This is the first of three essays on grace. The three parts move through three aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across existentialism, Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
A Reason For Everything
There are people who say that everything happens for a reason. This is true, for every event will always have an explanation. Natural events—say an apple falling from a tree—have mechanical explanations that can be objectively verified. When people are involved, it’s less clear why things happen the way they do. The reasons begin to get fuzzy, or they become contested. These are the debates charted in the far too numerous tomes cluttering our bookshelves and Kindles. Yet no matter how ham-fistedly human pretense tortures the truth with conspiracy, polemic, or just plain history, the fact is that in human events, too, everything happens for a reason.
But this is not what people mean when say that everything happens for a reason. These reasons are invoked when unexpected events change life in some irrevocable way, whether for good or ill. These reasons give purpose to the challenges we face. Yet this saying says less about the nature of the universe than about the instinctively human drive to narrate order into it. This takes place at the expense of reason, for it overlooks the simplest explanation that fits the facts:
We don’t know why some things happen, including the big, unexpected things that change lives and the course of history—and we may never know.
There may be no “reason” to the universe. It is shot through with events we can only call random, which appear to rob the world of purpose and meaning. In response people seek different ways to build up the certainties they need. Some avoid asking questions or wondering why. Theirs is an existence amid the fog of quick pleasures and slovenly gratification. Others turn to dogma or hard-and-fast explanations of the grand mysteries of life, preferring to believe that everything happens for reason, even if they have to make up those reasons again and again in order to adjust the truth to the events of the day.
Others still, a much smaller number to be sure, find themselves stuck in the middle, vexed and even anguished at the lack of universal order and meaning, repeatedly disappointed by every attempt to find larger truths they can hold on to forever.
Such was the case with Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea. Roquentin was sickened by the sense that his own life and actions were “superfluous” and even repugnant, since he could no longer find any deeper meaning to the world outside his own mind. Instead of feeling intentional and historical, he was an alien in a world that treated him with indifference. After fighting these feelings almost to the point of madness, he finally accepted that this was the real nature of life—empty, indifferent, unnecessary—and in this he found his reason to act.
“I am free: there is absolutely no reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine more of them … My past is dead …”
Roquentin now had the power to define his own life and what it meant, yet still he despairs.
“I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street. Alone and free. But this freedom is rather like death.”
In the face of this bleak, graceless epiphany, Roquentin decides to abandon the historical biography that he was working on when the nausea struck him. Instead, he will write a novel. The novel will define him, as “a little of its clarity might fall over my past” and then one day “I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself: ‘That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started’.”
Thus fiction replaces history to give meaning—and reason—to real life.
Notes and Credits
The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/. She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. She wrote me, “I am delighted with [John’s] respect for the work of artists, for he does not reproduce the images from my website without my permission. As an artist this touches me deeply. On the other hand I do this also as a sign of friendship between our two countries, France and the USA, in spite of our political and economic differences.” Thank you, Ms. Chmakoff.
The painting that leads this essay is “Le Chemin de Damas,” The Road to Damascus. It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had the conversion experience that led him to become Paul the Evangelist, the apostle who more than any other spread Christianity across the Mediterranean world in the decades following the crucifixion. Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted Christians. On the road to Damascus, something changed in an irrevocable way that turned Saul into his opposite. He had no reason by which to understand this.
Paul Bloom’s essay in The Atlantic (December 2005), “Is God an Accident,” reviews recent science on the human instinct to read and narrate order into the universe: “Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness.” The notion that there is no purpose to life (that we can recognize) is hard for human beings to swallow, because a sense of plot and story-line is hard-wired into our cognitive structure.
Quotations from Nausea: Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New Directions: 1964), pp. 156-57. I devoured Sartre in college and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of “freedom” in his work, from Nausea through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his last great work. Along the way I read most of his plays, all the novels, his memoir (The Words), Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir his last years, Adieu, and another biography I have since misplaced. At the end of the day, I can fully appreciate the humor of Marty Smith’s Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook.
This essay uses a fictional character, Roquentin, as an exemplar of behavior, attitudes, and ideas that should be meaningful to real people. I treat Roquentin as if he were real, for he is. I never quite agreed with the way Dan Qualye was ridiculed for using Murphy Brown as an example for a discussion of values in America. (There were plenty of other, legitimate reasons to ridicule Mr. Quayle and hope he would never have a chance to sit in the Oval Office.) In all, the 3 pieces of this essay mix real and fictional characters, because their actions (fictional, real, or historical-but-embellished) are meaningful.
St. Paul, the overarching subject of the 3 essays, is a real figure who comes to us through writing: his own letters to his congregations across the Greco-Roman world and the writings about him that survive, notably in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. We know that not all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him. Those that are still contain later insertions and redactions added by scribes over the centuries. In the end, the way Sartre finishes Nausea is the key: Roquentin will gain his freedom by leaving history and biography and writing a novel. This is just what Sartre did; Roquentin’s redemption was the day, the hour, when it all began for his author as well. Through the very act of creating, even fiction, we give purpose to our lives and order to the universe.