So there they were in July 1961, about to set off for Camp Paradise at the start of that eventful summer when all the news from the outside world seemed to be bad news: the wall going up in Berlin, Ernest Hemingway blasting a bullet through his skull in the mountains of Idaho, mobs of white racists attacking the Freedom Riders as they traveled on their buses through the South. Menace, despondency, and hatred, abundant proof that rational men were not in charge of running the universe, and as Ferguson settled into the pleasant and familiar bustle of camp life, dribbling basketballs and stealing bases in the mornings and afternoons, listening to the barbs and blather of the boys in his cabin, exulting in the chance to be with Noah again, which above all meant being able to participate in a nonstop, two-month-long conversation with him, dancing in the evenings with the New York City girls he liked so much, the spirited and busty Carol Thalberg, the slender and thoughtful Ann Brodsky, and eventually the acne-ridden but exceptionally beautiful Denise Levinson, who was of one mind with him about slipping away from the post-dinner “socials” for intense mouth-and-tongue exercises in the back meadow, so many good things to be thankful for, and yet now that he was fourteen and his head was filled with thoughts that wouldn’t even have occurred to him just six months earlier, Ferguson was forever looking at himself in relation to distant, unknown others, wondering, for example, if he hadn’t been kissing Denise at the precise moment when Hemingway was blowing his brains out in Idaho or if, just as he was hitting a double in the game between Camp Paradise and Camp Greylock last Thursday, a Mississippi Klansman hadn’t been driving his fist into the jaw of a skinny, short-haired Freedom Rider from Boston. One person kissed, another person punched, or else one person attending his mother’s funeral at eleven o’clock in the morning on June 10, 1857, and at the same moment on the same block in the same city, another person holding her newborn child in her arms for the first time, the sorrow of the one occurring simultaneously with the joy of the other, and unless you were God, who was presumably everywhere and could see everything that was happening at any given moment, no one could possibly know that those two events were taking place at the same time, least of all the grieving son and the laughing mother. Was that why man had invented God? Ferguson asked himself. In order to overcome the limits of human perception by asserting the existence of an all-encompassing, all-powerful divine intelligence?
Think of it this way, he said to Noah one afternoon as they were walking to the dining hall. You have to go somewhere in your car. It’s an important errand, and you can’t be late. There are two ways to get thereby the main road or the back road. It happens to be rush hour, and normally things are pretty clogged up on the main road at that time of day, but unless there’s an accident or a breakdown, the traffic tends to move slowly and steadily, and chances are the trip will take you about twenty minutes, which would get you to your appointment just in time – on the dot, without a second to spare. The back road is a bit longer in terms of distance, but there are fewer cars to worry about, and if all goes well, you can count on a travel time of about fifteen minutes. In principle, the back road is better than the main road, but there’s also a hitch: it has only one lane going in each direction, and if you happen to run into a breakdown or an accident, you’re liable to get stuck for a long time, which would make you late for your appointment.
Hold on, Noah said. I need to know more about this appointment. Where am I going, and why is it so important to me?
It doesn’t matter, Ferguson replied. The car trip is just an example, a proposition, a way of talking about the thing I want to discuss with you – which has nothing to do with roads or appointments.
But it does matter, Archie. Everything matters.
Ferguson let out a long sigh and said: All right. You’re going to a job interview. It’s the job you’ve been dreaming about all your life – Paris correspondent for the Daily Planet. If you get the job, you’ll be the happiest person in the world. If you don’t, you’ll go home and hang yourself.
If it means that much to me, why would I leave at the last minute? Why not start the trip an hour earlier and make sure I won’t be late?
Because… because you can’t. Your grandmother has died, and you had to go to her funeral.
Fair enough. It’s what we call a momentous day. I’ve just spent six hours weeping for my grandmother, and now I’m in my car, heading for the job interview. Which road do you want me to take?
Again, it doesn’t matter. There are only two choices, the main road and the back road, and each one has its good points and bad points. Say you choose the main road and get to your appointment on time. You won’t think about your choice, will you? And if you go by the back road and get there in time, again, no sweat, and you’ll never give it another thought for the rest of your life. But here’s where it gets interesting. You take the main road, there’s a three-car pileup, traffic is stalled for more than an hour, and as you sit there in your car, the only thing on your mind will be the back road and why you didn’t go that way instead. You’ll curse yourself for making the wrong choice, and yet how do you really know it was the wrong choice? Can you see the back road? Do you know what’s happening on the back road? Has anyone told you that an enormous redwood tree has fallen across the back road and crushed a passing car, killing the driver of that car and holding up traffic for three and a half hours? Has anyone looked at his watch and told you that if you had taken the back road it would have been your car that was crushed and you who were killed? Or else: No tree fell, and taking the main road was the wrong choice. Or else: You took the back road, and the tree fell on the driver just in front of you, and as you sit in your car wishing you had taken the main road, you know nothing about the three-car pileup that would have made you miss your appointment anyway. Or else: There was no three-car pileup, and taking the back road was the wrong choice.
What’s the point of all this, Archie?
I’m saying you’ll never know if you made the wrong choice or not. You would need to have all the facts before you knew, and the only way to get all the facts is to be in two places at the same time—which is impossible.
And that’s why people believe in God.
Surely you jest, Monsieur Voltaire.
Only God can see the main road and the back road at the same time – which means that only God can know if you made the right choice or the wrong choice.
How do you know he knows?
I don’t. But that’s the assumption people make. Unfortunately, God never tells us what he thinks.
You could always write him a letter.
True. But there wouldn’t be any point.
What’s the problem? Can’t afford the airmail postage?
I don’t have his address.