A short phrase spoken by a friend stuck in my brain decades ago, and it pops up now as I try to name the goal for this long-planned series of blogs.
During a road trip my friend Karl spoke about the “grand scheme of things.” Our conversation had rambled into questions of purpose and meaning in life, and he wanted to name their source without invoking science or revelation. So he called it the grand scheme of things. To make it brief – GSOT.
These blogs will describe a search for GSOT. You won’t find here any proclamation of truth. Nor should you expect a convincing argument for faith. GSOT is a modest goal; it might actually lie within reach.
It will help for you to know a little about Karl – a hands-on medical scientist working deftly in the lab, a home brewmaster before that craft became fashionable. Karl’s passion for road cycling is legendary – “Put your nose on the white line and just keep it there.” Over the time I have known him, I cannot recall a single regret or complaint.
Sometime in the 1980s we drove from Houston to a research conference in San Antonio, with a side trip to Enchanted Rock, a mammoth granite formation near Fredericksburg, Texas. The long trip had some anxious moments when a dense morning fog made high speeds on the interstate unsafe and low speeds equally unsafe. Perhaps it was the fog and our relief when it lifted that helped push the conversation further, deeper, almost down to religion.
Karl’s natural approach to life does not derive from formal faith, but his roots nonetheless course deep. He confided with me then, although he has no certain knowledge of God, he does have a sense of something, a power or a set of laws or both, that grounds the world and our place in it. That’s his grand scheme of things.
His intuition is foundational, yet flexible, less than totally committed. It strikes me as very contemporary. The Jedi knights sought guidance from the Force, a theme that resonated among millions of moviegoers. But the Force appeals more to imagination, fitting the role of guardians of far-flung galaxies. Closer to home, as if constructed from earliest, almost pre-existing memories, Karl has it better named, grand scheme of things, or GSOT.
GSOT! Has any person lived who never asked why we find ourselves in such a world as this?
But where shall we look? Is the path to GSOT mostly a search in the individual mind, or is it best viewed as the effort of a community or a culture?
Most of us should admit that our ideas about GSOT have come largely from those who taught us – parents, mentors, friends. Through them we began to receive the larger influence of community and culture. As a child I glimpsed GSOT on a breakfast cup Mama had ordered from a cereal box; on that cup Davy Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Later I was shaped by the words and actions of Paul Tournier, Katie Mae Wilson, James Meredith, Charles Peirce, and others.
Faced with a multitude of ideas about GSOT, we cull out whatever seems nonessential and thus form our own identity. Sometimes we oppose rather than accept the viewpoints presented. Even this opposition has its own rich heritage among rebels of the past, and how we bump against unchosen ideas ends up shaping the response we make.
Now in 2016 the choices that form GSOT for individuals and for culture are changing. Nobody knows where we will end up.
One thing seems certain – choosing won’t come easy for most of us. Few have Karl’s disposition, and even he admits to difficulty. For the great majority, the search for GSOT will engage what philosopher and theologian Tyler Roberts has called a hermeneutic of suspicion. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation, involving reflection on the methods by which we seek to understand phenomena and communications. Roberts declares that we have become much more demanding of evidence, much less willing to accept anybody’s theories on nature or life – even our own. He’s right. We live in a time of transition driven by suspicion.
The most influential voices of our time have rebelled against a broken-down GSOT that goes by the old, odd name of modernity. The third segment of the modern age, lasting from the late 19th century through the entire 20th century, is cracking and crumbling.
Modernity, which informed the beliefs of our parents and grandparents, featured confidence rather than suspicion. Two towers of belief in the latter modern age – scientific positivism and reactive religious fundamentalism – though bitterly antagonistic to each other, nevertheless shared key operational attitudes.
For the positivists, only scientific knowledge is secure. Only those hypotheses that can be tested in a public manner are worth pursuing. The answers are plain, though admittedly limited.
Fundamentalist theories of knowledge actually fit the attitude of modernity almost as well as positivist theories. For fundamentalists, only the truths found in the Bible or perhaps another sacred text are secure. Fundamentalists declare that those truths are plainly stated by God in the text. Everything else, even science, is valid only to the extent that it conforms to God’s word.
It would be wrong to label as fundamentalist everyone who believes that the Bible, the Koran, or some other sacred book is true. Instead fundamentalism should be identified on the basis of a person’s approach to theories and evidence outside their own sacred text. The person who allows some credit to those outside the strict interpretive frame is not fundamentalist.
Positivists and fundamentalists share a key characteristic which I hope to demonstrate in subsequent blogs. They despise every attempt to understand GSOT that originates outside their chosen frame of experience. To them the only answers that should guide our lives are plain and accessible through their chosen methods, and everything else has no meaning at all. Their descriptions of alternative explanations are marked by disrespect and selective nihilism.
Before going to the research conference, Karl and I drove a little north of Fredericksburg and took half a day to explore the geologic wonder of Enchanted Rock, a pink granite monadnock covering 640 acres and rising 425 feet from surrounding terrain in the Texas Hill Country.
Near the edges of the mammoth rock, erosive forces have split the granite, creating free-standing boulders 20 feet high and sometimes 30 feet across, separated by 1 to 8 feet of crevasse. Karl was jumping from one accessible boulder to another and encouraging me to follow. Heights don’t terrify me, as long as I can stay away from the edge. I jumped a few, but mostly watched him acting the role of a Basque mountaineer. Then for a good while, we sat near the summit and looked out over the scrub- and tree-covered hills. “It’s good to get out in nature,” he said, “Restores your spirit.”
Suspicion is an appropriate response to the certainty of the positivists and the fundamentalists. But where does that leave us? Can we believe in anything? Where shall we look for GSOT? Can we find it in places like Enchanted Rock? Or in friendship?
We can apply suspicion to the nihilistic aspects of modernity. Suspicion undercuts the terse denial from positivists that any singularity has meaning. Suspicion turns a deaf ear to the vehement refusal of fundamentalists to consider validity beyond the pages of their text.
Let’s use the crowbar of suspicion to pull down needless walls of disrespect. If we can deconstruct the negative parts of modernity, we may uncover a new foundation for GSOT. Suspicion, replacing confidence, could eventually lead to wonder. Sharing of doubts is, after all, still sharing, which may progress through friendship to community. I see no reason to be pessimistic about the end of modernity.
With his own hands, Karl is building a new home in a wooded area in the Carolinas. He’s looking forward to living there, connecting with nature, and exploring GSOT.
Next post: Five Rules for GSOT: a Preview
Searching for GSOT outline: Home
 Roberts, T. Religion and modernity, in Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition. The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, 2009.