President’s speech: “Choice Points”

Opening chapel of the 2008 spring semester, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College, on Friday, Jan. 11, 2008 in the Church-Chapel.

Welcome back to all of you.  I don’t know about you, but all this rain and flooding makes me feel a bit soggy like I’m a character in Evan Almighty.  I even thought I heard God’s voice telling me to build an ark and to tell everyone returning to campus to come to chapel two by two and then I woke up.  But, still, here you are. The ark is full.  It is good to see you.

January 2008.  Eight years into the 21st Century. I can’t believe it.  January: the month of the two-faced god Janus – one face to look backwards and say “Yes! Made it, or “whew!” glad that’s over; one face to look forward saying, “Welcome world!  It’s a new day, a new year, full of new classes, new possibilities, new opportunities, new beginnings.  As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians (2 Corin. 5:14-21), “In Christ, we are new creations, the old has passed away, behold all things have become new.”

January 2008, a year full of new choices, some big or small and inconsequential, some big or small and full of consequence.


Imagine with me that you and I are atoms traveling at the speed of light on a path of time that stretches into the past and far off into the future.  Imagine that this road we’re on has multiple discrete lanes. Imagine now that the lanes closest to us are almost identical in every way, parallel for miles into our past.  The lanes further away on either side of us eventually diverge and meander off into swiggly dead ends, but the lane we’re on and the lane right next to us at one discreet point come so close together they almost touch.  I say almost because they are only an atom apart in their divergence.  For just a brief moment in time it becomes possible for us to leap from one lane to the other.  For that brief moment, one destiny gives way to the other as the two lanes occupy the same space at the same time.  In that moment, we are experiencing life in parallel universes, whose outcome awaits to be called into focus.

Such a thought experiment may sound like science fiction, but it’s not, it’s science. Richard Feynman, that great Cal Tech physicist and Noble Prize winner and Hugh Everett, the pioneering physicist from Princeton University, have actually documented this very real journey of atoms, which are actually pulsating light particles (called quanta), traveling in parallel universes.  The outcome of this reality of two atoms occupying the same point, in the same space, at the same time is called the Bose-Einstein condensate, a name honoring the authors of the equations that predict this very moment.  Feynman and Everett, along with others, have actually experimentally measured these parallel universes.

The eensy-weensy moments in time and space when the vibrating quanta leap from one parallel universe to the other, Feynman calls “choice points.”  The choice point occurs when conditions appear along the paths of two actual parallel universes that create a path between the present course of events and a new course leading to new outcomes.  The choice point is like a little tiny bridge making it possible to begin in one lane and change course to experience the outcome of a whole new pathway.

I like to think of the parallel universes of atoms as a small metaphors for the large-scale experience of life as we sometimes experience it.  As a metaphor for life, could it be that we begin one course of events and “leap” midstream into a whole new outcome or dimension of reality, a reality whose possibility is already created and present in our world?  Until we make the leap across the choice point in our present existence that new reality only occurs as it were in a possible parallel universe.  To say it another way, there are, very real and multiple real outcomes for us to enter into that have already begun.  The difference of what future life lane you and I experience is determined by what choices you and I make at strategic, almost imperceptible, atom-like, moments in our lives.

Now, of course, not every choice bridges the gap between two parallel universes.  We make many choices that seem inconsequential. We choose Wheaties over Corn flakes, Adidas over Nike, boxers over briefs.  Even choices that seem larger than life, may not in themselves be crossover choices.  Most of the choices we make are exactly the same in one potential parallel universe as the other. That’s why some folks make very similar choices as other folks, without any perceivable difference in outcome. However, every now and then, our choices, some big and some little happen in the instant, the moment, when our possible futures converge occupying the same space and time.  The choice we make at those moments may in fact be leaps midstream into a whole new future for us, for good or not.  “Two roads diverge in a yellow wood” (Robert Frost).  Yes, two roads diverge not only “in a yellow wood;” two roads diverge also in time and space. And sometimes the less traveled choices we make in those moments make all the difference in the universe.

So simple, yet so potentially consequential.  Sometimes a seemingly small decision here and now, may alter life as we know it forever.  We all know that to turn a ship one degree to the left or right five hundred miles from shore can mean the difference between arriving in Nome, Alaska or the Long Beach (CA) harbor.  What if? What if, the driver of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austrian crown, had not made that seemingly innocent choice, a wrong turn down the road that brought Prince Ferdinand face to face with his assassin.  That incident was the match that ignited World War I.  Perhaps, even the same mistake at another time in political history would have remained precisely that, just a mistake.  Some decisions are choice point decisions, capable of shaking up our whole universes.

My wife, Terri, and I left Goshen College, newly engaged.  We chose to move to CA for two years of graduate school.  We ended up living there 26 years.  Our whole lives were radically altered by a prayerful choice at a particular moment in space and time.  Without knowing it, we leapt across the overlap between two possible parallel universes each with potential different outcomes.  What an effect it had on us, preparing us for a return to Goshen College, we never anticipated.

It very well could be that today, right here, right now, some of you are at just such a crossroads in “the yellow wood” of time and space.  Many of you have choices before you (majors, careers, relationships, faith); some of you are at one of those choice points of destiny.  None of us really knows whether the choices we make today will send us sailing to Nome or Long Beach or launch us into a career not yet anticipated or lead us to our own deaths.  So it’s important that we open ourselves up to God, who promises to be with us and is present in all conceivable universes.  It’s important to open up to God through “the art and science” of prayer, just in case, this is the day, the hour, the moment for our leap across parallel alternative futures.

Moses offered his fellow wanderers in the desert of Sinai, a vivid set of choice points (Deut 30:15,20):  “Look at what I’ve done for you today: I’ve placed in front of you, Life and Good. Death and Evil. . .  Choose life.”


Choose life. Great instruction.  In 2008, let us try to make decisions that bring us and others life, not death.  Our theme for this school year has been, “In stillness. . . God.” It is in stillness, in quietness, that we here the call to  “Listen to your life” (Buechner) and “Let your life speak” (Palmer).  Find that deep and quiet place within you.  Listen to that deepest part of who you are, who God made you to be and try to make choices in keeping with that inner life-giving compass (conscience, divine voice, voices of our teachers or parents or Scripture).

Such quiet listening opens us to God’s guidance, a God who knows our possible futures. Such quiet listening along with life-giving actions may help to create the experience, the miracle, really, of leaping into a world in which our healing, our hopes unfold before us, where we experience salvation and renewal more fully, where life is forever altered for the better.  We have no option, really, than to risk choosing one path over another.  Let us choose life in 2008.

On New Years a week or so ago, we were with my extended family in Flordia, an eclectic group made up of Latinos, Italians, and Swiss Germans.  The Puerto Rican branch of the family brought with them a New Years’ eve ritual.  Just before midnight, we were each given twelve grapes.  As the New Year rang in, with all the fireworks booming around us, we were invited to eat our grapes, 1 grape per month, as a symbol of life (in other cultures the egg conveys such a life-giving symbol).  Each grape represented those hopes, those dreams, those choices we might make in 2008 that will bring us life.

In a few minutes as we leave our chapel gathering, you will be invited to come forward and take a grape to eat as a sign of choosing life in 2008.  Let this be one of the first choices of consequence for you in 2008.  Perhaps, you can imagine much better ways to find healing and hope in your lives.  This may be so.  But it also may be that today, not tomorrow, not three hours from now, but today, right here, right now at this precise moment in time and space, each of us have come to an important choice point in our lives.  I’d ask that you not miss out on the possible opportunity to welcome God’s invitation to cross over into a whole new future of healing and hope.