Saturday, November 01, 2008

Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 2008

Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes

For the past week or so I have been reading Michael Chabon’s novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It’s a good thing that Chabon is a brilliant writer because in this book he attempts to tell an improbable alternate history. In the novel, as in actual history, the State of Israel was created in the years after World War II and at least in part as a response to the Holocaust. In the novel, unlike in actual history, Israel is defeated and destroyed in 1948. After the defeat, many Jews migrate to the extremely unlikely location of Sitka, Alaska, where the American government allows them to set up a kind of colony, at least for a time. The story – described on the book jacket as “a gripping whodunit, a love story, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption” – takes place in this fictional, frigid, absurd and yet believable Jewish settlement.

Reading this amazing book I’ve been reminded of other authors who have attempted to create alternate histories. Probably the best I’ve ever read is Philip Roth’s remarkable novel, The Plot Against America. Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark that grows increasingly dismayed and fearful when Charles Lindbergh, after defeating Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, moves the United States toward an alliance with Hitler’s Germany.

Especially for us history buffs, it’s fascinating to imagine great what ifs of the past. But it’s not just historians and novelists who have pondered these kinds of questions. Scientists have also wondered about alternatives to the universe that we know. Recently PBS aired a program, “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” about the physicist Hugh Everett who back in the 1950s proposed the “Many Worlds Interpretation.” Everett’s idea was that are theoretically infinite universes in which every possibility occurs. To give a silly example, according to Everett’s theory, if one day I walk down Main Street and decide to go to On a Roll for lunch there would also be universes where I decide to go to the Nautilus, Bagel Chateau, or even McCool’s!

My understanding of quantum physics is admittedly more than a little shaky, but the “Many Worlds Interpretation” as well as novels that imagine alternative history serve as reminders of the importance and the consequences of the choices that we make. I am sure all of us can think of decisions that were crucial in determining the shape of our lives. And I am sure that all of us can imagine alternative histories, or parallel universes, where our lives turned out to be very different – for better or for worse - from the lives we are living.

I don’t know if there really is a parallel universe where I am still a high school teacher, but I can imagine an alternative history where I am in my classroom grading papers and planning classes. Instead, obviously, I chose to go to seminary, setting in motion a chain of events that have led me to serve as your curate. Although there are parts of teaching that I miss, I’m very glad that my history unfolded in a way that has brought me to Grace Church.

Stewardship season is now upon us in the midst of much economic uncertainty and anxiety. As we all pray about and reflect on our church support maybe it would be a helpful exercise to take some time to imagine an alternative history or a parallel universe without Grace Church in our lives. How different would our lives be without the solid foundation of this church? How different would our lives be without this place where we come together again and again to hear and tell our stories and to receive Jesus into our bodies and souls? I know my life would be much poorer without the gift or working and worshiping with all of you. It’s a tough time for many of us, but I can’t imagine a better history or a better universe than the one that we are sharing together here at Grace Church.