JACK MYHRE

BY ANDREW FORRESTER

How did we get here?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

[1]

My life isn’t what I thought it would look like six months ago. I’m guessing yours isn’t either, in one way or another. Pandemics have a way of doing that, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Yet color me shocked—I didn’t expect to be halfway across the continent from my family and friends for a year, teaching middle school math alongside Jesuits and nuns and other fresh faced 20-somethings with the virus still raging.

I like to plan. I’ve had pretty much the same idea of what I wanted for my life since I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in 9th grade and decided I had to be like him [2]. When I applied to colleges, I had a ranked list of schools that would help me get there. Duke was the highest one on the list that accepted me. And if that weren’t enough, I have a document on my computer with a detailed outline of the next 10 years. No surprises. No interruptions. 

So much for that. 

Life rarely unfolds like we expect it to. This year seems incapable of teaching me anything else. And that fact comes with a kind of anxiety. Every decision I make compels me to ask a truly terrifying question: Am I making the most of the limited time I’ll live, what limited skills I have, and the limited number of things I could ever do? 

Every path we choose leaves open many more that we never will. And facing the prospect of such monumental loss, we aren’t allowed to see farther than the bend in the undergrowth. How can we be expected to choose well when life seems to demand that we stumble forward blindly? 

Cold Comfort

Let’s ascend to a higher view. I’m a physicist and a Christian, and both of those identities claim to have an answer for my fears. According to both perspectives, the road I’ll walk was already known far in advance. 

A good articulation of the physicist’s view comes from Pierre-Simon Laplace. Let’s follow in his footsteps and put aside God: nous n’avons pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. [3] Physics is a deterministic science. Given the state of a physical system at any moment, the laws of nature can perfectly predict its evolution. [4] In A Philosophical Essay on Probability, Laplace imagined a demon [5] that could do so for the whole universe: 

Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it—an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis—it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.

[6]

My own mind is not exempt from that analysis, so Laplace’s demon could in principle predict my choices. So those choices aren’t really my own. The demon already knows which path I’ll choose at every junction on life’s way. And yet, I know that I make my own choices, and I’d take offense at anyone who told me I didn’t. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” [7] How could it be otherwise? Perhaps that’s just an illusion—yet I must believe that it’s not. 

If Laplace is right about the inner workings of my mind, then the question of how to choose well is meaningless. I don’t choose—I simply act as Nature would have me act, given the initial conditions at the Big Bang. And if I’m right, the question is unanswered. Simply knowing that I have the freedom to make my own choices doesn’t tell me which choices I ought to make—in fact, it typically only adds to my anxiety. 

What of God? Is He all that different from Laplace’s demon? This one “who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity”—surely He also knows the choices I’ll make. [8] Since He stands above time, He has the whole sweep of history in His eyes. And yet I still believe that I’m free and that my decisions have a real impact on myself and the world. How would God have us exercise that freedom? 

Questions like these call us to careful contemplation for our whole lives. I don’t pretend to have answers for them, and I certainly can’t defend my own liberty against God’s providence. But I think there is a helpful allegory for us to consider that might offer a glimpse of how His providence sets us free, paradoxical as that may seem. Let’s go back to where we started, shall we? 

The Labyrinth

Imagine a group of travellers walking in Robert Frost’s yellow wood. It’s night, and the canopy above blocks out all the light from the moon and stars, so that they can’t see more than a few feet ahead. They lost the trail a long time ago and have little hope of finding it again. 

One of them eventually notices a dim light in the distance, and having few other options, they decide to go towards it. The light grows a little stronger as they walk, and to their delight they find themselves on a path again. They keep walking, and the light grows stronger. 

Soon they come upon a stone wall, about 50 feet tall. It looks ancient, weathered by time but still secure. There’s just enough light spilling out through the cracks that pepper its surface to perceive that it bends slightly in a large circular arc. And meeting the trail is a small, unadorned gateway. Approaching it, they see that there’s an unintelligible inscription overtop:

ΕΙΣΕΛΘΑΤΕ ΔΙΑ ΤΗΣ ΣΤΕΝΗΣ ΠΥΛΗΣ [9]

They set up camp in the dim light outside the walls and debate whether to go in. Some think it’s far too dangerous to wander inside—that there’s almost certainly a good reason the wall is there, and to disregard that reason would be the height of folly. But others want to venture inside. This is the first glimpse of light they’ve seen in all of their travels—where else should they go? Back into the outer darkness? Surely that would be more foolish. 

The debate never gets resolved, and the group splits. Those who chose to remain outside watch with curiosity as the rest venture through the gate, but are convinced they will never see them again. 

Those who went in find themselves in an unimaginably massive, circular labyrinth. As they walk, they weave closer to the center, where the light is brighter, and then back away from it again. At one point they venture so far inward that the light hurts their eyes. Once they adjust, though, they get a clear glimpse of the world around them, some of them even seeing each others’ faces for the first time. 

But they move on eventually. It’s clear that the labyrinth terminates in the center where the light source is, but it’s unclear how they should get there. They often lose their way when the labyrinth branches, and find themselves stumbling around its far reaches again, where there’s hardly any light at all. But by following the path they always manage to make it back to a reasonably bright point to regroup, and the periods of darkness seem to grow fewer and farther between. 

Some decide to run back to the start of the maze and tell the others what they’ve found. To aid them, the group tries to construct a map of the labyrinth, but it’s far too vast for them alone to chart. They occasionally come across other travelers, who have been in the labyrinth for far longer and whose maps are much larger, and discover that their maps overlap. But there are also maps inscribed on the walls of the labyrinth, perhaps from former travellers, and these are even more complete. 

Eventually, after some interminably long time, the path narrows and turns directly to the center. The light is incredibly brilliant, and they hear a voice singing softly, luring them closer like ancient seamen to the sirens. With voice and bearing of a guide whose work is done, it began its song again: 

From matter’s largest sphere,

we now have reached the heaven of pure light,

light of the intellect, light filled with love,

love of true good, love filled with happiness,

a happiness surpassing every sweetness.

Here you will see both ranks of Paradise

and see one of them wearing that same aspect

which you will see again at Judgment Day.

[10]

So singing it invites them to the center, and approaching it they are enveloped in the light. Aeons pass, and as other travellers arrive at the center they join in the chorus. 

Eventually, the flow of travellers stops. It becomes apparent that the light itself, which they had learned to call God, was what had been wearing away the walls, and they wondered if eventually they would fall, and why they were necessary in the first place. One of them, who made innumerably many trips back to the start of the labyrinth when he was a traveller, gave the rest them council on these matters, saying: 

Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

[11]

And at that the walls began to crumble, one by one, starting with the innermost and proceeding outward. 

The former travellers remained in the center for a while and watched, because they didn’t quite know where to go. During their travels, they had the labyrinth as a guide, but it disappeared together with the walls. And they had a goal: they were trying to draw closer to the light, but now the light pervaded the whole Earth. 

Seeking to calm their fears, the same voice they heard as they approached the light instructed them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” So they went out with that commission ringing in their ears, and eternal, unfailing light to guide the way.

God With Us

Our first parents, corrupted by sin, were cast out of God’s presence, and the world was cut off from the fullness of divine light. But God promised to provide a way back to Himself. Because of the depth of the fall, it has to be a long and winding road. We can’t enter God’s presence as we are. But those twists and turns that bring us in and out of the light—on one perspective, our freedom, and on the other, God’s providence—are the very substance of sanctification. 

The anxiety I feel when I stand at a junction in the road comes partly from the fact that I am free, but also from the fact that I am not. Yes, I know that I can make choices as I like, but freedom is something greater than choice alone. Would you call a blind man free because he can choose to walk in any direction he likes? Or an infant free because she can choose to cry, even if no one is listening? That freedom is a kind which is utterly useless, even if it is genuine. 

Free choice needs a knowledge of what that choice entails before it can become true freedom. It needs a light to illuminate the paths which it would dare to choose between. Christ was pretty clear about what a path back to God would look like:

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”

[12] 

He assured us that if we follow in His way, we will be led back to God—back to the light, even if some of the journey is taken in the darkness. Indeed, the providence of God which sets us free is Christ himself. 

Just as freedom is something greater than choice, so providence is greater than foreknowledge—not merely a journey, but also a destination. Laplace’s demon knows the path we’ll take through life, but God established that path as a means of obtaining life. The demon can predict the course of events, but God authors those events. 

And the truly remarkable thing about Him is that He authored us, exiles that we would become, knowing that He would also have to author the cross of Christ to bring us back to Himself. 

No, providence is not foreknowledge alone, but love as well—divine love, of the kind we now see only in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. For now, we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known. The love which lights the world around me grants me that knowledge. It’s what gives me hope when all the branching paths in the labyrinth overwhelm me, because I need only run to where the light is strongest. And it’s what gives me faith when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because I know that that way and truth and life is God with us. 

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” [13]

Notes

[1] Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken

[2] Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. Random House, 2002. 

[3] “We have no need of that hypothesis.” The original quote, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là,” is apocryphally attributed to Laplace, but in all likelihood was not actually his. 

[4] Physicists might complain that I’m ignoring quantum indeterminacy, but this is not quite the same concept as the determinacy we’re concerned with. In quantum mechanics, matter is described by a wavefunction, typically called Ψ, which evolves in time according to the Schrödinger Equation: 

Given the wavefunction at any instant in time, a theorem in differential equations guarantees that, under suitable conditions, there will be a unique solution for Ψ(t). This solution is fixed solely by the initial condition and the Schrdödinger Equation. Presumably, Laplace’s demon would try to calculate Ψ(t) for all matter in the universe and for all times t if it were actually realized. 

Quantum indeterminacy is the failure of quantum mechanics to make exact predictions for the results of individual experiments. Ψ can be used to compute the probability that an experiment will turn out one way or the other, and in a large number of trials this will work, but it cannot be used to make precise predictions for single trials even though it evolves in a predictable way. 

[5] In this context, “demon” doesn’t necessarily imply maleficence. The usage is closer to the classical “daemon.”

[6] Laplace, Pierre-Simon. A Philosophical Essay on Probability

[7] Henley, William. “Invictus

[8] Isaiah 57:15, ESV

[9] “Enter through the narrow gate.” Matthew 7:13a

[10] Dante. “Paradiso.” Canto XXX, l. 38-45

[11] Romans 8:19-24a

[12] John 14:3-7

[13] 1 Corinthians 13:13

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