Something terrible happens — you get in a car accident but you’re okay, you lose your job, a loved one gets sick or even dies. In these moments, why do people say, “Everything happens for a reason?” This is a bit of conventional wisdom that has a staying power that we, the Circle of Hope pastors, were exploring in our series of talks on the “Things Jesus Never Said.” My operating principle in designing these talks was to explore the worldly wisdom in contrast with the wisdom of the cross. But I didn’t want to just slam the things everyone says.  I don’t think there is always a direct contrast between the two wisdoms. The wisdom of the cross does not shout down the wisdom of the world; it subverts and transforms it.

What Jesus actually said is often so different that there is no real opportunity for any kind of violent collision of thoughts. Jesus gets at the root of things, the things below the surface that very few people are talking about. Jesus addresses the parts of us that really need to change if we are going to live a transformed life. Jesus comes at things from such a different angle that the people talking to him misunderstood him, some almost completely. In general, I think the Christian Church misunderstands Jesus as much as his contemporaries.

In my message on November 24th, 2019 at Circle of Hope in Pennsauken, NJ, I compared “Everything happens for a reason” to Jesus saying in John 9 that the man born blind from birth was born blind not because he sinned or his parents sinned “but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Jesus’ reasoning is not cause and effect. There is no reason for this blindness. Jesus actually said that the man is being caught up in the inevitability of the Kingdom of God here on Earth. The works of God Jesus goes on to say is to bring light to all who will open their eyes to it with his help. The religious leaders keep their eyes shut and refuse to see Jesus for who he is, because they have their wisdom intact.

Luke Bartolomeo, Circle of Hope’s Communication Manager, turned me on to a podcast called “You have Permission” with Dan Koch that aims to help religious people like the ones who were talking past Jesus in John 9 reconsider their vision.  “You Have Permission” means “we are allowed to talk about this.” It often features the intersection of theology and science. I was blown away by a recent interview Dan did with John Haught, author of The New Cosmic Story, because it confirmed my conclusions from John 9 from a totally different angle.

It seems that we humans, at least the Western minded ones I hang out with the most, are oriented to the past. We interpret the present based on a cause and effect narrative. The disciples ask “What is the reason for this man’s blindness? What cause made this effect? They assume it has something to do with sin and punishment (conventional wisdom echoed throughout the Hebrew scriptures). But Jesus’ answer is oriented to the future. This happened because something is about to happen.

I was amazed when John Haught started telling this same story from a cosmic perspective on the podcast. The unfolding universe is a drama that isn’t finished yet. Scientific discoveries in the past century correspond with this reorientation from the past to the future. The cosmos is heading somewhere and we are caught up in it. I’d encourage you to listen to the whole 90 minute episode.

The part that most intrigued me about Dr. Haught’s argument was the philosophical history that uncovers another big source of our attraction to “Everything happens for a reason.” He tracks it into the first centuries of the church where Greek philosophy and theology was very influential. At the root of the Christian movement our ancestors, because the were steeped in Greek culture and thinking, buried Jesus’ future oriented worldview (or cosmosview) under Greek thinking. Dan Koch’s project on his podcast is to convince us that we have permission to interrogate that. John Haught has been thinking and writing about the intersection of science and religion for a long time and I was very compelled by his description of three views of the cosmos that greatly impact our interpretation of scripture and our own lives.

Archaeonomy combines two Greek words for origin and law. This stance, held by most scientists, breaks down present phenomena into their primordial elements. Thus, it is reductive, deterministic, and physicalist, embracing a materialism both wrong-headed and self-refuting. Haught dubs this a “metaphysics of the past” (59) that leads to “cosmic pessimism” (34) and an “ontology of death” (72).

Analogy tends to ignore science in looking toward a perfect, timeless, transcendent and mysterious realm beyond this world which is praiseworthy only when viewed sacramentally. Haught vigorously separates himself from what was his own earlier posture and, notably, from two of its prime expositors, Augustine and Aquinas. His chief criticism of this standpoint is its unwillingness “to look for meaning in the still unfinished story of a temporal universe” (40). Haught labels it the “metaphysics of the eternal present” (61).

Anticipation fully embraces new discoveries of science along with the uniqueness of human consciousness. It situates religion as the subjective heart, or “interiority,” of the cosmic story, avowing that the unplanned and unfinished universe will gradually manifest “more being, richer meaning and more intense beauty” (154). Thus arises hope not only for the redemption of humans but for the entire cosmos. Consequently, Haught denominates his stance a “metaphysics of the future” (88).

Thanks Charles G. Conway’s helpfully summary in his review of Haught’s book The New Cosmic Story

“Everything happens for a reason” points to the first two views. Archeonomically, we think that if we find out the source of everything, it will all be illuminated. If we can just understand the first few microseconds of the big bang everything will make sense. Scientists do this and see the world as a lifeless series of cause and effect. The universe is not awakening to mind and meaning (and beyond); it is working out the natural consequences of original laws that are brutal and impersonal.  Christians do this kind of thinking when they look back to the beginning and extrapolate all kinds of laws from the story of the garden. We live in service to the past and hope for a return to it. But Jesus has begun the New Creation which anticipates a completion that is still not yet. When we do the works of God we are participating in something new. We are not going back to the garden, we are moving forward with Jesus into something new and science shows that the cosmos is participating in that, and always has been. There is a correlation between how God chose to create us and everything using matter and energy in an ever unfolding and yet unfinished universe and the New Creation that Jesus inaugurates. It all works together so beautifully. God truly is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but this does not mean that our existence is static, or that God is. God has created a universe that is a dramatic revelation of conscious minds in human bodies that were capable of being inhabited by God that we might know face to face where we are heading and who is taking us there.

The analogical view has been the most influential in Christian theology. It’s original, or at least most famous expositor, was Plato. He imagined a world of ideas or “forms” that was somewhere beyond this world. The goal of humanity was to escape the mortal incarceration of our human bodies and this time bound universe to go somewhere else. The animating spark of humanity is the soul and it is part of this other world and longs to return to it. “Everything happens for a reason” corresponds with this view in that sense that even though none of this makes sense some day we will be free of this mess. This same thinking inspired the notion that our souls go to heaven when we die. Matter is corrupted but there is something incorruptible that goes on for ever. So the reason might make sense to some god somewhere else but I don’t know how that applies to me right here and right now. This dualism has been destructive in many ways for Christian theology and the personal faith of many.

The anticipatory  view is what I came to when I read John 9. John Haught finds the unfolding future in the past because it is all part of the same story. The narrative of the cosmos corresponds to the becoming and revealing to which Jesus points in his answer to the disciples. That the works of God should be made manifest in  us. Our hope is in the completion of the story. The universe can’t be complete yet 1) because science shows that it is expanding and 2) the story isn’t over yet. So we see where we are heading and hope with all our hearts. When something new happens, it is happening from the future and pointing us toward our destiny. God is redeeming time in time and making all things new. God may have promised in the past but the direction of the promise is from the future and we are moving toward it together.

This is a major reorientation for me. I have only begun to wrap my mind around it, but it helps me make better sense of suffering. I don’t need to look into the past to know why. I don’t need to look into some other reality to be saved from now. I can look into this unfolding story of the cosmos that began billions of years ago and anticipate the future that God has promised. The synchronicity of giving this talk then hearing this podcast two days later amazed me so I had to try and share some of it with you. HMU with questions!