What if you could change history? That’s the provocative premiss of Stephen King’s newest offering, entitled, 11/22/63: A Novel. The date, of course, is that of the Kennedy assassination, a watershed moment in modern history. But what if there were a way to go back and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald in firing his rifle from the Texas Book Depository Building?
In King’s novel, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, is confronted by Al Templeton, the owner of Al’s Fatburgers, a greasy spoon with a time-portal in its pantry, with the possibility of changing the past. According to what is known as the Butterfly theory, even a small change could have enormous repercussions, and Jake finds the idea of stopping the JFK assassination insanely ambitious. “But you’re talking about...saving JFK’s life.”
But an undeterred Al responds,
“Oh, I’m talking about a lot more than that, because this ain’t some butterfly in China, buddy. I’m also talking about saving RFK’s life, because if John lives in Dallas, Robert probably doesn’t run for president in 1968. The country wouldn’t have been ready to replace one Kennedy with another.
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“No, but listen. Do you think that if you save John Kennedy’s life, his brother Robert is still at the Ambassador Hotel at twelve-fifteen in the morning of June fifth, 1968? And even if he is, is Sirhan Sirhan still working in the kitchen?”
Maybe, but the chances had to be awfully small. If you introduce a million variables into an equation, of course the answer was going to change.
“Or what about Martin Luther King? Is he still in Memphis in April of ‘68. Even if he is, is he still standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at exactly the right time for James Early Ray to shoot him? What do you think?
“If that butterfly theory is right, probably not.”
“Or what about Vietnam? Johnson was the one who started all the insane escalation. Kennedy was a cold warrior, no doubt about it, but Johnson took it to the next level. He had the same my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours complex that Dubya showed off when he stood in front of the cameras and said, ‘Bring it on.” Kennedy might have changed his mind. Johnson and Nixon were incapable of that. Thanks to them, we lost almost sixty thousand American soldiers in Nam. The Vietnamese, North and South, lost millions. Is the butcher’s bill that high if Kennedy doesn’t die in Dallas?
Don’t debate the details of King’s science fiction, how it is that someone goes into the past and returns. King’s perspicuity is focused upon the human heart, not science. Where does our desire to undo the past come from? Why do we even ask the question, “what if?” What does it say about us? How is it that Isaiah perfectly expresses what it means to be human when he begs God to push a celestial reset button: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old” (63:19, 64:2).
Isaiah’s prayer is deeply embedded in what it means to be human. Of all the creatures God created on earth, only human beings dwell in time.
But doesn’t a clock tick in a roomful of mice or men?
Yes, it does, but mice don’t measure their days against the backdrop of a past or the horizon of a future. With the gift of language — and the memory and imagination that it enables — humans beings were given an extraordinary gift. We can call the past to mind. We view our present activities as nestled into that of the past. When we say that human beings act intentionally, we mean that we can call to mind what was and that we can picture what might be. We understand ourselves as coming out of past and into a future. Put it this way: compared to other earthly creatures, only the human mind can go offline. We alone can pose the question, “what if?”
An animal remembers where it found food; it knows where to expect food; but an animal doesn’t remember what it felt like to be fed, nor does an animal dream about the next meal or fear its absence. Dreams and dread come with language, with the ability of the human mind to think offline, to ask, “what if?”
Whether one believes or not, God is fundamentally related to the human ability to imagine. An atheist would reduce God to a product of the imagination, arguing that, like Isaiah, we want the world to be radically different than it is, and, being unable to accept reality, we imagine a God who could change it at will.
Some would suggest that the presence of serious evil in the world proves God’s non-existence, arguing: how can there be a good God with so much evil in the world?
Who really knows? But if the world went exactly as you wanted, if it were filled with nothing but goodness, that wouldn’t prove the existence it God. It would mean that you were God. There must be some “what if” between absolute goodness and absolute evil.
A believer can approach the question of imagination in a radically different way. Our ability to imagine alternative realities doesn’t prove the existence of God, but it does highlight the sheer possibility of God. It’s not that we imagine God, but rather that the imagination is the graced place of encounter with God, the heaven-given spot where our humanity opens itself to God.
If the world were simply a place of evil, if it lacked all goodness, how could we even dream of a different world? How does one imagine what one has never experienced? Even imagination has to use pre-existing building blocks. If there were absolutely no goodness in the world, how could we dream of goodness or God? And yet because human beings can think offline, because we can ask “what if?” we can imagine choosing the good and turning away from evil. We can even imagine it all coming out for the good in the end. Clearly there is a good in the world greater than ourselves. Where else did our dream, our vision, of goodness come from, if not from something beyond ourselves? How we reject evil and turn towards the good, without some innate knowledge that it does, that it can, exist?
This First Sunday of Advent Jesus tells us to turn our eyes toward the future. All of earth’s creatures, we alone can do that. We alone can dream of what will be; we alone live with the regret of what was; and we alone can imagine the entire episode turning out quite differently. Only we graced humans can ask, “what if?”
Terrance W. Klein