Emory Report
April 17, 2006
Volume 58, Number 27


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April 17, 2006
Chaos, serendipity or grace?

Hoyt Oliver, professor of religion, will retire in May after 40 years on the Oxford College faculty.

There are two things I have learned never to take seriously: myself, and religion. Yet I am grateful to both of those phenomena for making me so miserable that I finally had to let go of them and appreciate the deeper mystery to which they point. It’s been a long journey, to arrive, finally, at just being here, now. I think I’ve mostly followed Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Unlike most “normal” people, I’ve always been haunted with the question, “What’s the Meaning of Life?” as though “meaning” were something extra needed to complete the everyday mess of life-as-it-is. Now, having finally been freed to look back on my life’s journey, I can see patterns emerging without my planning, as I responded to persons and events coming at me at just the right times.

Perhaps it’s “serendipity,” like the Princes of Serendip discovering new things on their way somewhere else; perhaps it’s “chaos,” self-organizing patterns of order emerging from tiny differences in initial conditions, like Mandelbrot sets; or perhaps it’s “grace,” that wonderful Christian word for the action of God in our lives—even in our self-caused separation. Whatever. I just know now that it’s been unexpected gifts, even if at times it felt like misery.

Growing up a preacher’s kid, I moved every four years. Skipping grades in school, I was usually younger than my peers. So I lived with being a periodically displaced person. Turning down a scholarship to a far-away school in DamnYankeeLand, I came to Emory at Oxford at 16. Those two years were the best in my 11 years of higher education. John Gregory awakened me to Greek poetry and drama and to Thoreau’s Walden. Required to take more history than I would have chosen, I began to have a place in the Big Picture. And when my mother became mentally ill and attempted suicide, Oxford Pastor Hamby Barton was present for me.

When I continued to our daughter campus, a grade of D in organic chemistry changed me to a philosophy major overnight. That failure was one of the best happenings ever. I didn’t know then how fortunate I was to have Charles Hartshorne introducing me to Whitehead’s process philosophy, how necessary it was for me to be infected for a time with Plato’s idealism so I could get over it later. And I owe deep gratitude to Sam Laird, director of religious life (yes, he was father to our own Susan). Sam led us into the wider world. He took us to the black colleges—in the 1950s. Just before I was to graduate, Sam asked whether I had considered being a short-term Methodist missionary.

Well. That gave me a high-sounding reason to flee the trouble at home and take time to catch up with my age. Going to Korea, not long after the war, was drastic culture shock. I got disoriented in the Orient. But I also saw faith and courage in action, as when the students arose to throw out the dictatorship of Syngman Rhee, and I watched them (including some of my own students) being machine-gunned down around the presidential compound.

Returning, I went to Boston University School of Theology, more by default than by decision. When I was young, I swore I wouldn’t be no darn teacher or preacher, because that’s all there were in my family. Now I’m both—just can’t avoid my karma. But, fortunately, at some point on the journey, my karma ran over my dogma; I was illuminated by the words of Paul Tillich and Richard Niebuhr, who gave me thought to replace belief.

At Yale, pursuing a doctorate in religion in higher education, I received the gift of a real mentor. Kenneth Underwood, sociologist of religion and author of the classic, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, was a visiting professor who was directing the Danforth Foundation study of campus ministries. Working with him and at his suggestion, I studied sociology so I could develop a model of “professions” through which I could compare the protestant ministry with medicine, law and college teaching. That study relieved me of any faint illusion that I might become a parish clergyman.

Now what? Serendipity strikes again: Oxford needed a teacher of social sciences and philosophy, so I took the job, faking it until I could make it. Another bifurcation was when Dean Bond Fleming proposed an interim course in social problems in inner-city Atlanta, a course with profound effects on my life, as well as the lives of many students, and one Mike McQuaide still continues.

More grace. A gift from D. Abbott Turner endowed the Pierce Program in Religion. After three years, the Pierce Chair of Religion opened again, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools started expecting faculty to teach subjects in which they actually held graduate degrees. So, in resignation, fear and trembling, I gave in and Got Religion. At first, it involved teaching only Introduction to Bible and Oxford Studies. Then the vista of world religions started opening to me. Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism—how refreshing!

On the home front, for the first time in all our lives, my wife LaTrelle and I were gifted to live in a home owned by our family. In 1975, we laboriously remodeled the 125-year-old Florida Hall, which had been one of the “Helping Halls” in which poor Emory College students boarded. That finally made us genuine citizens of this blessed town of Oxford, and got us deeply involved in its life. We experienced the joy of “being frum some place,” as Flannery O’Connor put it.

But then, at the mid-point of my journey, came my time of wandering in the wilderness, wallowing in the Slough of Despond, experiencing the dark night of the soul. My parents were paralyzed for years with Parkinson’s disease; my sister, mentally ill, ran off and died of hyperthermia. I identified with Job, bereft of all he had, scratching his sores on his ash heap and screaming at God. I tried to drown out the feelings, but it didn’t work.

Finally, I had to crash and admit I couldn’t manage life on my own. Among the many gifts of grace that began to turn my life around was reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Job. In this translation, when God, the Unnamable, shows up in the whirlwind and confronts Job with the cosmos, Job responds: “I had heard of You with my ears, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I will rest quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (Instead of, “I repent in dust and ashes.”) “Oh! You mean I belong in all that awe and glory?” Feeling sad, guilty and angry at my sister’s death, I had been demanding of God, “Why did you take her?” Without words—but with much certainty—I got the answer: “I didn’t take her. I received her.”

Strange angels kept visiting. The next one was Sir John Templeton. In the American Academy of Religion newsletter, I happened to read of a program of courses in science and religion funded by the Templeton Foundation. I applied, got a grant and for the last dozen years have been diving into cosmology, quantum physics, chaos and complexity theory, psychoneurobiology, relativity, ecology, evolution, and how on earth these can all be in dialogue with religions.

It’s awesome, in the classic sense of the word, to know that we are recycled stardust; that there are brain areas that cool down when we meditate; that physicists and biologists now are affirming what the Buddha said long ago about impermanence and flow, interconnectedness and the nonexistence of any enduring self. I chuckle that cosmologists can’t yet explain the “dark energy” making up most of the cosmos, any more than Zen Buddhists can explain shunyata, the “emptiness” that’s the realest of the real, to which we can wake up and stop making ourselves miserable.

Finally, best gift of all, I have started learning how to do nothing. Once I read a great deal about Taoism and Buddhism, but then some years ago a remark from my sister-in-law sent me to the Southern Dharma Retreat Center in the mountains of western North Carolina. There, with some wonderful, serene teachers, I learned something of how to practice instead of thinking, to be mindful moment by moment, to go with the flow, to see through self into tathata (“suchness”), to experience the holiness of wholeness.

To just sit and be.

Sometime soon, I expect we will come up with a TOE, a mathematical “Theory of Everything.” That will be neat. I won’t understand it, because I have never succeeded in mathing up my head. But the truths by which we live will continue to be stories, the myths and songs and poems and dramas that create the “virtual reality” in which we humans, perhaps alone among all beings, are fated and blessed to live.
I’ve made up my story (as it is at this moment), and have shared it with you.

What’s your story?

This essay is adapted from Oliver’s “Last Lecture,” delivered at Oxford on March 22.