For the last few days I have been thinking about this next week, and a lecture I am giving at Montreat College in North Carolina. The college has received funding from the Lilly Endowment to address the relationship of education to vocation, a project the foundation has generously supported for many years; Lilly has given over $200 million to this, and obviously think it matters for who we are and how we live.
The planners have chosen four speakers to address four themes, each one grounded in the Story that makes sense of all stories, the metanarrative of creation/fall/redemption/consummation. Every human being on the face of the earth asks and answers questions that arise from this view of history—whether we buy into its commitments about life and the world, or not –wondering, “Where did all this come from? What happened? Can it ever change? What is the end of history?” These are the questions of every life, for everyone everywhere.
I’ve been asked to take up the second question, i.e. what happened? why are things such a mess? why is there horror and injustice and suffering? why do we weep? why do we groan? In their different ways, they are one question, of course.
So I am pondering it for myself, again. One of the poetic windows that I am looking through is from the band, Mumford and Sons, and their song, “Hopeless Wanderer.” As they put it, with a simple, stark honesty, “But do not tell me all is fine.”
Instinctively we know that. Intuitively we know that. And in thousands of ways we respond to its reality. Two very common answers are, “karma is” and “shit happens,” realizing as we do that we have to account somehow and some way for things not being as we want, as we expect, as we believe it should be.
But it is the “should be” part that makes it complicated. When we introduce “should” or “ought” into the conversation, even into our heart of hearts, we let our slips show, as not every story of life and the world can make sense of words like that. We need a metanarrative that is rich enough and true enough, accounting for the complexity that we all know, and feel in our very bones.
All of us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, have been thinking about this for a long time, from the beginning of time, in fact. The Buddhists decided to call it “emptiness,” and embrace that as the point of life, because it is life. Marx saw alienation everywhere, yearning for something more. And in the last century, we have Albert Camus and the plague, Walker Percy and his being lost in the cosmos, Shuzako Endo and his silence, Bob Dylan and everything is broken, Billy Corgan and zero, and Johnny Cash and his hurt… in their own ways each one trying to make sense of what we all trying to make sense of, i.e. what happened?
Before all is said and done, I will draw on the composer Arvo Part, and his “De Profundis.” For millennia human beings have been singing this song, aching and hoping as we do that not all is lost– though we do feel lost. From Psalm 130 on, with memorable stops along the way in the musical imagination of Martin Luther, on through the Polish death metal band Vader, we see the world in its wounds, and cry out from the depths of our being.
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meæ.
There is good reason to do that, knowing what we know of ourselves and others, of our lives and the world. But with Mumford and Sons, we will not allow the romanticism that insists that this is the way it’s supposed to be. We cannot repress reality that much– we can’t if we are honest, because it hurts too much.
(Photo from Assateague National Seashore, home of the wild ponies, on the Virginia coast.)