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.001% Possibility of Love (Lecture given at Bucknell University, 2019)

On a bright morning under an azure May sky, a buzz filled the air as I watched my daughter’s class graduate from Roanoke College.  I had a privileged view: Roanoke College surprised me by awarding me with an Honorary Degree so I sat on the platform, watching my daughter come up in the line of the graduates to receive their diplomas.   When it was her turn, I went to stand next to the President of the university to surprise my daughter.I had hoped to take a selfie, but President Maxey stopped me and instead, graciously gave the diploma to me to give to her. It was a moment I will forever remember.

As I watched the graduates parade through the podium to receive their diplomas, I had the overwhelming sense of this complex emotion: a complex emotion of love.  

This was to be sure one of the greatest days of my life and my daughter’s life, and my heart was filled with thanksgiving, joy and gratitude.  Yet, as I watched each student receive their diploma, I was also filled with this deep sadness.  I kept on thinking about the future, what each of these graduates will have to face. They will have to face many disappointments, failures, betrayals, traumas, illnesses, brokenness, and sadness. I began to understood what the elves in Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” stories understood so well, that as we grow older, we become sadder.  Or, maybe the Japanese poets of old were right in connecting beauty with the ephemeral, with cherry blossoms falling, and that ultimately, beauty is connected with death.  I did not know then, that I would be taken to a "dark valley" of my experience in a few years to come as well.

This dark foreboding was accompanied by a bright and extraordinary happiness, incredible gratitude and profound joy.  Despair is not separate or the opposite of joy; instead, I believe despair is part of joy. Sometimes, to be happy is to be sad, to rejoice is to weep.  It seems, in order to love, you have to believe in this complexity of life. Yet, is love possible in a world full of complexity and despair?  Is love and faith suspect, as we have been told of late by our cynical critics? Perhaps we doubt love’s existence at all.  I wrote later about this confounding nature of love, connected to the (im)possibility of education:

Love is difficult. Love seems inaccessible at times; or perhaps we thought we had beheld Love’s glory and she slipped away from us in a tragic manner.  Love may even be considered an impossibility.  Is true, integrated knowledge impossible, too? 

We may not grasp the fullness of this experience if we choose to live in an overly bifurcated world full of false dichotomies.  We may think of Love as the opposite of hatred. We may separate Love’s emotions from rationality. Love is complex and is all encompassing toward a deeper reality of knowing. One philosopher puts it this way, “If knowing is care at its core, caring leads to knowing. To know is to love; to love will be to know.” (Esther Meek, Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology, 33). Love is to know, with emotions, mind and body fully integrated. Love is this full state of being, filled with complex layers of emotions and feelings.  These feelings are pungent, filling the air with promises, while simultaneously bringing with it impending challenges.

As I sat back in my seat on the platform, my meandering thoughts took me to what I had said at a chapel talk at William Jewell University just a week prior:

 I just returned from Japan, where I spoke on the passage in John 11 passage that says that “Jesus wept.”  It was at a missionary church in Tokyo.   I noticed, as I was speaking, that there was a severely handicapped child sitting right in front of me.  I am a former special ed instructor, and I felt particularly drawn to her.  I went up to her afterward and simply held her hands.  I had just spoken on “Jesus wept” and here, in front of me, was part of why he wept.  I felt so keenly the gap between the two of us. What could I possibly do to encourage this person?  Could anything get through?  After about three minutes of trying, with no response from her, I was about to let go of her hand.  Her father came up behind her and said to me, smiling, “Do you hear that clicking of her teeth?”  I had noticed that while I was trying to communicate with her, she was clicking her teeth.  

 Her father said, “That means she is happy.  That’s what she does when she is happy.” 

 The post-resurrection journey is a mystery.  Biblical passages make clear that the resurrected Christ is often hard to recognize. He appears to Mary Magdalene as a gardener, and it is not until Christ calls Mary’s name that her eyes are opened.  On the road to Emmaus, the disciples argue with the resurrected One without knowing that he is indeed the Christ.  Our hearts burn when we have such encounters. My heart burned within me as I heard what the girl's father said; it was a small resurrection moment for me. 

This girl may not be in the realm of “happiness” as we expect from happiness.  We often think of happiness as getting something we want, or being healthy, or being successful by “graduating”.

What if 99.999% of the universe is filled with lack of love?  What if our capacity to see beyond the veil of that dominant darkness of despair is severely limited?  How then shall we communicate our knowledge of happiness, or our knowledge of love? Can we hear the “clicking of heaven” even then?

If we are in such a “No Exit” reality--and, clearly, we are surrounded by deaths-- what shall we then think of, live toward, and create with? If you are to love, then perhaps a 10% chance of love may be enough--perhaps even 1%.  Would you risk everything if there were a 1% chance of love?  Would you risk everything for .001% percentage of love? The point, if there is even a minuscule chance, faith demands we pay attention to that chance.  This is our “Emmaus Road” of education.

Think back to the girl “clicking of heaven” again. Is it possible that she is evidence of the existence of the .001%? Existence of love, and what I felt on the podium at Roanoke, the existence of this type of a complexity, the reality of love?  If our world is only made up of a Darwinian struggle for survival, and what remains is the survival of the fittest, then her existence cannot be accounted for by the cruel mechanism of the natural world.  If even the smallest evidence of love is acknowledged (and she is certainly not insignificant in that sense), this love that has the .001% possibility, wouldn't that be a game changer?

Even if you believe in a tightly closed system, if .001% remains of the dust from another world, that closed world will never be the same—it’s open, and even that possibility can begin to shift how we view the world. 

Love is so complex.  Love assumes that even a tiny dosage of existence, a mustard seed of existence, can change everything.  Art can acknowledge this possibility, with beauty pointing the way to love.

The poetic task is to depict that angst and despair, but our task is also to suggest the remnant of possibility, even if it is .001% of a remnant, such as what Dante sings of, at the very end of The Divine Comedy:

“Power, here, failed the deep imagining: but already my desire and will were rolled, like a wheel that is turned, equally, by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars” (The Divine Comedy, Paradiso).

Dante reminds us that there is love, fully complex and fully alive at the heart of the universe.  This type of Presence that is connected with love has been dismissed from the mainstream conversation of intellectuals and scholars. Love has become just an emotion wired into us by biological means, a chemical reaction to stimuli, our survival mechanism. They might say this poetic utterance is “nice, old thinking” that has nothing to do with our 21st Century reality.  The vast universe claims no hold on this “Love that moves the Sun and the other stars” and we cannot prove it, as we cannot measure love by gravitational forces.  Fully admitting that such a notion is not a “proof”, we can still speak of the possibility of the .001% possibility of love.  Can we hear the “click of our teeth” in that kind of an acknowledgment?

When I lecture on these subjects today, I ask students “If there is this .001% possibility of love, would it be worth it to pursue it for the rest of our lives?”  If the answer is “yes” to that question, I implore them, “Spend the rest of your time at this school doing that”. If the answer is “yes” to that question, then we can spend the rest of our lives searching for that reality; it may be found in unexpected places, like the “clicking of heaven” from a young girl trapped in her limited body. But that .001 % possibility can change everything.