No Mere Coincidence

There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.

--Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

There are only coincidences.

-- Henri Cartier-Bresson

Three days after a liberal Anglican theologian named David Jenkins was consecrated bishop at York Minster in 1984, the cathedral was struck by lightning, resulting in a fire that collapsed the roof of the south transcept.   Jenkins’ critics believed the lightning strike was no mere coincidence.  He had caused a furor among church conservatives in England by suggesting that New Testament accounts of the virgin birth and the Resurrection were not to be taken literally.  According to various news reports, Jenkins had made a TV appearance in which he referred to the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones.”

There is something almost biblical about this story of a lightning strike that may or may not have been aimed at a blaspheming bishop. It brings to mind an episode in the Old Testament in which Elijah calls down fire from heaven against the prophets of Baal. However, it also illustrates the danger of reading too much into stories that turn on “no mere coincidence.”  Jenkins undeniably held unorthodox views on the tenets of Christian faith; however, he was misquoted in his purported reference to the Resurrection as a “conjuring trick.”  There are various versions of what he actually said, but the general sense was that the Resurrection was “not just a conjuring trick.”  And while Jenkins was consecrated at York Minister, he was actually bishop of Durham, and his own cathedral was spared a lightning strike.  For that matter, so were all the other cathedrals in England occupied by liberal Anglican bishops who did not believe in a literal Resurrection.

To hold that two events with no causal connection can be linked by something more than mere coincidence would challenge conventional notions of reality.  Yet we have all had the uncanny sense of seemingly disparate events coming together in a way that suggests there is some underlying pattern or purpose at work.  Of course, since the human brain is wired for pattern recognition, we are predisposed to make imaginative leaps when the laws of probability would suffice.  On the other hand, we may dismiss an unlikely congruence of events as mere coincidence simply because we find it too unsettling to consider the alternative.

With some notable exceptions, the scientific community has been understandably reluctant to explore a phenomenon that appears to defy ordinary physical laws and that cannot be empirically verified.  Among the first to give serious treatment to the subject was the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who used the term synchronicity to describe a “meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than probability of chance is involved.”  For Jung, synchronicity usually combined an emotionally charged psychic experience, such as a dream or premonition, with an external event, under circumstances in which no casual link could be established.  As an example, Jung cited an incident involving a highly rational patient who related to him a dream about an expensive piece of jewelry in the form of a golden scarab.  At that moment a gold-green scarab beetle buzzed against his window and then flew into his office.  Jung was able to overcome his patient’s excessive rationalism by handing her the insect and telling her, “Here is your scarab.”

Jung’s ideas on synchronicity were shaped in part by a collaboration with the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who had been one of his patients. Synchronicity cannot easily be reconciled with the laws of classical physics, since there is no discernible causal link between events that appear to be meaningfully related.  However, this would not necessarily be a disqualifier for quantum physicists like Pauli.  They had grown accustomed to the bizarre dynamics of the subatomic dimension, where traditional notions of cause and effect do not apply and even the distinction between observer and event is erased.  In the quantum realm, mind and matter are indivisible.  Cause and effect are not so much inoperative as impossible to isolate in a world in which everything causes everything else.  There are no discrete objects or energies or events, only a single underlying whole.  This is what we stumble upon when seemingly disparate events suddenly come together to give us a nod and a wink.

Carl Jung, “Synchronicity, An Acausal Connecting Principle”

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