When you’re a linguist, you get used to being asked how many languages you speak. But a few years ago I was asked for the first time, by a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, what my favorite words are. “Grace and serendipity,” I blurted out—not a graceful response, but a serendipitous one. I had never given a thought to the matter before, but since then few days have passed when I haven’t pondered our brief exchange. Today I would give the same answer, and with better reasons.
I like the juxtaposition of the monosyllable grace, and its serious meaning, with the cheerful five syllables that fly dipity-tripity off the tongue as though in imitation of serendipity’s playful sense. So different in affect grace and serendipity are, but they go well together semantically: positive phenomena that happen just like that, without effort and without merit.
If you want to know about serendipity, look to sociologist Robert K. Merton and historian Elinor Barber’s The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Written in 1958 but published only in the twenty-first century, first in Italian (2002) and then in the original English (2004), it is an engrossing and quirky work. Merton and Barber take their readers from Horace Walpole, who coined the word in 1754 after the “oriental” fairy tale The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Serendip, to George W. Merck of the pharmaceutical giant Merck and Co., who used it in an article in Chemical & Engineering News in 1946 and made it a buzzword in the 1950s with an ad that claimed, “No field of human endeavor illustrates better than chemistry the story of The Three Princes of Serendip.” The book shines with the sense of intellectual fun for which Merton was famous. There is nothing else like it.
What if you want to know about grace? Even a theologian—and I am emphatically not one—would be unable to name just one essential work on the subject, or even a few. This is in part because the nature of grace has been so intensely contested for so long. Take a word, any word, and you will find that no two people agree on every detail of its definition. The case of grace is extreme. Think of the fights between Augustine and Pelagius over grace (Latin gratia) and original sin in the early fifth century and between Erasmus and Luther over grace (German Gnade) and free will a mere half-millennium ago. Think of the disagreements today between Catholics and Protestants over the relationship between grace and sacramental efficacy.
Walpole spoke of serendipity as “accidental sagacity,” and a minor industry has emerged in lexicography and the history of science in recent decades dedicated to determining the difference between serendipitous discovery and sheer luck. The question, in short: How much of serendipity is blind chance, and how much comes from “luck favoring the prepared mind,” in the felicitous formulation of Louis Pasteur (le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés)? For my part, I am sad when people use serendipity as a fancy alternative to “good fortune.” The extent to which we can make our own luck may be a subject of legitimate debate, but we cannot, in my view, influence serendipity. It is a gift and simply not ours to make.
If there’s one thing everyone agrees about grace, it is that it’s not ours to make either. It is both a quality of God and his gift to mankind, free and unmerited. In the words of Robert W. Jenson in his essay “Triune Grace,” “Grace is the favor of God, both the giver and the gift at the same time.” I first learned about Christian grace as a sixteen-year-old agnostic in a summer program. We were reading short stories by Flannery O’Connor, and unsurprisingly the matter of grace arose. One of the professors asked the assembled teenagers—some Christians, some Jews, few of us especially religious—what the word meant. I wish I had a recording of the prompt and apposite answer of my friend Deb. What she said, matter-of-factly, about God, sin, and undeservedness silenced the room in the best possible way: The rest of us marveled at her wisdom as our teachers nodded vigorously. I remember the occasion so clearly in part because I thought to my chagrin that anyone who could give such an answer—as I could not, for although I had read St. Paul, I had not yet taken the Bible as my own and did not say grace before meals—had to be a lot smarter than I was.
One of the lovely things about grace is that all its other meanings are attractive, too, as are the meanings of related forms: grace notes, Grace Kelly, gracious hosts, graceful dance, conceding gracefully. The point was well made by the recently deceased writer and theologian Frederick Buechner, who noted in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC that “[a]fter centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.” The bloom remains as well on some words that come from grace’s Latin base, gratia, and from the related adjective gratus, which means both “pleasing” and “thankful”: grateful and gratitude, though not also gratuitous. Whoever we may be, we all aspire to grace and should be grateful for the good things that come our way, both merited and not.
Here’s a story. Merton first encountered the word serendipity in the Oxford English Dictionary, which he bought when a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s and living in Perkins Hall, where both my father in the 1950s and I in the 1990s would come to reside as well. My father, a chemist, and Merton ended up colleagues at Columbia, and I grew up on Merton’s block, which naturally made me interested in reading his oeuvre. In the book on serendipity, in which he offers many instances of happy accidents in his own life, Merton cites Merck, whose daughter Judith married Buechner, who had been an undergraduate at Princeton and spent ten years as chaplain at Phillips Exeter Academy, which is where, decades later, I would be asked the question to which my response was “grace and serendipity.” In 1970, some years after leaving Exeter, Buechner published The Alphabet of Grace, which he dedicated to one of his and Judith’s daughters. And decades after that, one of the Buechners’ grandsons, a son of the dedicatee of that book and someone who had already met my future wife, became one of my favorite students at Princeton—this shortly after I’d talked about Buechner with another Princeton denizen, someone who was both the grandmother of my wife-to-be and my future godmother, a woman whose late husband, the aforementioned Robert W. Jenson, was a theologian of a different, far less liberal, stripe.
A not wholly attractive thing that this breathless tale demonstrates is the insularity of certain social circles. But there is also much to love. I never met either Buechner or Jenson, but one thing is clear: They were playful as well as godly men. I hope they are engaged in heaven in heated argument about grace and smiling at the serendipity.
Buechner, whose fiction brought him an O. Henry Award and made him a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, had the populist touch. One of his blunt pronouncements: “Life itself is grace.” He famously wrote, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” But he followed up with, “There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.” I doubt Buechner is right about this: Surely grace is freely (Latin gratis) yours even if you don’t put out your hands. That said, we should all be grateful for gifts—and failing to count your blessings is always unattractive.
Jenson, too, was fascinated by stories, though he did not have the populist touch. Arguably his most famous essay, published in First Things in 1993, is “How the World Lost Its Story.” Building on Hans Frei’s notion of “realistic narrative,” Jenson exhorts us to understand the importance of “sequential events” that create “a dramatic kind of sense,” a “coherence . . . of a sort that could ‘really’ happen, i.e., happen in a presumed factual world ‘out there,’ external to the text.” For Jenson, postmodernism has taken away our “narratable world,” with disastrous results. For Christians, the stakes are clear: We need to understand the Scriptures, from Genesis through the New Testament, as a coherent story or drama, one whose “subject . . . is a particular God, the Creator-God who authors all reality.” But really, the stakes should be clear to everyone, even atheists, in today’s cultural hellscape: Succumbing to nihilism and disorder means acknowledging that our lives are narratively incoherent, and to believe this a good thing is to revel in chaos.
For Buechner, “life itself is grace.” For Jenson, things are more complicated, though ultimately, I think, he and Buechner largely agree. In volume 2 of his monumental Systematic Theology, Jenson presents a compelling argument against Henri de Lubac’s theology of nature and grace, concluding that “the openness of nature to grace is a dramatic openness, the openness of one utterance to another in the dialogue of a story that satisfies the criterion of successful narrative, that its events occur ‘unpredictably but on account of each other.’” Substitute Buechner’s vernacular “life” for Jenson’s human “nature” and we arrive at something of the same idea. In short: Without grace, we are lost.
I will leave a proper discussion of the relationship between grace and serendipity to my philosophical and theological betters. But there are things a linguist and classicist can add. As both word and concept, serendipity is unusual: a nonce formation of Walpole’s whose utility has been recognized by speakers of other languages (Italian serendipità, German Serendipität)—languages in which, however, less precise colloquial circumlocutions are more common (colpo di fortuna “stroke of fortune,” glücklicher Zufall “happy accident”). Walpole’s eighteenth-century coinage was based on a story that had been translated into English from French a few decades earlier but had made its initial European mark in Venice in the middle of the sixteenth century, thanks to an Italian rendering of a putatively Persian tale about those princes of Serendip. Serendip, by the way, is located thousands of miles from Persia, which is now called Iran. It is the old name (going back to Sanskrit siṃhaladvīpa “lion-island”) for what was still called Ceylon when Merton and Barber first wrote but had become Sri Lanka three decades before their book was finally published.
And grace? The word came to English in a relatively straightforward fashion from the medieval antecedent of French grâce, which had in turn developed naturally from Latin gratia. Yet grace presents its own complications. For one thing, there is the simple fact that, before the rise of Christianity, gratia was a common word in Latin, where it referred, inter alia, to social relationships and to people’s physical attributes: “friendship, esteem,” “beauty, charm,” and—in the meaning that makes its way into Spanish as gracias—“favor.” In 62 b.c., in the wake of the Catilinarian Conspiracy, Metellus Celer wrote to Cicero of their reconciliata gratia (“restored friendship”); Suetonius described Titus, who was Emperor from a.d. 79 to 81, as possessing a “standout form, in which there was no less authority than beauty [gratiae]”; and instances of gratias agere (“give thanks”) are found throughout the Latin corpus. The second and third meanings are similar to the principal senses of the word charis in Ancient Greek, which already in Homer referred both to outward beauty and to such less visible concepts as favor, boon, and generosity. These meanings could also be personified: The Charites—translated in Latin as Gratiae—are the three mythological Graces.
Mention of Greek brings us to a second complication. Concepts of grace are not exclusively tied up with the word grace. What we translate as grace in the New Testament is charis (for example, in John 1:14–17), which is related at the level of the root to our native words yearn and, probably, greed; there is no etymological connection to gratia. But the concepts are similar, both because there was significant interaction between Greeks and Romans around the ancient Mediterranean and because basic concepts of beauty and gentility exist cross-culturally and are more common than the niche idea of serendipity. And what about Hebrew? Nearly all the ideas of gratia and charis that we have mentioned are bundled up as well in chen, a common word in the Old Testament, which the King James Bible translates sometimes as “grace” and other times as “favour,” starting in Genesis 6:8: “But Noah found grace [chen] in the eyes of the Lord.”
I am far from the first person to appreciate serendipity. As Merton notes in the Afterword to his and Barber’s book, in the year 2000, Bob Geldof launched a poll to discover Britain’s favorite words. At the top was serendipity—followed by quidditch in second place and love in third. Further down, bollocks, compassion, f*ck, and home were tied for ninth, and Jesus and money came in equal at number ten. Nowhere in this peculiar list does grace appear, but there was a moment when the word collided with the top vote-getter in an interesting way. Merton points out that a major player in the spread of serendipity was Samuel McChord Crothers, the minister of The First Parish in Harvard Square, who in 1912 wrote the following: “Besides the ordinary Christian virtues I would recommend to anyone who would fit himself to live happily as well as efficiently, the cultivation of that auxiliary virtue or grace which Horace Walpole called ‘Serendipity.’”
I have suggested that “life itself is grace” is facile, and I would say the same about pronouncements like “serendipity is grace” and “grace is serendipity.” Nonetheless, the two words bring a similar magic to our lives—certainly to my life, which is very different now from when I last visited Phillips Exeter Academy and was asked about my favorite words. I invite you to mull over just what that magic is, while remembering to give thanks (gratias) to Merton, Buechner, and Jenson for helping to elucidate it.
Joshua T. Katz is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image by Rennett Stowe via Creative Commons. Image cropped.