May 15, 2011

certainly uncertain

“I believe in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to theology.”

Three years after college, in response to my happiest, and most Christian, friend from college, I blurted that out as I was wiping away tears about something. I was wiping away tears about a lot of things at the time.

She sighed, bemused and frustrated. It was a sort of “what the H-E-doubletoothpicks does that mean” kind of sigh. She had just asked me what did I believe, if I didn’t believe in Jesus. Jesus made perfect sense to her, and she wasn’t wiping away tears about a lot of things a lot of the time. Ergo.

But, something about Heisenberg was beginning to make sense to me, and as difficult as that was to explain, it felt like the first deep breath of my life. I felt like I’d been buffeted around by years of mental storms and now, after a slow-motion psychic shipwreck and much flailing in dark open waters, I was crawling up onto a pitch black and unknown shore, taking this first breath and muttering, complete with a British accent, “Oh, bloody hell! Let’s just get on with it.”

I had just finished auditing an evening theology course. I like to study like most people like to sunbathe, but I had never been so soporifically annoyed in all of my life. To presume a required outcome, and then to engage in prodigious intellectual contortions to arrive back at said outcome, was almost morally offensive to me. I hadn’t yet made the acquaintance of Christian mysticism, which would have certainly softened my reaction. Instead, I was making the acquaintance of books like my beloved The Dancing Wu Li Masters and Joseph Campbell’s Myths To Live By, and so I was beginning to say things that freaked my Christian friends out.

In 1958, Joseph Campbell was in Japan for the Ninth International Congress on the History of Religions, along with a slew of other American representatives. A leading social philosopher from New York City, apparently a bit flustered, asked of a Shinto priest,

“I’ve been now to a good many ceremonies and … a number of shrines, but I don’t get the ideology; I don’t get your theology.”

The Japanese do not like to disappoint visitors, and this gentleman, polite, apparently respecting the foreign scholar’s profound question, paused as though in deep thought, and then, biting his lips, slowly shook his head.

“I think we don’t have ideology,” he said. “We don’t have theology. We dance.”

Now, twenty-three years later, I keep dancing around certain ideas, when I’d rather be dancing with them. I keep trying to explain the impact of the Uncertainty Principle, when we should all just be dancing around on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

The Uncertainty Principle. The Principle of Uncertainty. Principally Uncertain. Uncertainly principled? Uncertain Principles. Wait! The Principles of Uncertainty.

Maira Kalman wrote The Principles of Uncertainty four years ago. Well, scribbled and doodled and pondered and illustrated them. You don’t need ideology. You don’t need theology. You just need this one book! She is so funny and so reverent to the ache of the human spirit. She suffers. She hopes. She doubts. She gets interdependent origination and lives in New York City. She’s seen it all, and she gets it all. She makes perfect sense.

“I go home and wash the dishes. Washing dishes is the antidote to confusion. I know that for a fact.”

“The sun will explode five billion years from now. Set your watches. That really changes everything, doesn’t it?”

If I quoted any more, I would take away the gift of perusing and pondering it all in less than three hours. Not enough to convince you to run to the bookstore today? Here are the first two pages:

How can I tell you everything that is in my heart.

Impossible to begin.

Enough. No. Begin. With the hapless Dodo. Galumphing innocently around Mauritius sporting a ridiculous plume.

Then—out of the blue—Man arrives with a hankering for a

Dodo sandwich

and Poof! By 1681—Extinct. No more Dodo.

As the last Dodo was running for its life,

Spinoza was trying to figure out a rational explanation for everything! (You too?)

Sporting some handsome curls (which look somewhat frivolous for someone so monumental) he searched for Eudaimonia

(which is not a kind of amonia) but the state of happiness we are all looking for

though when I used to tell my sublime mother I wanted to be happy, she would say

“What is happiness?” Really.

But then he too breathed his last (with loved ones around him?)

and Poof! No more Spinoza. He was extinct.

We don’t even have a stuffed Spinoza.

You are so welcome! Now, run along. And dance the whole way…

Categories: Myths to Live By, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Principles of Uncertainty

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