Monday, April 9, 2012

More Marilynne Robinson: Synchronicity, Synergy, and Nature as Shining Garment of Divinity

Marilynne Robinson finds science's inability to imagine the world analogically, or to speak of what it observes in analogical terms, a significant shortcoming.  The "scientific worldview" is altogether too narrow, she thinks, because it cannot fulfill its promise to explain everything that it observes, when it lacks the language of analogy to extend its definitions and observations beyond what is apparently only on the surface of "reality."

And so she gives her students the following advice, as she teaches them to write: 

The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself--forget definition, forget assumption, watch.  We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small ("Freedom of Thought," in When I Was a Child I Read Books, p. 7 [and see p. 17]).

In the same essay, Robinson notes the power (for her as a writer and believer and observer of the world) of Calvin's metaphor that sees nature as a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed (p. 9). I've been thinking about this idea ever since I read Robinson's essay in the days leading up to Easter.  I've been thinking about the metaphor, quite specifically, in light of Easter: the resurrection of Christ demonstrating to us, revealing to us, the way in which divinity is both concealed and disclosed within the world in which we live.  A garment both hiding and assisting in the disclosure of the divine light it enfolds, engarbs: the resurrection of Christ doesn't bring that divinity at the center of all things into the world.  Instead, it shows us what has always been there, what always remains there, from beginning to end, alpha to omega, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

One of the ways in which I suspect we may encounter the shining divinity at the center of all things, which is simultaneously revealed and concealed by the natural world, is through those seemingly small but momentous synchronicities that demonstrate to us how ineluctably bound to one another we are--again, per omnia saecula saeculorum.  And which result in synergy, as we discover and acknowledge the tenuous bonds that link us one to another: synchronicity and synergy as signs of divine presence in the universe, expanding the divine energy in the world through moments of surprising recognition of the interconnection of one being to another . . . .

When I took my manuscript several days ago to my publisher, one section of my introductory essay above all gave me concern.  It made me ashamed to show the manuscript to the publisher, because I thought that perhaps he would regard this particular passage as absurd reaching for connections that no one in her/his right mind could possibly see.  But I had seen them, and had labored to explain them, and so I must not be quite in my right mind, q.e.d., said the tiny voice of self-deprecating doubt inside my head as I shlepped the pages north for inspection.

To be specific: a section of my introductory essay wonders if there is not possibly some genetic strain running through the DNA of the man on whom the book focuses, Wilson Bachelor, which results in religious questioning, religious oddity, religious rebellion generation after generation.  Within his family line . . . .

To support that point, I provide a rather detailed discussion of the troubles one of his (and my, since Bachelor and I are related) immigrant ancestors, one John Biggs, had with the authorities of Lower Norfolk County, Virginia, when it was reported to said authorities (of whom he had previously been one, as county under-sheriff and inspector of highways) that he had failed to have his children baptized.  And when he was brought before the court to answer this charge, not only did he refuse to comply with the demand that his children be baptized: he also refused to swear an oath, revealing himself as a Quaker.

This was at a moment in the history of Virginia in which the Royalist and exceedingly Anglican governor, William Berkeley, was cracking down on religious dissent in the colony, in which the Church of England was established, but in which the sympathies of many Virginia Anglicans lay largely in a Puritan direction--particularly in the southeast counties of the colony to which the family roots of Wilson Bachelor run.  The refusal to have one's children baptized was a particular bee in the bonnet of Berkeley, and he sweetened the pot of neighbor-on-neighbor-spying by promising a hefty reward to anyone who reported his or her neighbor to the authorities for contravening the baptism laws of the colony.

The persecution of Puritan-leaning Anglicans in Virginia became, at this period, so intense that a colony of these folks, including close friends and associates of Bachelor's ancestor John Biggs, hied themselves off to Maryland, where the Catholic authorities of that colony provided considerably more leeway for religious dissent than did the Anglican ones of Virginia.  And as the Quakers came on the scene, many of the Puritan-sympathizing colonists of southeastern Virginia, including Biggs, shifted to the Friends as the latest wave of dissent against the established church and its attempt to mandate one form of religious observance and thinking for all colonists.

As I say, my manuscript discusses all of this in detail, and then asks if the freethought of Wilson Bachelor is somehow encoded in a genetic DNA of familial religious dissent, given that this Biggs family figures in his history not merely through one of his immigrant ancestors, John Biggs, but also through repeated intermarriages generation after generation, which make disentangling his family lines a challenging enterprise, when cousin marries cousin marries cousin, per omnia saecula saeculorum.  Repeating, over and over, down the family lines, the heritage of religious dissent and religious questioning . . .

Or so it seems to me.  Or it seems to me that one might validly argue as a possibility, that some traits which persist in some families over many generations have a genetic root of some kind.  And these traits may well include a penchant for asking religious questions that make authority figures uncomfortable.  Or a penchant for taking religious belief and practice seriously enough that one is disposed to place oneself in danger by asking those uncomfortable questions--as Bachelor himself did, since he suffered various blows and reprisals when he became an outspoken freethinker.

I was, frankly, worried about showing the publisher a manuscript that puts such crazy-sounding speculation in print--and at crazy-seeming length.  In my experience, not all publishers of books do crazy. Not very well.  

Then this interesting thing happened: as we sat talking about this and that, and, in particular, discussed Bachelor's essays explaining why he had become a freethinker, the publisher said, "Wouldn't it be interesting to know something about his family background, and to know if this kind of religious questioning is part of his family heritage?"  To which I replied, "Well . . . " as my synchronicity meter dinged off the wall inside.  

The very "fault" that had seemed to my worry-mongering head most egregious when I brought the manuscript to the publisher for inspection turned out to be the felix culpa that might well pique his interest more than anything else in the entire introductory essay.  Synchronicity releasing synergy in both of us, since we seem to have a shared interest in the crazy notion that genetic inheritance may not be entirely outside the realm of explanatory factors, as one engages in the enterprise of writing biography . . . . 

Last evening, yet another of these glimmers that there's perhaps more to the world than what's apparent on the surface: more interconnection.  More gossamer threads with steel cores binding us one to another:

Steve and I were invited to an Easter soirée at the house of one of his co-workers.  There, we met an interesting young woman and her affianced.  She teaches anthropology at a local university, loves corgis, can talk about a fascinating range of academic subjects and books.

And lives with her fiancé in a house in our neighborhood that, as she began to describe it, began to ring one bell after another for me.  So that, with each additional word she said about the house, I saw more and more clearly that the house she was describing is a house next door to the house in which I grew up.

Next door to the house that I think of as my House of Memory, my House of Dreams, because, whenever I dream of "home," I invariably dream of some version of this particular house--when I don't dream instead, that is, of the house of my grandmother several blocks away.  Which is the House of Memory in a very different sense, since it was the anchor of stable and loving family life throughout my growing-up years, while the other House of Memory and Dreams was also the House of Trauma, since it was the house in which my family lived during the miserable year in which my father abandoned us.

So that the dreams are connected to the trauma, the touch of pain and perplexity, that is always at the root of so many of the dreams we have no choice except to keep dreaming over and over again, traumas leading to our Träumen.  

And what are the chances that, in a city that may be small but is not tiny, I'd meet someone at a party who is living in the house beside that House of Memory, that House of Dreams.  Who sparked such synergy inside me as we talked back and forth about this and that--native American artifacts still being found (as I found them in my childhood) just under the surface of the soil in many parts of the city; corgis and their lovable, maddeningly imperious manners, etc.

This is what happens, I think, when we recognize that someone we've just met as a stranger is not really unconnected from us at all.  Sparks fly.  Synergy develops.  Together, we begin to realize that the world is far less manageable and susceptible to explanation than many definatory memes, including the dominant memes of our cultural and religious imaginations these days, want us to imagine.  

The world is a far wilder place than many of our definatory memes ask us to imagine.  Because divinity, by its very nature, proceeds from and leads back to a wildness that is absolutely unimaginable . . . . 

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