If God Exists Then (Dude) Why Did My Car Get Towed?

Feb 14, 2014

The Farmington River in Connecticut. A sign of God?
Credit National Park Service

I'm trying to get my panelists for today's Nose interested in this, so I have to lay out some thoughts.

I will tell this story (a) without permission and (b) quoting only to the best of my abilities. A few years ago, Bill Curry and I, and some dogs, were walking in the meadows of Avon.

Curry turned and stretched his arms out as if to encompass the landscape. He's a big guy, which enhanced the effect.

Somehow, we got onto the subject of deism, and I must have said it was difficult to believe in the existence of God, given all the devastation and profound  unfairness which overspread the world every day. And Curry turned and stretched his arms out as if to encompass the landscape. He's a big guy, which enhanced the effect.

"I find it difficult to believe that this" -- and here his wingspan pointedly took in the lush vegetation and the lewdly dangling berries and the upward flight of a bird and the slow roll of the nearby Farmington River -- "just happened, without intention, without guidance, without the assistance of anything but random churning of a vast universe."

He probably went on a bit. He usually does. No, he always does, but his point was nicely made.

Scientists will tell you that the creation of the very simplest bit of life is the equivalent of a cyclone passing over a junkyard and accidentally assembling a Boeing 747. It could happen, if you pull the arm of the universe's slot machine enough times.

A tornado can possibly turn a junkyard into a Boeing 747.
Credit Justin Hobson/Dwight Burdette/Bjorn via Creative Commons / WNPR Photo Illustration by Heather Brandon

To believe in Life without God, you really have to get down and boogie with infinity, because this couldn't happen without ungraspable eons of, well, nothing happening except the constant pulling of that lever... So when Adam Gopnik, in the current New Yorker, divides us up:

between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life

...he is putting Curry in that first group. I am (a little) surprised to learn that Nose panelist Irene Papoulis, a professor at a Northeastern liberal arts college, is also a soi-disant Super-Naturalist. I wasn't expecting that -- precisely because of what is contained in Gopnik's opening, a quote from Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers" (which I was privileged to see on Broadway in 2004) in which the main character ponders what he considers to be the seizing of the high (in the sense of advantageous) ground by the atheist:

The tide is running his way, and it is a tide which has turned only once in human history. . . . There is presumably a calendar date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, the noes had it.

But do they? You would say yes, if your main contact with humankind was with professors and public radio listeners. I have been berated by my audience for taking seriously -- or even courteously -- the thoughts of religious people, all of whom -- or so I'm told -- have nothing to offer us but rank superstition and backwardness. From what I can tell, Curry and Papoulis are outliers in their own milieux. (O, what a delicious plural!)

This has been on my mind since last Saturday night, when my Significant Other and I took in "Freud's Last Session" at TheaterWorks. The show had a long run in New York, seems to have played well in Hartford and is now up in L.A. with Judd Hirsch as the God-rejecting Freud. (Fans of "Independence Day" will remember him as Jeff Goldblum's worried father, a observant Jew who gathers the children in interdenominational prayer when the fighting gets fierce.)

TheaterWorks photo by Lanny Nagler

The play imagines a meeting between old man Freud and young man C.S. Lewis a short while before Freud died and just as World War II broke out. There are odd imbalances. People who have seen the play -- which emphasizes Lewis's youth and vitality as against Freud's misery in the grip of cigar-induced oral cancer -- may be surprised to learn that Freud lived to be 83 and that Lewis died at 64. It seems on stage like it would have to be the other way around.

"Why do you assume that religion and faith are second-class citizens? There seem to me to be a lot of religious people."

As we walked out, I told my S.O. that it was also interesting to have the old man pushing the dominant modernist view, and the young man keeping alive the ancient, sputtering flame of faith. And I said the weakness of the play -- which is fabulously acted in Hartford by Kenneth Tigar and Jonathan Crombie -- is the playwright's failure to give Lewis an arsenal of intellectual firepower that is equal to if not greater than Freud's. In the play, Freud offers up the unoriginal observation that, in "Paradise Lost," the devil has all the good lines. So it goes in this script too. Freud says all the cool stuff, and Lewis comes off as a pit of a frump. It was daring of Milton to give the devil such good lines in a pre-Enlightenment and pious world. It would have been equally exciting to give some crackling lines to Lewis, the Beta Dog in the modern dialogue.

So said I to the S.O.; and she, as she often does, asked,"Who says? Why do you assume that religion and faith are second-class citizens? There seem to me to be a lot of religious people." Well, I didn't have that Stoppard quote right at the tip of my tongue. I went home and looked up essentially some of the same numbers that Gopnik cites.

The most generous poll never seems to find more than thirty per cent of Americans saying they are “not religious or not very religious,” though the numbers get up to around fifty per cent in Europe.

The problem with those numbers is that they count the Super-Naturalists, effusive in meadows, pretty much the same way they count the faithful in the pews. And they're not quite the same thing.

I just wished that Lewis had been allowed to say something like,"Even if I'm wrong, even if at death my world goes blank and everything I believed was an illusion, it is to me a beautiful illusion from which I derive nourishment and which casts over my life a glow of meaning.  You wouldn't scoff me for spending my life in the thrall of Mozart and Matisse, but their works are illusions too."

FREUD: But they admit it, and so do we.

LEWIS: Will that be so important a distinction at the hour of my death? If I have loved life more for loving God and Christ, will I die a fool?

Well, they don't really invite you to rewrite the plays to suit you better. Anyway, Gopnik the Atheist has delivered to me an unforeseeable miracle. A response by Ross Douthat which I found cogent and compelling. Mirable dictu!  I'm hoping on the Nose to talk about whether belief is really so unfashionable among the educated elites. Oh, our car did get towed. But it was mostly our fault. As Moses said, you should read the signs.

Cross-posted from my Courant blog.