Chaos, Order and Religion

So we all know I’m a Jordan Peterson geek.  Actually, disciple is probably a better word.  I’ve read 12 Rules for Life twice and just started it again on audio because cleaning out my bathroom cabinets was too grim a task to face alone. 

If you’re not familiar with Peterson’s work, he writes at length about the existential meaning found between the boundaries of Order (the known) and Chaos (the unknown.)  Order represents rules, structure, and reason; order is what makes sense and makes us feel safe.  It is generally associated with the Masculine. (Think a well-run army or efficient factory line.)

Chaos, on the other hand, is everything we don’t understand.  It is darkness and mystery and the richness of possibility. It is the tangled jungle from which Order is drawn; it is where the Idea For Everything gestates before birth. Chaos is what doesn’t make sense and makes us uneasy.  But it is also what makes us curious and excited and creative. It is generally associated with the Feminine. (“Mother Nature” is Chaos itself; unexplored, powerfully creative, untamed by order.)  

In the yin yang symbol of the Tao, Order is the white yang and Chaos is the black yin, opposite serpents that forever wind their way back to each other.  One can’t live without the other; one is not superior to the other—though at first glance you might assume Order to be the boss. Not so. Without Chaos, Order would have nothing to organize; it could not create.  The army wouldn’t have anything to fight for; the factory line, nothing to produce. And so the Taoists had it right a millennia ago: we can find meaning in our lives only when we walk the line between the two serpents, when we balance Order and Chaos.  And we must have Meaning—capital M—to make life worth living.  

Look around and you’ll start seeing Order and Chaos coupled in everything that’s purposeful and lasting:  good music (think harmonic discord), a solid marriage (guess who’s Order and who’s Chaos in mine), even our system of government:  e pluribus unum—out of many (chaos), one (order.)  Democracy doesn’t just make order out of chaos, its order is dependent on chaos, because rules are drawn from the mess of different ideas.  That’s what keeps it from Tyranny (too much yang) or Anarchy (too much yin.) 

And so what about religion?  Does it fall under the same mandate?  This morning, while getting ready for church, I wondered.  I started thinking about how Order and Chaos might apply to religion—my own in particular and all religion in general.  I mention going to church because I realized as I was blow drying my hair (which is when I do my best thinking), that in most established religions, Church is the Order.  Church is structure and boundaries and ritual; Church is tradition and authority and assurance. But Church alone doesn’t give religion enough meaning to last, at least not beyond childhood.   

And so I thought, if Church—tangible, patriarchal, known—is religion’s Order, what is the Chaos—intangible, matriarchal, unknown—it complements and contends with?  After much wondering and much blow drying, I came to the conclusion that it must be faith.

Faith:  that elusive, almost indefensible quality we stake so much on yet can barely define.  Faith is influence instead of authority, a mist instead of a mallett.  It unnerves us while it comforts us. It’s the heady, hidden backdrop behind every pattern and every prayer; the reason behind the ritual, the yin to the yang.  It’s Chaos. And it is necessary—it is crucial—to a lasting conversion.  Because without it, the Order of Church is found meaningless.

Lately, people are dropping like flies from any and all religion and we can list a million reasons why.  But two big ones stand out to me: they’re either appalled by religion’s Order or terrified of its Chaos.  We hear the claim from both sides:

“Church is too oppressive, too traditional, too patriarchal…” 

 or

“Faith is too irrational, too naive, too illiterate…”

It seems we either can’t abide by the rules or can’t buy into the belief.  Church restricts the rebel; faith condescends the intellectual. And if you fall somewhere in between, just pick your poison and it will show you out religion’s door.

But think of someone you know who has, to the best of their ability, lived their religion—with all of its rules and responsibilities.  I bet their life isn’t all Order; I bet they have a lot of Chaos in it. Meaning, I bet they’ve attended Church while attending to their faith.  They’ve learned to walk that line between the beauty of Ideal and the blight of Reality, between seeing blessings and seeing obstacles.  They’ve balanced Chaos and Order and found Meaning within. They might not have found ease or even happiness, but they’ve found Meaning—which sticks around a lot longer than happiness.  

I’ve long thought faith was given to us as a kind of personal improvement exercise, to test our devotion and keep us humble until we are given All The Answers To Everything In The End.  But now I wonder: is it possible that, in the end, we really won’t get all the answers, because unlocking her mysteries would make faith cease to be Faith?  She’d no longer exist and we’d be left with nothing but Church. We’d have Order without Chaos, yin without yang, religion without meaning.  If Faith ceased to exist, wouldn’t Church have to follow?  On the other hand, for Church to stand forever—which we’re assured it will—wouldn’t Faith have to stand forever too?  And for Faith to stay faith, wouldn’t she always—eternally—have to retain an element of the unknown?  Might it be that somethings are never to be understood, even in the hereafter?  It’s an unsettling thought, but kind of a cool one.

Maybe our exercise in faith is really a devotion to Faith, and all that she requires of us—alongside her partner, Church, and all that he requires of us.   For just as Church without Faith won’t keep us committed, neither will Faith without Church. That results in a generation which defines itself as “spiritual but not religious,” whatever that means.  (We get to choose whatever that means, depending on the day. I think that’s the unfortunate point.)

Humility is a word heard often among the devoted, but I think it’s a largely misunderstood one.  Sure, it means being meek, but it also means being comfortable with the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know.  Shoot, we hardly know anything.  That’s why humility’s so hard; that’s why we need it so much.

So if you are struggling with your faith, if you are losing interest in your church, if you are disappointed with religion—and every single one of us is, at one time or another—let’s take that humility out for a spin.  Let’s get comfortable with the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know.  Let’s leave the crowd behind and take a walk down that road between Chaos and Order.  It will mean shaking hands with Known and Unknown, Reason and Mystery, Certainty and Possibility.  It will also mean finding Rules along with Freedom, Commandments along with Love, Expectations along with Acceptance.  

It’s a tough route; it’s not in our nature to take it.  But people can. We can.  And when we do, we get to see and hear everything:  the safety of Church and the exhilaration of Faith, the patriarchy of structure and the matriarchy of creation, the Known and the Unknown, the Chaos and the Order, the stunning harmonic discord of it all.  We get to experience a life of Meaning. It’s heavy and it’s hard, but it’s full and it’s fascinating. It’s grounded in reality and rich with possibility. It’s the good life, the only life. It’s the life for us.

Help me, Cosmo

Last week, I went to a BYU football game with my husband.  It had been awhile, and walking into the stadium was like walking back into Youth:  the music, the crowds, the chipper announcements crackling over the chatter of fans, the sweet, heavy smell of ketchuped hot dogs and sugary churros and fake-butter popcorn.  Weaving our way through the maze of people as we climbed the stairs to our seats, I was almost in my happy place. Almost.  Because though I always love the buzz of a Big Game, a Big Problem loomed over this otherwise magical night, and will likely loom for the duration of my time here on earth.  It’s private and it’s shameful and I don’t like to talk it about it, but here it is:  

I don’t understand football.  At all.  

Now let’s be clear:  I’m not saying I don’t like football–lots of people don’t like football.  I’m saying I don’t understand it.   

I think that’s an important distinction because I see many women roll their eyes and tell me they don’t like watching football with their husbands, but I’m always left with a vague suspicion that they at least understand the game.  I nod and agree and we laugh at the silly world of men who care about such things, but inside I’m wondering: are you one of those women who understands the rules, who knows when to cheer, who doesn’t have to ask your husband (again) what just happened?  I want to ask these women how/what/who/why–how they came to understand football, what the H is happening, who the H is winning, and why anybody on God’s green earth cares. But I’m too scared to ask because there’s a high probability that I might look kinda, well, dumb.

I think it all goes back to my fear of math.  Shocking as this may sound, I am slightly (enormously) right-brained.  Math confused me almost as much as football does, and both seem to be the brainchild of logic—which is something I do my best to avoid.  So when I look at that green field with those white-chalked stripes the post-traumatic stress of my harrowing high school math career comes spiraling at me with the speed and venom of a Tom Brady pass.  (I know who Tom Brady is! I know who Tom Brady is!)  I’m looking at a football field but what I’m really seeing is a homework assignment: I see a grid (graph paper), numbers counted by tens (binary system), and a scoreboard displaying a perplexing array of letters and digits that mean nothing to me (x+y = whoknowswhat.)  Actually, I do understand two things: HOME and GUEST.  I’ve got those two down—but I still don’t understand the meaning of DOWN.  (“Down” to what?  Plus it’s weird to use a verb as a noun.) 

Listen, I’ve tried.  I’ve watched, I’ve listened, I’ve squinted to see who has the ball and which way they’re running down (up?) the field.  I’ve asked my husband—over and over and over—what is happening. (This is great for our relationship. He loves it when, two minutes into the game, I start turning to him every time the crowd roars and yell loudly and directly in his ear, “WHAT JUST HAPPENED?”  After having explained it to me, in patient and explicit detail, for the past twenty-four years, he’s only too happy to explain it again.)  

I’ve even googled “Rules of Football” before going to a game in hopes of saving my marriage.  But to no avail. Because though it makes perfect sense on google, the game makes no sense once I’m seated in the stands.  From there, I can only hear a whistle blow and see a bunch of guys pile on top of each other before they’ve even moved an inch down (up?) the field.  How am I supposed to know what’s happened when they keep stopping before it’s even happened? How am I supposed to know who’s doing what when everyone down there looks exactly the same–the same uniforms, the same helmets, the same pads, the same beefy calves?  And even if I could figure out what happened, how am I supposed to know if it’s good or bad when I can’t see the expressions on the player’s faces? How can I tell what they’re thinking and feeling—what I should be thinking and feeling?  Where is the connection, the empathy, the pathos for crying out loud?  I have to wonder:  who made this game up and what language did they speak?  Certainly not the language of the heart.  I mean come on. 

You may wonder why, after years silence, I’m offering this confessional now.  Well let me tell you, it isn’t really about football.  It’s because lately I’m realizing that my confusion over football might be indicative of a general confusion about the world in which I live.  I often notice that the people around me are exulting or despairing over things I don’t understand and just can’t quite seem to care about:  hot yoga, the China trade war, CBD oil. (Is it pot or not? Help me people.)  And yes, football.  

Look, I get it:  I don’t understand this stuff because I don’t care about it, and I don’t care this stuff because I don’t understand it, and I could bring this whole circular dilemma to a halt by spending just a few minutes studying and solving said mysteries. We generally enjoy things we feel competent in. So a first step to enjoying football might be trying harder to understand it.  (This probably holds true for enjoying yoga and CBD oil. The China Trade War? Well.)  

The problem is, I just can’t care enough about football to care that I don’t understand enough to care.  And so I remain stuck in my Circle of Confusion. But really, it’s not such a bad place to be.  It holds such pleasures as smelling the popcorn, hearing the band, and watching Cosmo slide on a long blue tarp between downs.  (See what I did there?)  There’s a lot of fun in ignorance.  Plus, if I stay confused I can stay apathetic, which rids me of unnecessary angst over who’s winning and losing.  My life is wrought with enough drama; why add to it the despair over a lost football game?  Shoot, I can barely handle the China Trade War.  (Or is it a tariff war? Help me people.)