Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Importance of Endings

So as I say, endings will give you a clue as to genre. A movie or a novel or a short story or a play or a narrative poem may not be particularly funny, but if the ending is characterized by restoration, the affirmation of love, redemption, or forgiveness, what you are likely to have is a comedy. A story with a comedic structure.

We get the feeling we are actually in one—in a comedy, I mean—because, in part, of the humor. The humor is there to let us know it is okay to laugh. That the ending won’t be all that bad. That we are in a universe here. The universe of this particular story. In which the structure is comedic. We are in the kind of universe that—no matter how grim or terrible or sorrowful things get sometimes along the way—the ending will affirm the values of love and gentleness and kindness and generosity.

What the constructed narrative does then is to end in such a way that we are given hope. That we are given permission and encouragement to love. Yes, we will all of us—everyone—die. Yes, we will all of us grieve over the deaths of loved ones. Yes, we will grieve over the oppressed. But the end of the big universe—by implication, by metaphor—will somehow. And we have no idea how. Will somehow preserve the possibility of love. Will affirm the saving nature of love and kindness and generosity and forgiveness.

The other day was the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Wednesday, February 12th. Charles Darwin has been a figure of some ambivalence for many of us. On the one hand, here is a guy who pokes around for awhile, collecting data. Specimens. Then he spends decades trying to decode what he’s found. Tries to construct a pattern.

To imagine a story. A narrative. In which these data. These bones and geological strata and just then living specimens that he has found. Would make sense. Could make sense. Should make sense.

He uses the data of his experience to construct a story of times and places and beings and forces that are today largely unseen. Are invisible to the naked eye. Except for the few bits that as I say. He has picked up as a young man on a young man’s journey. A young man’s adventure to the still accessible ends of the known world.

What is so frightening about Charles Darwin’s story? His theory?

I wonder why so many of us react so emotionally to his theory? His story? It seems disproportional. Here is a scientist, after all. A mere scientist. Hypothesizing. Wondering. Trying to fit the data to a story that would comprehend the data. That’s all.

What if we think about natural history this way? he says. What if we suppose these relations? What if we suppose this sort of sequence? This kind of duration? These kinds of forces? What then? Doesn’t that make a little more sense of things? Doesn’t this new story accord a bit more faithfully with the information we have?

Well, I don’t know. Why isn’t there as strong an emotional reaction to black hole theory? Or string theory? Or quark theory? Or the germ theory of medicine? These play as much a role in our everyday lives as the theory of evolution. In fact, the germ theory plays a much more prominent role, I think.

Why don’t we get as emotional about market theory or game theory or chaos theory? What has happened here, to poor Mr. Darwin? Why do we come down on him in particular? What has he done, after all? Isn’t he merely doing what scientists do? Isn’t he simply trying to fit a particular data set to a theory? To a story that would help us understand the data?

I think maybe it has to do with endings. Our sense of an ending. And what we imagine, if we follow Mr. Darwin’s story out. If we follow it along and out several millions or hundreds of millions of years into the future.

I personally think it scares the willies out of a lot of people. To think of the world—this particular world right here—one hundred or two hundred million years from now. And where we humans might be then. At that point in time.

I think of Gulliver’s Travels. Jonathon Swift’s brilliant satire. (A funny book. A funny story.) And I think of the Houyhnhnms. Serene rational creatures. The perfection of nature. Ruling over the Yahoos--monkey-like creatures who look a great deal like us--who take great delight in defecating on others from the trees.


Archie said...

“Faith is the evidence of things not seen.” Heb 11:1. But if your faith is built upon evidence, then it’s not your faith that is the evidence of things not seen, it’s the evidence upon which your faith is based that is the evidence of things not seen. And that’s faith within any endeavor, any inquiry, any science or any theology. So Heb 11:1 must be a mistake, then… Do I hear an ‘Amen!’ from anyone out there? :-)

Bill said...

Archie, thank you for your comment. You have selected one of my favorite verses from the Bible. I would like kindly to disagree with your thesis. The evidence of God's work is difficult to see sometimes. Scientific experiments enable us to replicate results. As long as the experiment is done the same each time, the results will be the same. That's the way the physical world appears to work, at one level, in one context. But with God, this experimental approach doesn't seem to hold. We don't get the same results--the same action--from God in similar circumstances. And this is where Faith comes in. And this is the oddest and most interesting part: The greater the Faith, the more God seems to show up and act. Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy or a delusion? Well, in general, I don't think so. I think what we have here is something like the observer in quantum mechanics. If the observer looks for one thing, he is able to see it clearly, but other characteristics are fuzzy. When the other characteristics are focused on, they are quite clear, but now the original thing is fuzzy.

Bill said...

Archie, another way that I think about your observation is this: God is a bit of a peek-a-boo artist. Sometimes he is evident and others he is not. Yes, I believe you are 100% right in that we do require evidence of some kind. But the evidence that we are given seems inconsistent and periodic. And we seem sometimes to be given more, the more we expect it. So I guess what I'm saying is that evidence of God is quite different from evidence of gravity here on earth. The evidence of God is paradoxical and inconsistent, while the evidence of gravity here on earth is consistent. So the kind of predisposition one requires for understanding and experiencing the one might be called Faith, while the predisposition one requires for the understanding and experiencing of the other might better be called Scientific Expectation (or something like that).

Barry Thompson said...

Amen to you and to all an Amen.. hallelujah