Events colliding together by apparent chance often reveal themselves as deeply meaningful. Most people now and then experience interesting coincidences. They often seem to provide us with raw material for finding or for creating meaning. Coincidences, as deep meaning markers, play a prominent role in religion.
One particular kind of coincidence seems to generate an immediate, overwhelming response of religious feeling. The other day I watched an interview of a woman who described how she barely made it out of her burning house, after which she watched it collapse into a heap of smoldering flame. She was breathless with joy and with awe at the thought that God had saved her. When people escape disaster by a hair’s breadth, the instinct is commonly to ascribe the good fortune to divine intervention.
In Vico’s theory of the genesis of belief in gods, coincidence is crucial. Divine inspiration first came in the form of a thunderclap; early humans thought it was the voice of an invisible god calling out to them. Has our belief in gods and goddesses emerged from the over-interpretation of nature’s stunning coincidences?
This, as Vico said, only occurs when the creative imagination is at its peak. But when analytic reason is dominant in a culture, consciousness is prone to self-preservation, not self-transcendence.
Coincidence can play a role in forming religious ideas. Consider some examples from the career of Joseph of Copertino, a mystic famous for his many supernormal talents, (i.e., levitation, bilocation, precognition, etc.)
Young Joseph was bedridden from a gangrenous growth on his backside for five years. When he finally healed and got back on his feet, he was disoriented, unsteady, and distracted. He tried being a cobbler but failed. He recognized himself as useless for anything worldly, and desired to become a priest. His consciousness was disposed to leave his body, not use it for reading and writing of the sort required of a good priest.
So Joseph found himself between a rock and a hard place. But he overcame his problems with the help of two coincidences, which made him a priest in spite of his shortcomings.
In the coincidence during his first examination, he was asked to explain the one passage he knew, understood, and could discuss with real understanding—a passage about the Madonna.
There was yet a more challenging test he had to pass; in this test, he would have to write in a way that proved he had mastery of church doctrine and its specific lingo. Joseph would not have passed, but the examiner decided to quit testing the remaining brothers because the first group all passed with flying colors. Once again Joseph was saved by a coincidence.
But that’s not how Joseph saw matters. Mere coincidence would fail to do his experience justice; it had to be a favor orchestrated by the mother of God. This is not Church doctrine, but it is part of the lore of the saint.
There are, moreover, more conservative ways to explain the two coincidences just cited. Suppose they were not coincidental; instead of a favor of God, they might have been the result of Joseph’s unconscious supernormal mental powers. Since all he knew was the one passage about Mary, he might well have planted the thought of that passage in the mind of the prelate who had to test him. The entire transaction would of course occur below the surface of Joseph’s consciousness. The same would apply to the superior who ended the testing in time to get Joseph off the hook and into the priesthood. Joseph, whose mind was focused on his goal so intently may well have influenced the behavior of those around him, and no more incredible than levitation. Various things may be going on behind the scenes of seeming innocent coincidences.
Another case, also drawn from Bernini’s Vita of Joseph. This is not a story presented with any testimony. It was merely repeated as an anecdote and illustrates how coincidence can mislead one to believe in a miracle when nothing strange has at all happened. The story that Bernini repeated was that one day St. Joseph raised a bunch of sheep from the dead. One afternoon there was a violent hailstorm that floored several sheep; thinking they had died, the shepherd cried out to Padre Giuseppe for assistance. Within minutes the sheep began to stir and staggered back to life. Needless to say, these sheep were merely knocked unconscious temporarily; but the excitable imagination of the shepherd seems to have set loose a miracle tale that those eager to believe repeated. I suspect the history of religions is littered with lore grounded in coincidences that have been misconstrued.
Finally, I want to mention what some scientists appear to think may be the great cosmic coincidence that declares the hand of an Intelligent Agent. The cosmologist, Martin Rees, whose book (Before the Beginning) is endorsed by Stephen Hawking, argues that the basic variables of physical reality (gravitation, electro-magnetism, etc.) happen to exist in such a way that they permit galaxies to form the way they do and life to have developed on planet Earth. Rees, an exponent of the anthropic principle and the multiverse, argues that these were either immensely improbable coincidences or are evidence of intelligent direction in the universe.
This I suppose would be a variation on the classic argument from design that is supposed to lead to an inference of God’s existence. From this standpoint, the issue of coincidence involves us in a choice between two starkly diverse worldviews: one governed by chance alone, the other that admits a directedness toward life and consciousness. So, by following the spoor of coincidence, we are led to an awareness of great options. For people forging their own life myth, coincidence can sometimes be a special place, a threshold: a possible springboard into transcendence. (For more on this and the Copertimo story, see my The Man Who Could Fly & Wings of Ecstasy, both available on Amazon.)