essential to the proper conduct of science and mathematics, offers no more definitive a view of reality than mysticism or magic. Each way of seeing can be useful, especially if one uses them in alternation and never allows oneself to become emotionally committed to a single perspective. Sometimes, it’s helpful to realize that X is no more than Y, but at other times, one needs to remind oneself that X is no less than Y. All quantification is provisional — but so is every effort to qualify. It has so much to do with where you look, which instruments you use, which frames or frameworks you impose.
The only sane response, I feel, is to get comfortable living with the questions — and to school ourselves in appreciation. Let the questions spiral in on themselves like a host of grackles. If we wonder why coincidences happen, what does that tell us about our expectations? What is this thing called “random chance”? If we’re so certain chance exists, why do we need to add a reduntant modifier? What does it mean to say that things happen for a reason, if we admit in the next breath that such reasons must remain forever beyond the limits of our understanding? Can we admit that we just don’t know why things happen in one way and not another? Does it rob either religion or science of their power if we admit this?
I mentioned appreciation, but a purely aesthetic response can be as dispassionate as an analytical one. Christians refer to the central mystery of their faith in terms of passion, and I have to admit, strong emotions — both good and bad — can be awfully mysterious in their comings and goings. We shit in our pants with fear, for example. In a large crowd brought together by a common passion, we tingle all over with the pleasure of merging with the flock. In the throes of physical passion, we experience orgasm, something biologists still have a hard time explaining. Or in what I would argue is our closest brush with the sacred, we burst out laughing, that part of our body where we once were physically connected to something larger heaving convulsively, as if trying to link back up with a cosmic mother. One way or another, we exceed ourselves, and are reminded in the most concrete way possible that the little idol called ego is not sovereign; there is always something more.
And that’s all I have to say about religion for a while, I think.