The Crazy Ones
Spirituality as Openness to Novelty
The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe.
Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas
In the course of our lifetimes we are presented with novel possibilities which stretch us, challenge us, cajole us, refresh us, frighten us, and beckon us.
Some of these are healthy and some are unhealthy. All have potency and power of their own. They are, in Whitehead's words, lures for feeling.
Promising Novel Possibilities
The healthy lures -- the promising possibilities -- can be ethical, scientific, or aesthetic.
1. Gandhi was attracted to the novel possibility that he could mobilize Indians to seek independence from the British colonialism, without hating the British. It stretched the imagination of those who sought more violent and hate-filled means.
2. Einstein was beckoned by the possibility of understanding the universe, in the context of which he explored the idea that the speed of light is the same for all observers. This idea stretched his imagination and that of other physicists at the time, an eventually evolved into the special theory of relativity.
3. Picasso, in his cubist period, was drawn by the novel possibility that, in painting given objects in space, they could be painted from multiple points of view in one setting. His cubist works altered the way we look at the world.
Yes, novel possibilities can be about different things: social ethics, the nature of the universe, ways of looking at the world.
Additionally, as Patricia Farmer makes clear in Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism, they can be about how we Replant Ourselves in Beauty when faced with new situations. Human beings cannot live by material bread alone. We need novel possibilities, too.
Sometimes these possibilities are profoundly revolutionary. They uproot us and help us become replanted in truth, goodness and beauty.
In functioning in this way, they are ways that God is present in human life, not as a push from the past, but as a lure from the future.
Among the religious traditions in the world, Judaism has seen this keenly. From a Jewish perspective novel possibilities, especially possibilities for social justice, are the messiah who never arrives but is always present.
We are always waiting for this messiah and yet the messiah is perpetually faithful to us, always arriving but never exhausted. The messiah is the not-yet but here-already of any promising future worthy of the name. The messiah is God's presence as novel possibility.
Some Wonderfully Crazy People
Openness to Novel Possibilities
As a Way of Walking With God
If we are religiously-minded, we may want to ask if openness to novel possibilities is a form of spirituality. From a process perspective, the answer is Yes.
Novel possibilities are, as it were, bread from heaven. Heaven is not so much a supernatural realm as it is an ultra-natural realm, a reservoir of fresh possibilities. Whitehead calls it the primordial nature of God.
This reservoir is not before creation but rather with creation as an underlying pool of infinite potentialities. Our evolving universe draws from this pool in its evolution of stars and galaxies, and life on earth draws from this pool in its ongoing evolution of plants and animals.
Everything we see around us was new at a certain period in time. Everything was an expression of novel possibilities. And even as it endures over time, it is new at every moment. Newness is not limited to novel possibilities, but novel possibilities are forms of newness.
Within our very psyches we, too, are in touch with this pool of possibilities. We are prehending aspects of the pool consciously and unconsciously every time we imagine anything, or entertain a thought.
Traditions have emerged historically in which the very exploration of the pool is understood as a form of religious experience in its own right. For example, the Pythagorean tradition in ancient Greece took the exploration of mathematical ideals as a spiritual practice: an act of exploring the mind of God.
But for Whitehead there is more to God than the pool of potentialities. God is also a living subject -- a Life - who feels the presence of the pool and adjusts the potentialities, moment by moment, so that they can be felt by the natural world and by human beings, who are, of course, part of nature.
As a living subject God's aim is to lure us toward those potentialities which, if actualized by us, can help us become more fully alive, relative to the circumstances at hand.
We feel these potentialities as aims or hopes or goals within our own life. They are, to use Whitehead's language, initial aims or, to use biblical language, inwardly felt callings.
Truth, Goodness and Beauty
In historical Christianity people have distinguished between three kinds of callings in the human soul: those which come from our ego, those which come from the devil (the enemy of our better self) and those which come from God. Those of us in the process tradition agree with the spirit of this idea. There are callings -- there are lures for feeling -- which are destructive not constructive.
Consider possibilities for greed, hatred, and deception. Or for violence, vengeance, and injustice. For Whitehead they are not from God. They are from our egos, or from social convention, or from more destructive impulses within our genes.
The beckoning of God within the human imagination is for particular kinds of novel possibilities: possibilities for truth, goodness and beauty; for wisdom, compassion, and creativity; for peace, justice and adventure.
These callings from God are life-giving and filled with grace. We do not really come to them, they come to us or dawn on us, like fresh ideas. They are bread from heaven.
When they dawn on us, they have a freshening and nourishing effect. They make us feel more alive. Of course, when we are open to novel possibilities others may call us foolish. This means that we must be courageous. We must learn not to care quite so much about what other people think. We must think for ourselves. We must be iconoclasts.
We must be brave enough to take risks and to make mistakes. People who are too afraid of making mistakes have a hard time responding to novel possibilities. They are afraid they will be wrong and people might laugh at them. But the iconoclasts are not afraid to be wrong. They are adventurers and imagineers.
People call them crazy. And it is precisely in their craziness that they give us hope. Blessed are the crazy ones. But in truth each of us has a crazy side. A side which can discover and embody novel possibilities of the constructive and creative kind. We are all artists. Some people say that the world would be a better place if it were more loving. Surely this is true. But the world would also be a better place if it were crazier: that is, if it allowed people to think differently, to challenge existing assumptions, to keep asking questions, to enjoy life as an ongoing adventure of discovery, to live with wings as well as roots.
Religions need wings, too. If the religions of the world are to flourish, they cannot back their way into the future, always repeating past achievements. They must face the open future with courage, trustful that there are new ways of thinking, new ways of acting, to which they are called by God. After all, there's some craziness in God, too. That's why she keeps sending messiahs of wisdom and compassion, honesty and understanding, even as we so often fall short of responding to them.