Brian Schmisek

But what does it all mean?

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

In 1966, John Lennon claimed the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Controversy swelled in the American South and elsewhere. The radio station KLUE in Longview, Texas, organized a “Beatles burning,” a bonfire to torch the band’s records. The morning after, the station’s tower was hit by lightning.

When Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement on Feb. 11, 2013, people were shocked. No pope had resigned in more than 600 years. Hours after the announcement, lightning struck St. Peter’s.

What did each lightning strike mean? Was God unhappy with the Beatles burning? Was God pleased or displeased with Pope Benedict’s retirement? Or was the timing of each lightning strike merely serendipitous, as there are more than 40 lightning flashes each second across the globe?

Throughout history, humans have used many ways of speaking about the phenomenon of serendipity, and not all invoke the divine. Some speak of God’s will. Others speak of fate or destiny, which may or may not be preceded by oracles, signs, omens and premonitions. Still others have more generic explanations, reflected in sayings such as, “everything happens for a reason” or “it was meant to be.”

Rome’s most famous orator, Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.), wrote a treatise on divination (“De Divinatione”), defining it as “the foreknowledge and foretelling of events that happen by chance.” Cicero says that it is “not in the power even of God himself to know what event is going to happen accidentally and by chance. For if he knows, then the event is certain to happen; but if it is certain to happen, chance does not exist. And yet, chance does exist, therefore there is no foreknowledge of things that happen by chance.”

We in the 21st century use many of the same categories inherited from antiquity to make sense of the world. Yet, now with a more scientific and modern understanding of how the world functions, we might recognize the fundamental role that the individual plays in making meaning for oneself, as Auschwitz survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) stated in his influential book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

“Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of his life. … It must and can be fulfilled by him alone.” This point of view places great responsibility on the individual person. Rather than ascribe events to some plan, or to providence, Frankl recognizes and even embraces the “transitoriness of our existence.”

We might consider how it sounds for any human being to claim to know God’s will. For a believer, it would be more accurate and humbling to admit, like the Apostle Paul, that the ways of God are “inscrutable” (Rom 11:33), or as the prophet Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9).

Meaning is not merely “out there,” something extrinsic and objective to be grasped. Rather, each of us plays a part in creating meaning for ourselves. Whether or not one is a believer, it is possible to appreciate the wonder of life, the miracle of our own personal existence, the “transitoriness of our existence” and to be grateful. Lightning strikes, and we make of it what we will.



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