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It is forty-eight degrees Fahrenheit and sweat is dripping down my back. My goggles are steamed up and it is hard to see. I am on a tract of land owned by the railroad, a wooded area in Richmond, Virginia, with discarded beer cans and the occasional homeless encampment commonly referred to as “behind the Martin’s.” Riding a dirt bike on a narrow, meandering trail that is rocky and muddy, with protruding roots and fallen limbs, creek crossings, steep descents, and tight switchbacks: at a mere fifteen miles per hour, I might be taxed to the very limit of my mental ability. Picking lines, making imperceptible decisions of throttle, clutch, steering, braking, and body English, revising them on the fly as surprises arrive at my front wheel—all this demands total concentration. When I push the pace beyond my current level of confidence in response to some challenge of the terrain, it is a leap of faith.

Or perhaps it is a query. I can’t say to what entity this question is addressed—myself? the obscurities of the trail? a loving providence? It is a position of utter exposure to contingency: Let’s see how things go. If it goes well over the following seconds (meaning without mishap, maybe even with a glimmer of some new finesse), this faith redeemed is the sweetest vindication I know of. For a moment, I feel existentially justified. I feel less like a worm, and more like that other thing. The thing I have a constant, nagging sense that I ought to be. In pursuit of this feeling, I once took four trips to the emergency room over the course of twelve months: two broken ribs, a broken heel, what I feared was a separated tendon (it was a muscle strain), and a case of heat stroke. This must have been ten years ago, so I was about forty-seven: too old for this shit.

The feeling of exposure one has on a dirt bike recalls one to a basic truth: We are fragile, embodied beings. There is a certain risk that is inherent in moving around, by whatever means. A responsible person does everything he can to minimize this risk. Yet is risk somehow bound up with humanizing possibilities?

In his exquisite essay about walking the hostile streets of Kingston, Jamaica, as a boy, and then New Orleans as a young man, Garnette Cadogan writes, “When we first learn to walk, the world around us threatens to crash into us. Every step is risky. We train ourselves to walk without crashing by being attentive to our movements, and extra-attentive to the world around us.” As an adult, we sometimes walk simply because the street beckons with serendipity; you never know who or what you are going to find when you step out onto an urban sidewalk. “Serendipity, a mentor once told me, is a secular way of speaking of grace; it’s unearned favor. Seen theologically, then, walking is an act of faith. Walking is, after all, interrupted falling.”

The heightened contingency of driving off-road resembles walking in the faith it enacts—that of throwing oneself into the world with hope. The ancient Greeks had a single word to express the condition of being “without a road,” when the way forward is not clear: aporia. It represents a moment pregnant with the arrival of something unlooked for.

These experiences of serendipity and faith feel a bit scarce in contemporary culture, and the language for articulating them seems to be fading from common use. We have a vision of the future in which there would be little scope for such moments. The most authoritative voices in commerce and technology express a determination to eliminate contingency from life as much as possible, and replace it with machine-generated certainty. That’s what automation does, whatever else it may accomplish. More broadly, a need for certainty is expressed in the project to expand rational control over domains that remain intolerably wild. At times, this project comes untethered from any utility-maximizing logic and looks more like a compulsion. It reveals a metaphysical orientation that seems a bit cramped, or timid.

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga found the origin of civilization to lie in play. He wrote, “To dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension—these are the essence of the play spirit.”

Let’s place that thought beside another. Joseph Ratzinger points out that the Hebrew word “Amen” has a rich variety of meanings. They include truth, firmness, firm ground, ground. Also loyalty, to trust, entrust oneself, take one’s stand on something, believe in something. He writes that the “amen” is “a trustful placing of myself on the ground that upholds me, not because I have made it and checked it with my own calculations but, rather, precisely because I have not made it and cannot check it. It expresses the abandonment of oneself to what we can neither make nor need to make, to the ground of the world as meaning. . . .”

Is there then something bold and life-affirming in faith, as there is in play? This “trustful placing of myself on the ground that upholds me” would seem to be a kind of existential courage. Maybe that is why people of easy and resolute religious faith seem light-hearted, as the courageous do.

To trust in providence relieves one of anxiety for the future. To believe that the fundamental ontology of the world, being itself, is somehow trustworthy would seem to be something further, in the same direction. It relieves one of anxiety for the present. That’s real abandon. A person in that state is in possession of a gift, and he shines. I suppose this is what “charisma” means. It is from the Greek word for grace.

When I have pressed my luck on the trail, heedlessly as it were, and that fleeting glimmer happens, it does feel like a shining state of grace. It is heedless of hazard, but also heeding a call of some kind. Can it be accessed more reliably, this courage that makes one outrageously, luxuriously free?

Ratzinger writes, “What is belief really?”

To believe as a Christian means in fact entrusting oneself to the meaning that upholds me and the world; taking it as the firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly. . . . [It means] affirming that the meaning we do not make but can only receive is already granted to us, so that we have only to take it and entrust ourselves to it.

Matthew B. Crawford is a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He writes the Substack Archedelia.

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