What Was the Question Again?

Posted by on 01.30.09 | 3 Comments
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In a recent exchange of comments about another blog Beth wondered if perhaps I might compose something on the work of Douglas Adams, author of “The Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” an English radio program that became a series of books, unless it was the other way around. “The Guide” is more than a bit like Dr. Who on acid, which I suspect is exactly the effect Adams desired, and therefore any attempt to make sense of these books is a clear violation of their spirit, and not to be countenanced. So, in keeping with the spirit of these books I shall violate their spirit and attempt to make sense of them, at least in one small regard.

One of the many convoluted subplots revolves around finding the answer to “life, the universe and everything.” A super giant computer assigned the task began to crunch all the possibilities, and after several million years concluded its work with a definitive statement. The answer to “life, the universe and everything” turned out to be “42,” a conclusion that felt, well somehow inadequate to the protagonist, an alien who took the name “Ford Prefect.” The problem quickly surfaced. We now have the answer, but we do not yet have the question, and the answer is meaningless without the question. The mice, who were really running the show, suggested “How many roads must a man walk down?” as a provisional try, and that was deemed an acceptable substitute until the real question could be uncovered after several million more years using another computer (which turned out to be the planet Earth.)

Granted, the whole thing is wonderfully ridiculous, which is the point. But I couldn’t help thinking, as I laughed my way through this entire story, that Adams was on to something that is actually rather important. Trying to find some sort of “ultimate meaning” in the existence of a tiny carbon based life form that somehow became sentient only in the past few million years, living on a small planet situated within a spiral arm of a galaxy that is100,000 light years across, itself located at some indeterminable point in a universe that is 13 billion years old (give or take a billion years) seems to me to be, well, about as absurd as Douglas Adams made it all seem. Long before beginning to read Adams I had given up that quest. But I am very intrigued by the notion of asking “What is the question to which life, the universe, and everything, is the answer?” I like that question, and it doesn’t take an earth-sized computer to begin to play with it. Having tried a number of possibilities the question I have lit upon is this: What does God’s love look like? I like this question because it evokes several different affective responses, depending upon which level of the question is being answered. At the level of the universe and the earth it feels really good. Yes, this whole giant thing, this finite but unbounded, incomprehensibly huge physical mystery in which we find ourselves is and must be exactly what God’s love looks like, from the greatest black holes, to the nebulae that are themselves larger than our solar system, to the tiny flowers that bloom on high mountain meadows but one week a year, unseen by all but a few creatures – this whole great giant in its collective immensity is what God’s love looks like. When I think about humanity, though, the answer becomes problematic: is this whole human enterprise with its own kind of love and hate, its creative and destructive tendencies, are we all part of what God’s love looks like? Then of course it becomes truly painful when I get down to the subatomic level and ask “am I what God’s love looks like?

But the answer to all of it is “yes;” all of it, including us, including you and me, is what God’s love looks like. What does God’s love look like? That is my question to which “life, the universe and everything” is the answer. So now, for those who want to play as well, why don’t you work on this one. Turn on your giant earth-sized computer before the Vogons blow it up to make room for a galactic superhighway and begin to crunch the question. Then, if you like, post in the comments section and we can all compare notes. In the mean time, remember the words inscribed in friendly letters on the front of every copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide: “Don’t Panic.”

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