“Chance or Dance?” — Your Life is Miraculously Grounded in a Merciful God
You are uniquely special — someone so precious and unrepeatable that your absence would leave a gaping hole in the fabric of existence.
I offer, as prelude to the piece that follows, a brief, harrowing description of the human predicament. It may be found in the Pensées, Pascal’s unfinished masterpiece in defense of the Christian faith.
“When I consider the brief span of my life,” it begins, “absorbed into the eternity which comes before after — as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day — the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?”
There are only two days in every man’s life that really matter. Of the two, the first is wholly out of our control. Does anyone really have a say in whether or not he wishes to be born? Nor is it likely that any of us were even aware of the blessed event, much less hearing the announcement on the evening news.
And the second most important day? That would be when we find out why we were born. Of course, many people never do find out. Sandwiched between two eternities of before and after — swallowed up by spaces of which they know nothing and which know nothing of them — they remain clueless right to the end.
In the face of all this, one’s options are pretty limited — downright stark, in fact. The exercise of one’s liberty can move in only one of two directions. Either you see your birth as a non-event, a nothing burger, which means a life shorn of any sense at all. In fact, so meaningless is everything that life becomes no more than “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,” to quote those last desperate lines spoken by Macbeth as his enemies close in for the kill. And why wouldn’t that be the case if, assuming Shakespeare’s description to be true, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more…?” Not much to commend there.
Or there is the other option, which is to see your life as a gift, an astonishment even, with which God from all eternity had been planning to surprise you, thus conferring an imperishable importance that can never be taken away. You are uniquely special, in other words — someone so precious and unrepeatable that your absence would leave a gaping hole in the fabric of existence. Neither pandemic, nor woke politics, can prevent you from seeing your life as miraculously grounded in a God who, from moment to moment, sends tender mercies your way. “Once a poor creature,” exclaims the poet George Herbert, “now a wonder, / A wonder tortur’d in the space / Betwixt this world and that of grace.”
But here’s the catch. You have got to choose, there is no room to maneuver between the two. Either you’re no better than a piece of toast, however buttered; or a treasured child of your Father, destined to live forever amid the precincts of eternal felicity. Either we find ourselves at this moment and in this place mere accidents that happened to happen, having no greater worth than a pork chop alongside a bucket of baked beans; or we shine like the sun because our being was made by God to bask in the light of Christ. “Who plays in ten thousand places,” the poet Hopkins reminds us, “lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / to the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
My friend, the late Tom Howard, said exactly the same thing in that marvelous little book of his called Chance or the Dance?, one of those “drop everything books,” which I make my students read (and I re-read) every year. And what is it about? Look at the title, for heaven sake, it will tell you all that you need to know. Either you and I are the chance result of a random collection of atoms, aimlessly swirling about the universe; or there is a choreography to the cosmos, an order and pattern — call it a dance — that is both elegant and efficient, designed by Someone orchestrating the whole affair. “Is it chance / or dance moves / the world?” he asks on the front piece of the book, quoting the poet Eugene Warren. “Is the world / blind and dumb / or bloom, festal/ / A vain jest, / or holy feast?”
The modern world has sought to disconnect us from the rhythms and rigors of the dance. It tries mightily, argues Howard, to disabuse us of all that is truly human, which is the knowledge that “things are not random; they are, finally, glorious, and the diagram of this glory appears everywhere and on all levels.” We are not “grinding tediously toward entropy, but dancing toward the Dance.” Indeed, he insists, “we and the stars and acorns and angels — are all operating in our different modes under the sovereignty of the whole pattern … all moving solemnly and joyously in a measure, finding our true freedom in the steps appointed to us…”
We must do all we can to resist the gravitational pull of this grim and awful age. Tom Howard certainly did, his whole life an ardent, unremitting defense of the permanent things. I like to think that, having at last learned to move in a measure both solemn and joyous, he is now in a place where he may intercede for those of us still learning the steps. It is a consoling thought.