Thursday, January 17, 2008

42 ... plus 2

It's now official, I've marked another birthday milestone. I could say I'm "Thirty-four ... teen" or count my age in hexadecimal to sound younger (but telling someone you are 3C years old really makes you a geek). I'm thinking 42 + 2. Why? Because 42 is the answer to "life, the universe and everything!" If you didn't know that, you haven't read Douglass Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series.

The premise of the whole Hitchhikers series is that Earth gets destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Earthling Arthur Dent is rescued from his home in England by an intergalatic hitchhiker named Ford Prefect (a little piece of British humor ... the Ford Prefect was a car marketed by Ford in the UK). The series is classic British humor set in a theater of the absurd, yet in the midst of all the silliness, Adams actually made some incisive commentary on the human condition.

42 becomes the answer to "life, the universe and everything" when a group of humans asks the supercomputer named "Deep Thought" the question: "What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?" Deep Thought takes millions of years to work on this question and, when he finally discloses the answer to the descendants of the original questioners (after warning them they wouldn't like the answer), he announces, "The answer to life ... the universe ... and everything is ..... forty-two!" Needless to say, this causes great consternation among those who are now responsible for announcing this great discovery. Those hearing this answer are sure it is wrong, but Deep Thought assures them he has done all the calculations correctly. Deep Thought tells them there is nothing wrong with the answer, the problem is they do not know the question!

BTW, if you want to know for sure, here's the answer to the same question according to Google.

The older I get, the more appreciation I have for asking the right questions. I care less about answers these days. Answers are cheap and everyone claims to have one (even if they don't understand the question themselves).

In the movie Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a young Orthodox rabbi, says he has no easy answers about evil in light of the attacks of 9/11. He says the following in response to the question: Have people asked you where God was on Sept. 11? How do you answer that?

... Yes, since Sept. 11, people keep asking me, "Where was God?" And they think because I'm a rabbi, I have answers. ...

There is a part of me that wants to yell back at them, "What? You're asking now? Why now? Why didn't you ask about Bosnia or Rwanda or Hiroshima or gas chambers and concentration camps or go back through all of human history? I don't understand. Now you're asking 'Where was God?' How many people go to bed hungry every night in the richest country in the world? And now you're asking about 'Where is the God of justice?'"

I don't mean to demean their question, so I always have to kind of check myself, go back and try and understand. What they are looking for is what all of us are looking for: some way to let real life, with the pain, not blow us apart -- probably a bad use of terms. We're all looking for that.

I guess the most important part of that conversation is to begin to identify how all of us are looking for that, rather than use some notion of God or some doctrine or some religion to provide easy answers, when we know deep down they don't really exist. So I can make someone feel good for 10 minutes doing the stuff I don't believe. But I know, and they know, that 10 minutes later, the same questions come flooding back. ...

I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. ...

I think that's the point. We won't have the answers, we aren't meant to have it all worked out. We're meant to live with the ambiguity of the questions and perhaps some plausible options ... perhaps. Living with questions takes more faith than living with answers.


Swandive said...

I so love this. I really do have to learn more about this wise wise person, I am now using his words as my signature quote. As follows: "When faith simplifies things that need to remain complex
instead of giving us strength to live with complexity,
when it gives answers where none exist,
instead of helping us appreciate the sacredness of living with questions,
when it offers certainty
when there needs to be doubt,
and when it tells us that we have arrived
when we should still be searching -
then there is a problem with that faith."

- Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, author of the new book You Don't Have to be Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.

Blessings to you!

Virtual Vicar said...

That's awesome! I was very impressed by Rabbi Hirschfield's presence in his interviews about 9/11. I'll have to check out this new book - sounds like good stuff for those of us who seek to live faithfully in a pluralistic world.

Crimson Rambler said...

I believe the problem with "42" as an answer was that the question was "7 X 8"? Or am I wrong there?
Do you know Rowan Williams's book about 9:11 -- Writing in the Dust? Most interesting.

Virtual Vicar said...

The question originally was, "What do you get when you multiply 6 by 9?" Interestingly, in base 13 the answer is "42" - except Douglas Adams had no idea that was true when he wrote the book! Go figure.

And yes, I'm familiar with ++Rowan's book Writings in the Dust. Have a copy of it myself - very good.