Modern life was roaring as I stood out back the other day after dragging away post-storm branches. That is, I could hear the rush of traffic on the nearby interstate – our 21st-century soundtrack of mobility, speed, convenience, progress. It is ruthless, exuberant, heedless, lethal. Nothing stands in its way.
I heard another force in the backyard. Birds were busy at their chortling routine. Squirrels pounded on the roof. A breeze picked up in the maples. Nature was stirring: lyrical, volatile, incessant. Nothing stands in its way either.
These two forces, one of asphalt, one of earth, vie for dominance. Each has its own loyal following.
Then a third sound broke through, arriving from a few blocks away: the chiming of a church bell tower. It rang out gently with a hymn to mark the midafternoon hour.
It declined the hard sell. It seemed to say: We’re not going to annoy you with lots of noise. Just know the church is here. The news we’re carrying is here if you need it.
In medieval towns, life was regulated by the peal of the parish bells. They announced the worship hour. Their sound was known to shoo away evil. Now the bells are mostly a novelty, just one sound among many in the postmodern medley.
Yet neither wind nor capitalism can replicate this soothing chime. In their understated way, the neighborhood bells are a reminder of the great rolling debate of life: Are we alone in our thoughts, or does a larger force abide? Must we figure out the universe on our own, or will all be revealed one day?
I follow the writer Martin Amis as he follows the latest wrinkles in modern cosmology. He used to be an atheist. Now he finds agnosticism the more logical position, more in keeping with our ignorance.
“We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe,” he once told Bill Moyers. “But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? That makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.”
The church bells give their answer: Life is incomplete, fragile, awaiting further instruction. We can’t deduce the whole truth on our own. Divine revelation always rounds out the picture.
This doesn’t justify arrogance. The hostilities committed in religion’s name every day threaten to ruin religion and everything else.
The neighborhood bells sing a view of belief that I want to hold close. It’s melodious not bullying, steady not abusive, a real sound tolling in the real world of raging weather and anxious industry, outlasting both.