Unitarian Universalists are not a chosen people; we are a choosing people. And because of that the ideas of mystery and reverence are complicated. Each of us holds different beliefs. When was the last time this congregation participated in a beliefs survey? Let’s try one this morning. If you’re comfortable doing so, raise your hand if
You are absolutely certain there is a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
You are fairly certain there is a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
You are fairly certain there is not a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
You are absolutely certain there is not a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
You don’t know if there is a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
Please raise you hand if you feel none of these questions fit for you.
In a Pew research study done in 2014 of 35,000 Americans from all 50 states on the religious landscape of our country, pulled out the information on Unitarian Universalists. The 164 Unitarian Universalists ranged in age from 18 to over 65, with 40% men and 60% women. Of these Unitarian Universalists 20% absolutely believe there is a god, 25% were fairly certain there is, 20% were fairly certain there is no god, 27 % were absolutely certain there is no god, 0% didn’t know if there was god or not, and 8% answered Other, not feeling they fit into any of those categories.
What about mystery?
Please raise your hand if you have had an experience you would describe as mystery or wonder, perhaps feeling a connection with something greater than yourself, like divinity, mother earth, humanity or the universe.
Now raise your hand:
If you found it difficult to put this experience into words;
If you felt drawn to this experience, perhaps even wanting to embrace that experience for a while;
If you felt something change within you after you had this experience;
If you just let the wonder or mystery of the experience be inside you, without trying to define it;
If you tried to quantify or define the experience in some rational way.
In the same pew research study I mentioned earlier, it was reported that 66% the UUs in this study experience a sense of mystery or wonder at least once a week. And only 7% seldom or never experienced a sense of mystery or wonder.
How important is mystery and wonder in a person’s life? And how important is it to define it? Or is it important to define it? Perhaps it’s enough just let it be, embracing it with not having to know how or why it is. I was really struck by Annaka Harris’s book “I Wonder”. She feels very passionate about wanting adults to let children experience mystery and wonder without pushing them to come to immediate definitive conclusions about what they are experiencing. In her author’s note she writes: “I believe that one of the most important gifts we can give our children is the confidence to say, ‘I don’t know.’
It’s the foundation from which we begin our investigation of the world: asking questions, taking the necessary time to understand the answers, and searching for new answers when the ones we have… don’t seem to work. The feeling of not knowing is also the source of wonder and awe…[What might change if we] celebrate the feelings of awe and wonder in our children as the foundation for all learning. [What possibilities might open up if we] teach children to say “I don’t know” and help them understand the [discoveries not knowing can offer]…[What happens when we drop the role of all-knowing parent and instead talk to our children] about the limits of our own knowledge…[What insights might we gain when we, parent and child,] wonder … together!”
Sometimes a sense of wonder bubbles up within your heart or mind, not necessarily stimulated by an external event or experience. For instance, I wonder about the relationship between science and religion a lot. So I look for opportunities to think about and discuss that relationship.
7 years ago, I went to presentation at the College of DuPage, a college in the suburbs of Chicago. The presentation was titled “Science and Religion: Is there a conflict between them?” It was sponsored by the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department. One of the presenters discussed the Non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA thesis. I had not heard of this before, so I was very curious. The thesis states that there should not be any overlap between the realms of science and religion. Science should stay in its lane of trying to figure out the how of the universe works--the factual character of the natural world, and development of theories that coordinate and explain these facts--and religion should stay in the lane of human purposes, meanings, and values, and the supernatural.
As the discussion progressed between the audience and the presenters it became evident that religion and science staying in their own lanes was often difficult and also extremely problematic. Religion often uses stories and metaphors to help people develop wisdom, ethics, and morals, but sometimes religion tries to explain physical phenomena or history without facts to back up the explanations. And science has helped us understand many things about how the universe works. Scientists have created medicines, harnessed some of the earth’s elements, thereby improving our lives. But sometimes science is used to manipulate the physical world without regard for values or ethics. While religion and science are two of our very human responses to mystery, they are sometimes not as discrete as some of us might assume.
When we find or experience a mystery, we are prodded by it, and we seek to formulate a response. That response can be scientific exploration, a search for truth and meaning, or letting the mystery be. Which serves us best—the scientific method, a holy curiosity, or a humble awe and wonder? Do we have to choose one response over the other? Or could it be that blending approaches might serve us as we seek to apprehend mystery? How dependent is your response on the situation, your mood, your need, your beliefs?
Each one of us has developed—or is in the process of developing--our truth about the universe. Some of us believe that existence is mostly about survival, reproduction, neurons, and brain structures. Some of us believe that existence is mostly about values, meaning, purpose, spirit. The majority of us operate using a philosophy that incorporates both science and religion, or spirituality, if you prefer. Can we resist the urge to quantify mystery, to reduce it to its physical properties? I don’t think we can. And would we want to? Who doesn’t want to find the genesis of a mystery? Humans are curious creatures—and UUs especially so. We want to know the answers. We used to think atoms were the smallest piece of matter, but now we know quarks and leptons are, but might there be something even smaller? We want to know.
The thing is we humans want to know why everything happens and what causes everything to happen. And, for me, the reality is that we can’t. But I also believe that we shouldn’t stop trying to understand as much as we can. The thing is we have to live our lives with the limited amount of information we have today, and our time, our lifespan, on this earth is limited. Given those facts, how do you choose to respond to mystery?
Let me share a little more from Annaka Harris’s author’s note: “We live in a society where people are uncomfortable with not knowing. Children aren’t taught to say “I don’t know,” and honestly … [it] is rarely modeled for them. They too often see adults avoiding questions and fabricating answers, out of either embarrassment or fear, and this comes at a price. When children are embarrassed by or afraid of the feeling of not knowing, they are preoccupied with escaping their discomfort, rather than being motivated to learn. This robs them of the joy of curiosity.” I wish I could say I taught my children to accept “I don’t know” as an acceptable honest response to my questions, but I didn’t. I usually followed up their “I don’t know” with a something like “well, why not?” or “well, go find out.” I wish I’d said “It’s another mystery, let’s see what we can find out together.” or “Isn’t that interesting, I don’t know either?”
We seek to know all the answers, because when we know all the answers then we can feel safe. But when we don’t know the answers—that can produce real anxiety. Both religion and science seek to explain mystery at least in part to reduce that anxiety. Science has offered answers to causes for various illnesses and medicines to reduce symptoms or cure illnesses. Religions have offered answers to questions about life’s purpose and meaning—pain is transient—at least for most of us--and suffering can be caused by attachments to worldly things—and for those who accept those answers, they feel safer and their anxiety is diminished.
The beliefs or truths that make me less anxious might not make you feel less anxious, heck they might even make you feel more anxious. My willingness to accept some level of anxiety frees me to embrace letting mystery be. I don’t have to know the answer to everything, even when prodded by mystery, I always have the choice to either look deeper into the mystery or accept it with humble awe and wonder. And when I decide to track down an answer, I try to keep myself open to the potential experience of awe and wonder, open to differences between myself and others, and open to possibility.
This openness is as important to me as finding the answer to mystery.
There are mysteries that we may never find out or may not find out in our lifetime. And there are mysteries that we are confronted with every day to which there are no factual answers—like what is beautiful; what is fascinating?
As Unitarian Universalists we are encouraged to approach mystery from different angles, open to new revelations, and with a willingness to consider other people’s view of mystery. My respect for science co-exists with my religious beliefs about mystery. I am a Buddhist—I believe that everything is transient and my spiritual practice is meditation/mindfulness. I am also a humanist—I believe that I must live meaningfully in the here and now and try to make the world a better place for all in the here and now. I am also a panentheist—I believe in the divinity in all things, not a god or goddess out there, but that god/goddess/spirit is part of me and everything. And I am a Unitarian Universalist—I affirm our Principles and Sources in how I live my life.
Choosing to embrace all these spiritual paths might seem too complicated, too paradoxical, too conflicted to fit into one person. But we are complex beings with a mind, heart, and/or soul. And when we experience or consider a mystery, there is always another question offered “Do I want to dissect the mystery to learn more about it or do I want to learn more about myself by accepting this mystery as a springboard to wonderment?” When we choose to learn more about ourselves, what will we discover along the way? What possibilities open for us? How might our path through life change when we learn more about ourselves? Will we see or experience the world differently? These are big questions and I believe are at the heart of how we experience mystery.
As a both/and religion, we can examine the science or spirituality of a mystery, let a mystery be, and/or learn about ourselves from a mystery. At this time in my life, I find the path within far more fascinating and fulfilling than getting to the bottom of every mystery. How will you respond to mystery? However you respond, know that this congregation is a place where we can share our experiences of mystery and our responses to mystery. Here we will learn from one another expanding the possibilities that mystery offers us. And here’s hoping we never find all the answers. So may it be.