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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on November 30, 2008

Not Knowing Is Most Intimate
Thomas Huxley, Deep Agnosticism & an Emergent Liberal Spirituality


The monk Fayan visited Master Dizang who asked the young student of the way, “Where have you come from?” Fayen replied, “I wander from here to there on my pilgrimage.” The master asked, “What is the point of your pilgrimage?” Fayan answered, “I don’t know.” Master Dizang replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
—Case 20, The Book of Serenity

Ages ago my colleague in the Unitarian Universalist ministry, Fred Muir, sent me a note saying he was making a book proposal to Skinner House, our denominational press, for a book on liberal religion and Darwin. And he wanted me to contribute a chapter regarding the nexus of evolutionary thought, Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. Now, I really admire Fred. His other writings have touched on areas of concern to most UUs, and the thought of doing something with him sounded great. Also, I have to admit when someone asks me to do something far enough out in the calendar that I don’t actually have to do anything right at the moment, it’s pretty easy to say yes. So, I said, sure. Of course time passes and now the chickens have come home to roost. Fred has sent a note saying the proposal had been approved and to please provide copy.

Well, here we are…

Near as I can tell we moderns have taken the fact that the Buddha himself wasn’t particularly concerned with questions of deity or cosmology as evidence he had a generally skeptical attitude about these matters. I go along with that. Now, some have also pointed to the Agganna Sutta, which uniquely among texts that claim to relate what the historic Buddha actually said, does have him making some cosmological assertions. In the Agganna Sutta if someone squints hard and tilts her head, it is just possible to see a form of Big Bang cosmology. And if while continuing to squint, one stands on his head, it is just possible to discern a rough version of evolution. But you really, really have to want to find it, to do so. I don’t. So, I’ve never felt that Buddhist thought anticipated anything especially relevant to contemporary science, in any particular given field.

That said, I do think there are some connecting points to evolutionary thought, Buddhist spiritual disciplines, and what I see as our emergent liberal spirituality. Really important connections, that speak to our spiritual style, how we might best consciously engage our interior lives, and to something more, a pearl of great price. I want to explore that here, today. However, I suggest rather than Darwin, it is Thomas Huxley who provides the nexus point for this enterprise.

My introduction to Huxley as anything more than a name associated closely with Charles Darwin or as Aldous Huxley’s grandfather, comes through the controversial contemporary Western Buddhist Stephen Batchelor, author of the seminal study Buddhism Without Beliefs. I consider this book, in fact the entirety of Batchelor’s work of enormous importance for contemporary liberal spirituality. I personally embrace a considerable part of his perspective on my own spiritual way.

Batchelor makes much of the term “agnostic,” which Thomas Huxley coined in the late nineteenth century. In an essay titled “the Agnostic Buddhist” Batchelor writes how Huxley coined agnostic “as a joke. Huxley belonged to a small philosophical circle in London in which he increasingly felt out of place. While everybody else in the group could readily identify themselves as a Christian or a Rationalist or a Schopenhaurian, or whatever, he felt perplexed that no such term seemed applicable to him. So he decided to call himself an ‘agnostic’ in order that he too could ‘have a tail like all the other foxes.’”

Agnostic means without knowledge, or not knowing. However, not in the sense we commonly find today, “I don’t know and I don’t particularly care.” Rather Huxley’s agnosticism had a lot of heart about it. “Huxley even described his view as ‘the agnostic faith,’ thus giving it the kind of seriousness that one might otherwise expect only amongst religious people.” He followed this way with great passion.

As Batchelor explained, Huxley “saw agnosticism as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed.” Well, maybe not creed. Actually he seemed to have much the same reservations about formal creeds contemporary Unitarian Universalists usually feel. Because, Huxley wasn’t seeking pat answers. For him agnosticism was first and foremost, a method. The method he had in mind is broadly the same as which underpins scientific inquiry. And for him this method led to a naturalistic, and what we might call today a humanistic spirituality.

Not knowing allows us to see things in new light, to discern much about the human heart. And Huxley’s rigorous observations within the spirit of not knowing led to some basic principles. And these are principles that can inform us, and take us deep into the ways of wisdom.

Actually whether God exists was not a primary concern although he saw no reason to postulate a deity. Huxley’s real challenge for most of us cut much closer to the bone. He challenged how we see ourselves. He was adamant that human beings did not exist outside the flow of events and their intimate interrelatedness. He wrote, “In the whole universe there is nothing permanent, no eternal substance either of mind or of matter.” He felt any idea of an abiding self, an eternal individual “personality is a metaphysical fancy; and in very truth not only we, but all things in the worlds without end of the cosmic phantasmagoria, are such stuff as dreams are made of.” As we go forward I will suggest understanding this viscerally becomes a key to authentic wisdom.

Unitarian Universalist theologian and minister Forrest Church observed the work of religion flows out of our knowledge we are alive and that we are going to die. I would add to that religion, spirituality addresses the hurt, fear and anxiety that seems to haunt the human condition. I find much of that hurt and fear in our lives arises out of a fundamental cognitive error. The error is that we are isolated beings.

Certainly, as I look at myself honestly, relentlessly, in the spirit of not knowing, frankly I find it impossible to discern any part of me that isn’t formed by conditions ranging from my genetic makeup to my ongoing encounters with events and people. I am this because of that. And the “that” which makes “this,” changes in a heartbeat. Who I am changes sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically with the very next addition of experience.

There are all sorts of reasons why we see ourselves as separate from each other. To me it seems obvious it is an unfortunate side effect of our amazing ability to divide the universe, to find the information that allows us to survive. And there certainly is a truth that in any given moment, we are in fact separate. You are you and I am I, at least in the moment. And at the very same time there is a larger sense in which we are totally wrapped up together in a very real web of mutuality. The intuition of the spiritual enterprise is that we can reconcile these apparent contradictions, our separateness in the moment, and our essential connectedness. This is sometimes called the nondual perspective

Through his commitment to not knowing, Huxley found the nondual perspective. While he was writing before the discovery of genes, like the Buddha, he got the principle that we are all moments in the great rush of time and space, verbs rather than nouns, notes in a symphony.

The spiritual enterprise as I see it, is to find how this is in fact our truth, yours and mine. And it is discovered when we open our hearts and minds, as we embrace a way of deep agnosticism, of truly not knowing. Susan Blackmore in her delightful book Consciousness: An Introduction reflects on these assertions and asks.

“Have these people really seen nonduality, directly, in their own experience? If they have, could we all see it? Might the psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists working on the problem of consciousness see nonduality directly for themselves? If so, it seems possible that they might bring together two apparently totally different disciplines: the third-person discipline of science and the first-person discipline of self-transformation. If they did so, might they then understand exactly what had happened in their own brains when all the illusions fell away and the distinction between first and third person was gone? This way the direct experience of nonduality might be integrated into a neuroscience that only knows, intellectually, that dualism must be false.”

Deep agnosticism, not turning away, remaining present, heals many wounds. As to what this really looks like there’s a story from Blackmore’s book. “John Wren-Lewis was a physics professor with decidedly anti-mystical views when in 1983, at the age of sixty, he was poisoned while traveling on a bus in Thailand. A would-be thief gave him some sweets laced with what was probably a mixture of morphine and cocaine, and the next thing he knew was waking up in a dilapidated and dirty hospital.

“At first he noticed nothing special, but gradually it dawned on him that it was as if he had emerged freshly made, completely with the memories that made up his personal self, from a radiant vast blackness beyond space and time. There was no sense at all of personal continuity. Moreover, the ‘dazzling darkness’ was still there. It seemed to be behind his head, continually re-creating his entire consciousness afresh, instant by instant, now! And now! And now! He even put his hand up to feel the back of his head only to find it perfectly normal. He felt only gratitude toward everything around him, all of which seemed perfectly right and as it should be.”

Now I’m very taken that Blackmore didn’t chose an example from the traditional spiritual literature. This wasn’t a thirty-year practitioner of an austere spiritual discipline. This was someone drugged and robbed. This experience is accessible to all of us because it is a natural part of how our brains naturally work. Meditation and other disciplines help, a lot. But in the last analysis all we need do, is let go of our certainties. As the lady said, “It’s all in your head.” We, if you will, evolved to be able to do this. Why I don’t know. But that we can, that I’ve experienced. As have endless others.

By the bye, some sense of this experience never abandoned Wren-Lewis for the rest of his life. In his own words Wren-Lewis described the place of not knowing. “I feel as if the back of my head has been sawn off so that it is no longer the sixty-year-old John who looks out at the world, but the shining dark infinite void that in some extraordinary way is also, ‘I.’” Only don’t know.

This is where not knowing takes us, each following our own trajectory, each with our own moments, and all joined. For me I found it sitting in a Buddhist monastery, eating a thin cabbage soup. For you, perhaps playing with a child. For another, perhaps listening to Mozart. Another, perhaps just noticing that is is possible for this moment only, to not have that drink. For another, well, who knows? The secret is only not knowing. As the master Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

I suggest a deep agnosticism; truly engaging not knowing is the universal solvent. It will release us from our hurt and fears by showing us, not in some abstract cognitive therapy sort of way, but in the deepest, most visceral way, who we really are.

Open, wide as the sky. And at the very same time intimate, more intimate than any word can ever convey. And the way to this wisdom is simple. Just don’t know. Only don’t know. That’s all it takes.

Amen.