Tag Archives: Christianity

A Library of Babel

I’m going to make an educated guess.

What education qualifies you to make this guess, you ask? Well, I don’t really know, but let me have my fun.

I sure don’t want to presume anything about you, but I’d guess that you – like me – have sometimes wondered, “What’s the point? Why am I here? And what am I supposed to do about it?”

Not a bad guess, right?

We’re not going to crack that case today. It’s my personal conviction that those most certain that they’ve solved the riddle of existence are those farthest from the truth – if there is one. I’m what is usually called an agnostic. I’m also very much a skeptic – in Christian tradition, I relate most closely with Thomas. Show me the holes in your hands and I’ll hear you out.

My specific strain of agnosticism, by the way, is labelled agnostic theism: I live in the presence of a God I believe in, but consider my belief essentially impossible to prove. I’m a Thomas who loves his God, but doesn’t expect to meet his Savior. Instead, I seek to know God in the details of experience on a daily basis, and also through exposing myself to a wide variety of stimuli. Over the years, I’ve taken a share of both pleasure and pain; I have found knowledge and comfort in the concrete world around me.

There was a time when I sought God in the Christian faith. It was the faith I was raised in, and came naturally. I hold no grudge, today – but neither do I trust the answers I found there. In my mind, every human system is fallible. I don’t hold any of them in contempt for being so. I simply can’t walk that way, myself.

I know, I know – it’s not a human system, say the Christian, the Muslim, the Hindu; the fundamental truth lies in the conveyed word of God, or gods. I say: every written tradition, or story passed on through generations, is the work of man. The only God I know is written in the wind, the earth, and the hearts of the people I love. This God may even have something to tell me through the good and evil that man does – but God is not written on a page, nor defined by the wagging of a tongue.


Imagine with me, for a moment, what our world would be like if it were one vast library. And not just our planet, but the entire universe. Imagine a library larger than our universe.

It would take all the space we know to exist – and more – to contain the library described by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1941 short story The Library of Babel. He writes about a library where people are born and live out their days – a library filled with 410-page books. The books contain every possible variation of 25 characters that could take place in their pages, and no two books are the same. The possibilities are endless.

I’ve been fascinated with the story since I first read it about five years ago. I’ve gathered a few things from it that are illustrative of the search for meaning in life.

(1) Much of what we experience in life is without greater meaning. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, or that my actions will resound down the corridors of time. I believe that life is meant to be lived for the time it lasts, and that I ought to be pursuing the fullest experience possible. When I die, do I transcend? Will we find one another in the afterlife? Do I become spirit, or am I given a new body and a fresh go of it here on Earth? I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t intend to find out for a while yet. In the meantime, I only want to seek happiness for myself and my loved ones.

(2) There is meaning in the details. Sometimes, I encounter something or someone that becomes very special to me. It’s not every day, but once in a while I find something that I want to hold on to. It’s my conviction that these special moments, places, things and people are worth nurturing – they have meaning and value in and of themselves. My idea of a life full of meaning and purpose is in the pursuit of my innermost goals, and in the promotion of life and love and wellbeing. I don’t need to look for a greater significance when I can find glory in the smile of a child.

(3) I construct my own destiny. All of us must pass on from this life eventually. Because I don’t know what lies on the other side of death, my destiny is all in the present. My fate engulfs me from moment to moment. I choose to build a path of meaning and significance within my own framework every day, and look for opportunities to enrich my experience with family, friends, work, and recreation. I try to honor the Golden Rule in any way I can: to do for those around me what I would have them do for me. I’m far from being a flawless example of the idea, but I know what I’m aiming for.


With Kierkegaard, I feel that to embrace without doubt is credulity, not faith. Faith is the belief in something that I know cannot be seen, touched, or proven – it is a deliberate choice to trust in the power of forces beyond my comprehension.

Do I believe myself king of my world? Certainly not. So who’s in charge? I don’t know – but I seek God’s hand in my life from day to day. And while I do that, I never forget that I’ve got two hands of my own.


Fifth Business

This post may be the most intense and essentially personal thing I have written yet. What I want to do today is explore the impact of a particular book- Fifth Business– on the course of my life. To some of you this will come as no surprise; to others, it may be a bit of a shock. Robertson Davies’ first novel in the Deptford Trilogy radically altered my outlook, paving the way to lifestyle changes that have remained with me to the present. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan, not an expert. No, sir. What I have to say is rooted in my own experience- we’re not looking for universal truths here, even if we find some.

Do you remember when I mentioned that Davies was my favorite Canadian author? I found him in the jaws of high school education about six years ago. A good and very engaging woman, Ms. Beverley Haun, was teaching that class. Cam was there with me and would probably attest to the intensity with which I discovered Davies, under Beverley’s direction.

Fifth Business is a theatrical term; it indicates a character in a play who exists mainly to interact with the leading roles- a spectator who also carries a secret. He simply rides parallel to the sequence of action, ready to spill his guts with the secret dormant within him, ready to radically alter the plot at the drop of a dime. No one acknowledges his significance until his one vital act, and even then he is swiftly passed by as the protagonists and antagonists struggle to cope with the change.

All throughout my childhood and young adulthood I fantasised about that radical action, and found myself relegated to a sort of psychological spectator’s sideline as I waited to make my mark. Scene after scene rolled out before me, and in each one I strove to observe- and to intervene only when the moment was right. Sometimes I felt as though I missed my cue, and sometimes I felt entirely satisfied. Most of all, though, I watched- like I used to in the tree on my parents’ front lawn- and tried to understand. I wanted to know secrets so desperately, secrets that would give me the power to transform my own perspective, if nothing else- the key to my social context, the shadow-self of a friend, the hidden dynamic in language that would unlock communication.

You can see, dear reader, from whence my fascination with this book might have stemmed. The main character- a fifth business himself- is one of any number of personalities in the book that explore fundamental divisions in psychology. C. G. Jung’s Self and Shadow self are present everywhere, exploring the possibility that deep within us, hidden from ourselves, is an opposite personal dynamic. Some of our actions and opinions are said to be guided by this Shadow self; the suppressed aspects of our personalities exert themselves through our unconscious, and also in our dreams. I imagine that if you put a little consideration into this, you will find some real truth to it. I certainly did.

At the time I picked up this book and proceeded through its pages, I was deeply involved in a Christian lifestyle- an avid churchgoer and leader in my own right. A further thematic element in Fifth Business- the juxtaposition of spirituality with the material world- troubled me. As I explored the ideas of Self and Shadow, of spirit and body, of male and female, I came into contact with the concept that finally led me astray: the Persona.

The Persona can be roughly equated to a mask. This is the aspect of our psyche that we gradually build up in order to shield our Ego- a mediator between our sense of Self and the vast potentialities that exist around us. This is our defining construction, the device we use to protect ourselves from things that don’t jive or fit with how we view ourselves. This is how we present to the world.

I began to wonder just what had gone into the development of my own Persona. How did I view myself consciously- and was I fact in protecting myself from a Shadow that slavered on the other side of the door? In the Christian paradigm, I had been taught that the Shadow was only my sinful self, my old and unredeemed self. Now I began to wonder if it was, in fact, simply another side to my whole psyche. The sense that there was here in this book a whole new way of understanding life and my place in it began to eat away at me. I could articulate questions, where before I had only blind thirst.

Unfortunately for the stability of the life I led at that time, the questions found terrifyingly few answers. It’s no surprise, looking back- these were searching concerns, and not passing worries that could be reduced to simple terms. One of my heroes, the previously mentioned C. G. Jung, spent his life investigating these mysteries- and this brilliant pioneer admitted loudly that he had not nearly found the end of the shroud.

Today I am still exploring. I value my Christian heritage, but I am no longer constrained by its interpretations- my mind speeds across the wide dark waters of human thought and tradition, seeking new wonders and taking joy in the limitless expanse.

You may not have a book like this, a book that changed everything for you. I don’t think that’s especially important- everyone has their own path toward realising themselves. I do hope, though, that you’re enjoying this strange and difficult world as much as I am.

Until next time, folks!

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