Kevin Carson was a member of First Unitarian before entering seminary. He is currently serving as our Ministerial Intern for Pastoral Care. In his “regular” job, he works at Hasbro, Inc.
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I have always been fascinated by maps, even ordinary roadmaps and the topographical maps you use for hiking and canoeing. In fact, some of my fondest childhood memories are of navigating for my dad on one of our epic driving vacations back in the 1970s, tracing our route on the free state road maps you used to get at gas stations, as our family careened down the highway in our packed Plymouth Fury station wagon. Maps are important for showing us where we are, and how to get to where we want to go, but what I really appreciate are maps that are also true works of art, like many of the maps from the early days of exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. On these beautiful old maps, I like to look for the little artistic nuggets that early mapmakers often included in their work. Sometimes, for example, you see spouting whales or imaginative sea monsters or mermaids in the middle of the oceans. And near the border of these old maps, you will sometimes see the Latin words terra incognita – meaning “unknown land” – or the more colorful notation, hic sunt dracones or “here be dragons.” The reason the mapmaker made such notations was to declare the limits of human exploration and knowledge. It was a message to anyone reading the map that beyond this point was an unexplored, and most likely dangerous, place where no civilized foot had trod – the frontier the voyager is cautioned to cross only with utmost trepidation. Here was the boundary between the known and the mystery that lies beyond.
Over the last few centuries, our world – and even the universe – has grown less mysterious, less miraculous in many ways. We have explored and mapped most of our planet, and through science, we have probed the wonders of the universe from the subatomic world to the most distant stars – realms that can only be seen with the mind’s eye. We have discovered scientific explanations for most of the phenomena that our ancestors once attributed to the supernatural. Most of us, at least, no longer see the hand of God at work in afflicting the sick as punishment for sin, or hurling lightning bolts to smite us, or deciding whether the rain falls on the unjust as well as the just to water our crops. We now have natural explanations for not only the evolution of humankind but even the origins of the universe itself. The more we learn about the world, the less mystery remains, and the less we attribute to the divine. As one theologian quipped, increasingly, God has an unemployment problem. On the map of human understanding, those metaphorical dragons keep getting pushed farther and farther to the edges as our cumulative knowledge chips away at the boundaries of the unknown. We have come a long way since the author of Job gave us that wonderful story. If the Almighty were to show up these days and started challenging our understanding of how the world works and how it came to be, we could offer some pretty good answers.
But despite all of this accumulated knowledge, we often have no more control over the phenomena that impact our lives than our ancient ancestors did. We may understand weather patterns and storm systems, but that only means we have more warning about the forces about to be unleashed upon us. There is some comfort in knowing, but there is little or nothing we can do to change the fate of which town will be hit by a tornado or inundated by a flood. The best we can hope for is to take shelter or get out of the way. When we can’t, we continue to mourn the loss of life and hold the victims in our hearts like we have always done.
Psychologists will tell you that we humans relish any information that provides some sense of certainty and control in the face of chaos. People are uncomfortable with ambiguity, and it simply drives some people crazy! In clinical terms, it is called ‘ambiguity intolerance,’ and all of us exhibit it to a certain degree, because it relates to our instincts for survival. It is healthy to be able to quickly identify and categorize the known and unknown and recognize a potential threat. When we are torn between alternatives and remain confused, it can be detrimental to our existence. We have a physiological as well as a psychological response, as our adrenal glands and other systems respond to the confusing stimulus, and we may overreact or respond inappropriately. Something I find very interesting is that research has shown that the type of ambiguity we encounter is not a significant factor. We seem hard-wired to respond in a similar way whether the source of our stress is one of the little ambiguities of daily living, or the big cosmic questions about the meaning of life.
Fear and the strong desire for closure – the need to find a quick, easy answer to the problem at hand – are typical responses. Some studies also suggest that ambiguity intolerance can produce very strong negative feelings toward any person or group identified with the source of the uncertainty. People may become more rigid and dogmatic, more prejudiced and close-minded, and even more aggressive and punitive. Just think of how some people have reacted to terrorist attacks in recent years. The language has become threatening and very hateful, demonizing whole groups of people with a broad brush. The uncertainty of who is our enemy and who is not, and when or where the next attack may occur is a tremendous source of anxiety for many people, and we need to acknowledge this. This doesn’t mean we should condone or ignore bigotry and violence of course, but we can’t simply dismiss their feelings as being irrational. The world is an incredibly complicated and sometimes terrifying place.
Our quest for knowledge has extended across every field of study, and our natural curiosity tempts us to keep probing the edges, always trying to learn more. We want to know why there is something rather than nothing, and we want to understand the meaning of it all. But somehow, a definitive answer – an undeniable certainty – seems to always lie just beyond our reach. Just when we think we have it all figured out, along comes something like quantum mechanics, or the Theory of General Relatively, or dark matter and energy, and we must reevaluate almost everything we thought we knew. The fundamental reality of space and time – and everything else – seems to be unraveling in beautifully strange and mysterious ways, and the more we learn, the weirder it gets! It seems like every article I read about the latest discovery about our universe is more bizarre than the last. It is no wonder that I tell people that my undergraduate degree in physics was a significant part of the spiritual journey that landed me in this pulpit. Like the ghostly particles at the heart of physical reality, those mysterious dragons just keep popping up and we are forced to admit the limits of what is known or even knowable. When we consider this in light of our inherent intolerance for ambiguity, we can see why physicist Lawrence M. Krauss says that, “a universe without purpose or guidance may seem, for some, to make life itself meaningless. For others … such a universe is invigorating.” In other words , “one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare.”
Science has been very good at unlocking the mysteries of the universe, but it is not the only way of knowing. As the late Rev. Forrest Church said, “Theology is poetry, not science.” The metaphorical language of poetry can reveal profound truths that are often more directly relevant to the human condition than the findings of physics and astronomy. The experiences of life – love, suffering, happiness, grief, and so on – are awkward, at best, to speak about through the language of science, but they are at the heart of poetry and especially religion. Spiritual and religious language gives us a means to express our feelings of awe and wonder as well as our anxieties about life’s purpose and what, if anything, comes after. It is an ambiguous vocabulary, though, because it must be. As one of my favorite theologians says, we keep using the word ‘God’ as if we knew what it meant. Just imagine if we tried to define something like the term ‘God’ once and for all. Do you think we could ever reach a consensus, let alone an indisputable definition? We could debate the theological nuances forever without proving any point, because in the end, all theology is speculation, even if some people pretend it is otherwise. It is the search for truth and meaning we must embrace, even though there is little chance we will find an undeniable “truth” even for our own satisfaction, much less one that satisfies everyone else. I freely admit that I use words like “spirit,” “mystery,” “sacred,” and even “God” with reckless abandon.
The awareness of our own mortality certainly plays a fundamental role in religious thinking — finding a way to cope with having to live but knowing we must die. This can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that we can be motivated to make use of our limited time as best we can – to quench our thirst to understand the universe and our role in it, to find meaning in our lives. But we are also plagued by the anxiety of non-being, the fear of the unknown that awaits life’s end. Humanity has produced many creative responses to this anxiety, from the dogmas of religions that claim to know all the answers, to accepting a kind of dreary existentialism of insignificance in a cold and indifferent universe – and everywhere in between. If you are looking for easy answers, I am afraid you have come to the wrong place. Our Unitarian Universalist faith does not provide any easy answers but instead encourages us to wrestle with the alternatives and see what makes sense. It can be a difficult faith in this regard, but we aspire to at least create a supportive community as you struggle to find your way.
Over the last fourteen months since my daughter Rachel died, I have struggled to make sense of this tragedy that has devastated our family, and to find some peace and comfort. In my spiritual journey, there have been many influences, from the Methodist Christianity of my youth, to my studies of Buddhism and other Eastern traditions, to my exploration of religious naturalism and science, and many others. I have thought about her death through all of these lenses, and I keep wondering, “Where is Rachel?” Is she in heaven as the Christianity I was raised in promises? Or, is death a transition to some mysterious existence we can’t even begin to fathom? Has she been reborn in another cycle of reincarnation as the Eastern religions suggest? Is death simply the end and the natural culmination of all living things? In my grief, I take comfort that she was a sweet and compassionate young lady, who cared deeply for her friends and family, and who wanted to make the world a better place. If there is a heaven, I have no doubts she is there. I believe each of us is connected to a sacred Unity in some mysterious way, even if I cannot claim any certainty about what that means or what awaits us beyond mortal life. What I am certain about is that she came into this world in love and it is to love she has returned. The rest must remain, for now at least, a mystery. As Iris DeMent sings in the song that inspired my sermon today,
Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever
And some say you’re gonna come back
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour
If in sinful ways you lack
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden
Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas
I think I’ll just let the mystery be
Not knowing the answers to life’s questions may fill us with a mixture of fear and awe, but we are still drawn to the mystery like moths to a flame. One early twentieth-century theologian described this human experience of the Sacred Mystery with the wonderful Latin phrase, mysterium tremendum et fascinans – a mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating. It is an experience like standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time and staring into the immensity of the chasm. It is a little frightening but hard to look away. The Sacred is a mystery that we simply cannot ignore, and one that words can never fully describe. The mystics from every religious tradition seem to agree, since the Sacred is more often described in terms of what it is not than in terms that attempt to categorize or define it. If we are fortunate to have a “mystical experience” in our life, one of the essential characteristics is that it is a felt experience that is difficult – or impossible – to describe in words. The search for truth and meaning is still important, but we must accept that the truth and meaning we may find will likely be incomplete, and perhaps even unsatisfying, despite our best efforts. This is the perseverance of spiritual practice described by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing when he said to, “beat upon that thick cloud of unknowing with the dart of your loving desire and do not cease come what may.”
It is human nature to push the boundaries of understanding and wonder about the world before we were born and after we die, or how the universe began and how it will all end. As long as our species survives, I am sure we will continue to chip away at the boundaries of the unknown through science and religion and any other way we can. But, no matter how much we learn during our existence on this beautiful blue planet, I suggest there will always be mysteries that lie just beyond our reach, and I thank God that is the case, or life would be very dull indeed. We may find some of these mysteries to be invigorating and inspiring, but others may fill us with anxiety and leave us gaping into the deepest, darkest abyss. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to make peace with the mystery – to recognize it as such and humbly accept that there are limits to knowing. It is okay to acknowledge the dragons. And when the Sacred Mystery reveals itself along our spiritual journey in startling and unsettling ways, rather than despair, perhaps we should boldly peer into the abyss and admire its mysterious beauty. Or even better, perhaps we should metaphorically leap headlong into the abyss with an enthusiastic “Geronimo,” and let the mystery wash over us in all of its magnificent splendor.
Life is a journey through much happiness and profound sorrow, and perhaps the best we can do is to hold fast to our faith, hope, and love. There can be comfort in simply letting the mystery be.
Forrest Church, Love & Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).
Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (Atria Books, 2012).
The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century spiritual text in Middle English by an unknown author