When I was in Jr. High school and my friends were preparing for their confirmation or their Bat Mitzvah, it seemed, from the outside, like they had some very specific answers to their questions about the meaning of life, the universe and everything. At my Unitarian Universalist church the minister taught a “coming of age” class and explained that in our faith tradition, we had to discern for ourselves what was true. All the adults in my UU community agreed that this was often much harder, that it was a much more challenging journey without clear answers, but that it would be worth it in the long run. So today I want to consider two questions about that assumption. Why is it hard not to know? And why is it worth it?
As a kid I often noticed that adults would make things up when they didn’t know instead of just admitting “I don’t know.” There’s a story that apparently I tell a lot because my son sees it coming a mile away- yes Nick, this is the one about the chemistry teacher. One day in high school chemistry class, our teacher was lecturing our badly behaved class about how things were transformed when they burned. “but why does it make light?” I asked. He gave an answer that didn’t really address my question, so I asked a follow up. Eventually he tersely explained that my questions would not be on the test, and I should cease and desist.
It was only decades later when I was watching a documentary that the narrator explained that there is a lot science still doesn’t know about fire that I finally understood- the chemistry teacher couldn’t answer my question because science hadn’t figured it out yet. So why wouldn’t the teacher just say that? To admit you don’t know you are admitting that you are human, that your knowledge is incomplete, that you have more to learn. Probably admitting any weakness in front of a hostile classroom of high school students who would rather be anywhere else did not feel like an option.
In my role as your minister, this happens to me all the time. You guys ask some great question about how John Murray’s theology was different from Hosea Ballou’s theology and I feel like I’m about to fail a pop quiz. I’m supposed to be the expert. How could you trust me if I don’t know everything? Usually I do swallow my pride, remember that ministers are not all knowing, and ask if someone else knows the answer, and failing that I’ll look it up and get back to you.
But some questions, like “what is the nature of fire”, just lead to more questions. In a recent Ted Radio hour Tabetha Boyajian, a professor of astronomy at Louisiana State University, was talking about some unusual transit patterns noticed in NASA's Kepler Mission data that scientists still can’t fully explain. Guy Roz suggested: “So science is more often than not about raising more questions than finding answers. And it seems like in this case, you still don't know what's going on…. That is great. There are more questions now than you can answer, which is better - which is great. Boyajian replied “Well, that's - yeah. That's science. [i]“ The first gift of not knowing is the curiosity, the open mindedness that leads to new discoveries, to whole new fields of knowledge opening up.
But the discomfort of not knowing is a whole other thing in maters of the heart. Recently I said to someone “I know exactly how you feel” and then mirrored back to them what I thought I heard them saying. I was humbled when they replied, “that’s not at all how I feel.” We don’t really know what any other person is experiencing, and when we can admit that to ourselves and to them, and be open to their experience with curiosity and compassion, we improve the odds that true connection can happen. When I am with someone I care about and they say “I am in deep in a financial hole I feel like I’ll never get out- what am I going to do?” I don’t know. “Why is my cancer back?” I don’t know. “What can we do about the mass extinction of species?” I don’t know. “What is the birth of my child going to be like?” I don’t know. Admitting we don’t know requires humility, and humility is just what we need to be available for life’s great mysteries and for one another.
I would much prefer to have a ready answer- 3 easy steps for healing from heartbreak, facing cancer, surviving economic inequality, and too often, that’s exactly how we do respond. We feel so powerless when we don’t know how to help, so we offer quick answers so we can exit that difficult place of unknowing. When I was pregnant with my son, everyone had advice for me, but as quickly became apparent, each birth is totally unique. The more advice I got, the more alone I felt with my actual lived experience that didn’t match what everyone was sharing about their own experience. Instead of advice, what might really have helped was some non-judgmental compassion. No matter what challenge we are facing, almost none of the friendly advice touches the fear, the sadness, the anger, the powerlessness we feel. But if we can take the risk of being a compassionate, non-judgmental presence with ourselves, and with one another and with the unfolding mystery, our hearts open and we feel less alone.
When you show up for someone in their uncertainty, don’t be surprised if you are touched as well. When we can be present to unanswered questions with an open heart, we open ourselves up to that scary, powerless feeling of unknowing, we allow that unknowing to touch us as it is touching our friend who is dwelling inside it. This is the gift of unknowing in our relationships to other people -- it has the power to transform both of us.
If you accept the notion that there is always a lot we don’t know about other people and their experience, even about someone as close to us as a partner or child, this unknowing is even more useful when considering the divine. I hear so many folks say they know definitively what God is like and what God wants. We try to organize God into tidy boxes, with systematic theology and hallmark cards, but as some theologians say, the divine cannot be tamed. God is wild. One of the hallmarks of UU theology is that we believe that revelation is ongoing. That is to say- the world is changing and evolving, we are changing and evolving, and the divine is changing too.
When I started my training as a spiritual director, I wanted to experience traditional forms of prayer. Having been raised UU in a mostly humanist church, instruction in prayer was not part of my religious education.. As I would sit down to pray, I felt awkward and I was sure I was making mistakes, not knowing the basic things everyone else knew. So eventually I began to pray “Spirt of Life, or whoever you are, whatever your name is, I don’t know how to pray, sorry if I’m doing it wrong, please show me how to pray.” I groped around like this for a while before coming across this little prayer by the contemplative Thomas Keating on my centering prayer app. It was such a relief to me that I use it now almost every day
“Here I am God, desperately in need of your holy spirit, please give me your holy spirit according to your promise. I don’t know how to pray rightly, so I just sit here and allow you to pray in me.” Keating is a great master, a great teacher who after a lifetime of practice offers a prayer not so different from the one I made in ignorance as a beginner. The ignorance and inexperience that seemed like an obstacle to me, turned out to have been a gift that opened me up to a deeper relationship with the divine.
As Gerald May says “It is precisely at those times of not knowing that we are most alive… If you really think about it, I believe you will see that your life is greater, more full and awake, even, perhaps more joyous at such times than at any time of certainty.” [The Awakened Heart p. 122] The more I read of the contemplatives and the mystics I see this theme emerging - that in fact not knowing is the only way we can begin to know the divine. The divine, by definition is different from humans. If we let our human knowing drive our inquiry, we could be looking in a limiting way, in a limited range. Not knowing if you believe in God is actually a powerful place to be on your spiritual journey. A mystic is one who is seeking direct experience of the divine. The root of the word mystic is the same as for mystery- And what is the first source of our Unitarian Universalist tradition “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
Some UUs are still reeling from a time in their life when they said to a Sunday school teacher, or parent, or priest “I don’t know if that’s true.” And the authority figure replied “well you just have to believe it.” To many of us it seemed like making yourself believe something was the only way to get closer to truth, closer to the divine. Atheists often get stuck in their own box- we logically imagine what we would do if we were God, notice that God has not ended hunger and war, and thereby prove to ourselves definitively that God does not exist. But when we start with not knowing, our minds and hearts open, and the world becomes a bigger place. Just as admitting to your students that you don’t know creates space for everyone to be curious together; admitting that we don’t know about the divine is one of the best paths toward truth. Today we are atheists, agnostics and theists together. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that when we open our minds and hearts we will find something that we want to call God. I’m only saying that the more we open our hearts and minds, emptying ourselves of preconceived ideas and expectations, the better chance we have of being present to reality --the reality of us, together in this room in this moment with all that is here.
So if we don’t know anything, doesn’t that lead us to a kind of relativism where all ideas are equal, and we can believe anything we want? No, as a science journalist told my class full of theology students, we do actually know what mechanical principles allow us to build a bridge. And we can count on that bridge to obey those rules well enough to trust our bodies and cars and trains to it. When it comes to building bridges, not all ideas are equal, though our engineering gets better when we are open to new observations and ideas tested against reality. When we open to the world with curiosity we will meet… something. That something may be the sunrise that predictably comes later and later into the winter, the wounded heart of a friend, or the ineffable mystery of the spirit of life.
Back I was first thinking of going into ministry, one of my acquaintances mentioned that she had considered ministry, but didn’t have enough faith. I was surprised to hear her say that because in my faith tradition questioning was a strength. In the church I grew up in, “agnostic” was one of the choices you could check off on the survey. One of the gifts of being UU is that you don’t have to know. But until recently, I kind of thought of not knowing as something on the way to something else. We don’t know about the outcome of a scientific experiment until it is complete, but there is an expectation that someday we will know -- that we could know anything given enough time. Lately, I’ve been coming to a realization that not knowing is not just an in between place that must resolve into knowing, but that not knowing has its own gifts. Where knowing can give us the delightful satisfaction of wrapping our tidy box up with a ribbon, knowing allows us to be humble and curious. It allows us to keep our minds and hearts open; it allows us to stay present in the reality of the moment, even when that reality is confusing and uncertain. That space of unknowing is exactly where the soul grows and blooms. The spiritual journey, like science “is more often than not about raising more questions than finding answers. And that’s great.”