Lots of people are comfortable with idea that the universe is pregnant with transcendent meaning — but only so long as that idea is expressed inarticulately, without concreteness, precision or anything like a sober appeal to evidence. The more inarticulate, the better.
In the car on the way into the office this morning I heard Dennis Prager speaking with his characteristic eloquence about Steve Jobs’s last words. Dennis was citing Peggy Noonan’s recent Wall Street Journal column, which in turn quoted Jobs’s sister, novelist Mona Simpson. Ms. Simpson was with him at the end:
“Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s final words were: ‘OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.'”
The caps are Simpson’s, and if she meant to impart a sense of wonder and mystery she succeeded. “Oh wow” is not a bad way to express the bigness, power and force of life, and death.
No, it’s not bad. Of course I can’t begin to imagine what vision Steve Jobs might or might not have been granted in his last moments, though the anecdote reminds me of the understanding, conveyed in the Midrash, that when a person lies in his death bed the divine presence is to be found there in a particularly revealed fashion. The Biblical patriarch Jacob, for example, as he foretold his own imminent death, “bowed himself upon the bed’s head” (Genesis 47:31) for just this reason. An ancient Jewish practice was to visit the sick with one’s head covered in a prayer shawl and sit on a low stool at the bedside in awe and deference before the revealed presence.
What shields the story about Steve Jobs from cynics and their mockery, making it safe to discuss in the Wall Street Journal, is the inarticulateness of his final expression. Imagine if, in his dying breath, he had instead offered an observation like the one his fellow computer genius Bill Gates once did about the nature of life’s software, DNA: that it is “like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.”
That, you can be sure, would have been greeted with a pained silence from the culture or references to how poor Steve in his last hour was obviously bereft of reason.
Ironic, isn’t it, that it is precisely when you try to express the “bigness, power and force of life” in terms open to rational investigation and confirmation — exactly what intelligent design theorists do — that you have opened yourself up to charges of irrationalism, fundamentalism, and “creationism.”