Friday, May 6, 2022

Faith, Madness, and Multiverses


As a writer, I'm used to failure.  

Most often, it's just a publisher letting my agent know that "this manuscript doesn't meet the interests of Book Bookman and Siblings at this time, best of luck in your future endeavors, e pluribus unum, etcetera, etcetera."  This is ninety eight point three percent of the writing life, so I sigh, and move on.

Every once in a while, that rejection will be more pointed.  Not formulaic, or the welcome word of helpful critique, but actually the teensiest bit sharp.  Like, for instance, the tart response I got back in 2019 from an editor of renown at a major religion publishing house.  My stalwart agent had sent him the draft manuscript of a book about Christian faith and multiverses.  The concept of the multiverse, as drawn from speculative physics, is that the nature of reality is not just our linear spacetime.  Instead, reality is a functionally infinite array of universes, in which all possibility is made real.  

For years, I’d encounter this cosmology in conversations with atheist friends and conversation partners, presented as an alternative to God’s creative act in making our universe.  As I was listening to and not just yelling at them, I found myself fascinated by how that way of viewing reality interacted with my faith.  So I started writing about it, and a book materialized.

How, I asked in the manuscript, does Christian faith encounter this understanding of the cosmos?  While multiverse cosmologies have often been presented as a counterargument to faith, they really aren’t at all.  In fact, they’re almost indistinguishable from faith, in ways that are both heady and delightful.

With the book completed, it was time to send it out, and so my longsuffering agent and I did. 

We'd dutifully waited the months and months it took the editor to get around to it.  His response, when it finally came, didn't beat around the bush:

"No one cares about this topic, and even if they did, no one would care what he has to say about it."

Well.  Alrighty then.

There's truth to the second part of that statement, to be sure.  As the hermit-ish pastor of a sweet little congregation in a rural town, I'm not a "name."  It's a fair cop, guv.  A publisher doesn't typically make back an advance, even a modest one, if they gamble on a relative unknown.  I get it.  Publishers do want a return on their investment, and that editor was right about me.

But he couldn't have been more wrong about the multiverse.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that multiverses are front and center in the cultural zeitgeist these days.  
Avengers Endgame, the final film in the sprawling Avengers saga?  If ROI is your crude capitalist metric, that alone brought in two point seven billion dollars of global box office, against four hundred million in production and distribution.  What's the theme?  Multiverses.  Spiderman: No Way Home managed to shake off the cinematic malaise of COVID this last year to reach actual audiences.  It also yielded one point eight eight billion dollars in box office, against two hundred million in production and distribution.  What was the schtick?  Multiverses.

Right now as I write this, the delightful action comedy Everything, Everywhere, All at Once?  It's an indy-ish film, with limited release, but it’s punching well above its weight, and it's all about the multiverse.

Coming out this Spring is yet another film from the Disney/Marvel superhero entertainment complex, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.  I’ve been looking forward to that one for years, as I find the mystic stories of Dr. Stephen Strange and his reality-bending magic both entertaining and excellent grist for sermon illustrations.

And that’s just film. It’s equally pervasive in literature.  The brilliant, entertaining  ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai?  Matt Haig’s bestselling blockbuster THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY?   A THOUSAND PIECES OF YOU by Claudia Gray?  All stories of the multiverse.  

In blockbuster movie after blockbuster movie, novel after novel, streaming show after show, our contemporary storytelling is pervaded by the idea of multiverses.  But there's more to multiversality than crass materialist profit seeking.  These alternate universe narratives have purchase now because they speak to something fundamental about our society.  

In the internet age, we human beings are being forced to confront a panoply of different truth claims and competing visions of reality, each rising from the ground of a variant culture or subculture.  Some of them can be reconciled with one another, but many claims exist in diametric opposition.   This has always been true, but the immediacy of new media concentrates that experience, intensifies it, and we find ourselves torn between wildly disparate visions of reality. It seems, frankly, like many of us live in entirely alternate timelines.  

 In a multiverse, in other words.

In a multiverse, after all, every single possibility is actualized.  Every version of ourselves, every timeline, every possible choice?  They're all made real.  While this might make for entertaining storytelling possibilities, it’s also more than we can wrap our heads around.  Human beings cannot handle everything, everywhere, all at once.  The cognitive dissonance that generates is too great, and our sense of self decoheres.  

What if we hadn't done X, but instead chosen Y?  Or Y1b.A-sub7?  How would we know what our "best self" means, or what our "true" self looks like, if every iterative variance is equally real, and equally "true?"  We can't do all of them, or be all of them.  For our sanity, our selves, and our souls, we must choose who we become in the face of the unformed churning yarp of being.  That choice can feel overwhelming, as competing visions of who we might be paralyze us.  Every decision we make precludes another, and confronted with the anxiety of choice overload, we can end up curled up on our old sofa, watching endless Youtube snippets, making no choice at all.

That's where faith comes in.  Faced with the irreducible complexity of a reality so wildly chaotic that our souls cannot bear it, faith gives us a ground on which to stand and imbues life with meaning.  That has always been the strength of faith, be it the purpose-driven life of Rick Warren Evangelical Christianity or the Ultimate Concern of Tillichian Christian existentialism. 

However you define it, faith gives us our integrity.  It allows us to act, to make that choice against a measure that transcends us infinitely.

I, for instance, try to make every one of my choices as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  Are there other choices I could make?  Sure.  There are so many other ways I could live that I could spend my whole life counting them. But faith is an orientation towards a defining purpose, one that integrates and gives cohesion to our souls.

What choice should I make?  What path should I take?  The answer, for the faithful Christian, is simple.  As Scots mystic George MacDonald so bluntly puts it, if you call Jesus Lord, you must do what Jesus would have you do.  “How do you call me Lord, Lord,” Jesus sighs, rolling his eyes at us in Luke’s Gospel, “if you do not do what I say?”  If we claim not to know what that means, we’re deluding ourselves.  Of course we know what that means.  Every day, in every way, striving to love God, love neighbor and enemy alike, and endeavoring to be in all things guided by Christ's teachings.

Make the call to that person you know is suffering.  Take that time to center yourself down with a prayer.  Spend a moment in study, or sort clothing at a local clothing closet.  Share a meal with a friend, or with a stranger.  Forgive the one who done did you wrong.  

Some days, the thing Jesus would have you do is simpler still.  Make that bed.  Sweep that floor.  Wash those dishes.  Weed the garden.  Do what needs to be done.  Those potentialities are right there, and how we actualize them is the measure of our faith.  This is true in a complex, linear spacetime, and remains true in the functionally infinite branching wildness of a multiverse.

But how do we know, our anxiety asks, that we're doing that thing exactly right?  How do we know that we're making the best possible choice, and that we're following Jesus in the best possible way?

The answer, again, is simple.  We don't.  Nor, if we've been listening to Jesus, do we need to.  Because that's where grace comes in.  Grace is, after all, both the heart and foundation of Christ's teachings.   Grace, which accepts our flaws and imperfections.  Grace, which understands our human limitations.  Grace, which forgives our imperfections, and shows mercy, and gives us the courage to strive again.

As a writer, after all, I am used to failure.  Failure, to paraphrase Dr. Stephen Strange, is an old friend.  As a writer, as a pastor, as a husband and father and human being, pretty much nothing I do is perfect.  Failure happens. But every moment shines with the grandeur of God, each offering up the promise of something new.   I dust myself off, remember my purpose and the grace of God, and then do what needs to be done, as best I understand it.  

No matter how dizzying and maddening the universe around us might be, we can meet that complexity with the hope that rises from faith.