Sunday, March 27, 2011

Celebrating the Mystery

Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 27, 2011

What’s your most puzzling mystery? Let’s hear some of those thoughts! Just call them out.

How many of us like to read murder mysteries or watch detective shows or movies? How many of us enjoy doing puzzles---jigsaws, word games, logic problems? How many of us just plain enjoy figuring things out? And how many of us, once we’ve figured something out, let go of it and assume it will always be true?

Human beings are pattern finders, searchers for understanding, curious as cats, creators of fundamental concepts which underwrite our world views.

And we are puzzled by any number of things: the secret of life, why human beings are the way they are, how did we all get here, what is beyond the stars and planets that we can’t see---at least, not yet?

We wonder why people come to believe what they do about the way the world works. We wonder why we (or anyone else) are so unwilling to change our minds once we’ve made them up.
It can drive us humans nuts to realize that our logical thinking doesn’t seem to bring us to the same conclusions as others’ logical thinking and we may wonder who is wrong.

I remember thinking that if I could just explain to my parents exactly why I was a Democrat rather than a Republican, they would immediately become Democrats.

I remember thinking that if I could just show my family members why I didn’t believe that Jesus was God, they would quickly see the error of their thinking and change their minds.

I frequently carry on long imaginary conversations with various individuals who don’t agree with me, laying out ever so clearly and succinctly why they ought to agree with me, and then I realize that they probably never will agree with me and I might as well give up! But, of course, I don’t give up these futile imaginary conversations---I’m still having them!

These are such common human puzzles that the real mystery is why we still don’t understand them. Sort of like the common cold, which we can dissect and alleviate the symptoms of but can’t really cure.

As UUs, we love mystery. It’s an important part of our faith. In fact, our first source (if you look at the list of our sources on the back of our O/S) is “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 that create and uphold life.”

But mystery also makes us uncomfortable. If we can’t explain it, our rational minds get edgy. We want answers, so that we can go on to the next mystery. We want things to be explained because we want to go beyond the initial mystery through the new doorway that will open once the mystery is solved.

We thirst for knowledge, sometimes knowledge of the most trivial sort. I can be driving down the road, searching for knowledge and suddenly realize the triviality of what I’m searching for---which recently has been a confirmation of my belief that three chrome diamonds arranged in a particular order is the company logo for Mitsubishi cars. What a dumb thing to want to know! And yet, my human mind persists in looking at every car to see if I can prove this to myself. Once I’ve confirmed it, I can let go of it, but until then, my eyes are peeled for that particular industrial icon.

Why on earth would this be so? I hope there is some rational evolutionary or human survival explanation for it, because I think that this instinct for pattern-finding, for seeing how bits of information connect may have some redeeming value, no matter how irritating!

I read an article recently about coincidence and the human awareness of coincidence, unusual occurrences. The author, Tom Rees, pointed out a psychological link between belief and politics that has to do with noticing coincidences and finding meaning in those unusual occurrences.

The experiment involved a computer monitor which flashed dots and single words on a screen and participants were asked to push a button noting the position of the dot as above or below a word. Unexpectedly and randomly, a word would appear within a box, rather than simply written on the screen, and many participants hesitated a second or two before pushing the button to indicate the position of the dot. The take-away idea from the experiment was that participants were pondering the meaning of the unexpected change.

The interesting thing was that those who responded most strongly to the change were those who also reported being religious as a result of personal experience. They found it harder than others to dismiss the coincidence. For religious folk, unusual events had meaning.

We watch for patterns and draw links between coincidences. Sometimes those linkages are based on pretty lightweight assumptions, like my assumption that there must be very few Mitsubishi automobiles on the island because of the difficulty of my recent effort to discover their connection to a particular hood ornament of their logo. I will probably eventually give up and Google it, just to end the search with a new bit of knowledge.

Let’s think for a moment about the various forms of mystery that are part of our human existence. There is, of course, the mystery of existence itself. How did nothing turn into something? What is the reality of that something? Is this reality all there is?

How do we make sense of what science offers us, as the scientific process of forming and testing hypotheses reveals a spectrum of such mind-boggling concepts as quantum theory, relativity theory, string theory and the idea of an infinite, yet growing, universe and even parallel universes?

Though we may have unraveled the mysteries of physical conception, birth, growth, and death in many creatures, including humankind, we have not yet figured out the mystery of consciousness, the mystery of mind, one attribute which seems to differentiate humankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. We are not only alive, but we know that we are alive. Is our human consciousness part of a universal consciousness? In our mysterious personal experiences we may have sensed a connection with a consciousness beyond our own individual consciousness. What’s that about?

And what is Love? Really? And hate? What is that, and why do we love and hate? Where does the urge to create come from? We create much more than just additional human beings; we create beauty and music, art and dreams. These too are mysteries, mysteries of an everyday sort, mysteries we confront daily, mysteries whose answers seem to appear and then disappear, as our lives change.

As we age, the mysteries of the future confront us, as well as the mystery of death’s meaning. What will the world be like for our descendents? What will our children face, our grandchildren? What will the end of our individual lives bring? How will we die? And if time and space are one and the same, will anything ever really end?

The late Forrest Church, UU minister extraordinaire and prolific author, once wrote “My faith is grounded on two principles, humility and openness”. He went on to describe the importance of mystery in his own life. At the time, he was facing a terminal diagnosis of cancer; he knew that his life was ending within a few months and he was coming to the end of his writing life. Now there’s a mystery to contemplate!

Mystery, he said, fosters humility in our lives, reminding us of our limits, the limits of what we can know and of our individual perspectives. We are fallible, we are ignorant about many things, we are incapable of learning or understanding many things. And yet this is not a reason for despair, only a reason for humility, an awareness that we need not know everything in order to live good lives.

Mystery also encourages openness, reminding us to stay open to new learnings, new understandings, ready to face the unexpected with courage and strength. I have learned not to pray for certain outcomes, but rather to pray for the ability to cope, whatever the outcome might be.

As Dave and I were talking about this service and how we might design it, we had a great conversation about our own mysteries and the things about human life that boggle our minds.

And, interestingly, one of the mysteries we puzzled over the most is why some human beings are content NOT to engage with mystery but choose certainty instead, certainty that often seems to have a pretty flimsy foundation, certainty that often seems fearful of engagement with mystery.

One of those places in which certainty defeats mystery for many people is in the realm of religion. Another is in the realm of science. Another is in the realm of ethics and morality. And, of course, these overlap in many areas of their concern: the source of life, the creation of earth and its creatures, the origins of the universe, the purpose of human life, when human life begins, when human lives end and what happens after death.
What is so scary about mystery? Well, as I mentioned in our recent service on Evolution, people fear huge changes in their world view. If they take the chance of diverging from the familiar, the well-worn, the traditional or orthodox views or teachings, where do they go?

When I think back to when I took the leap of diverging from my family’s reliance on Baptist belief and practice, I knew I was taking a huge chance. I knew I might be estranged permanently from my family and the friends of my childhood. I hoped they would understand and continue to love me, but I had no real guarantees, other than trust in their love for me.

And when I did make the leap, I suffered some of those consequences. Not to the extent of shunning or dissociation, but they were hurt and angry for a long time. And so was I, as I felt they were reacting unfairly. We made it through this painful time partly because I was far away in Denver and didn’t come home very often. I also gradually learned how to talk with them about the values we hold in common, rather than specific theology.

It feels so sad to me to hear stories similar to mine in many ways, but which have a less positive outcome. I know people who turned to Unitarian Universalism or another religion different from their inherited faith and experienced much more drastic reactions: shunning, excommunication, disownment, physical rejection and expulsion.

Rejection by a family unit is severely painful and cruel and, instead of its resulting in a change of heart in the one rejected, it fosters deep anger and long-lived grief. These wounds may never heal. Is it any wonder that many people cling to a more orthodox and traditional world view? That they resist the curiosity that invites them to explore other views? That they fight any effort made by a changing culture to adapt to new knowledge and new understandings of human living?

We often criticize our fundamentalist friends and neighbors for their limited world view, whether they are religious or political or moral conservatives. We tend to think that there’s something wrong with anyone who declines to explore new knowledge and new ideas. WE made the leap to that new place; why are they so scared? Why don’t they trust themselves to think critically? Why are they satisfied with the measly, out-of-step religious rewards of security based on supernatural concepts? Or the desire to save money rather than serve the poor? Or the deeply embedded fear of sexuality?

What are they so afraid of? In addition to rejection by family and friends, many people are terrified of the challenge of changing everything they’ve come to believe about God, the Bible, homosexuality, evolution, sexual norms. Will they be able to cope with an influx of new ideas and permissions? Will they go crazy? Will they act out? Who will help them through this crisis of faith and culture?

If they make the leap, will their anger toward the apparent false teachings of their early years keep them from finding a new location in a new paradigm? We all know folks who are still angry with their parents or their former religious tradition or their teachers for the values and teachings imposed upon them as children. This anger can keep them immobile for a long time, preventing them from exploring the new avenues they see.

At about this point in our conversation, Dave had a great idea. “What if,” he said, “we did something to reach out? What if there was a way we could say, ‘ya know, it’s not so scary out here. We’ve learned how it’s going to play out and it’s okay. The world won’t end if you decide to explore it. It’s not a terrible thing, to change your mind. And you won’t be alone. We’re here. We will help.’”

As I thought about it, I realized what a much better approach Dave’s would be than the imaginary “what’s wrong with you?” conversations I often have with those people who don’t agree with me about any number of things! And I’ve decided to try to shape those imaginary conversations into something more receptive and sympathetic on my part.

And it occurred to me that maybe there are stepping stones on this path to a more progressive, less restrictive faith.

Remember the times when you’ve been out hiking in the hills and have come upon a rushing stream with only a set of rocks as a passageway across the water? On both banks, there is safety. To cross from one safe place to another requires courage, balance, and surefootedness. It’s possible we’ll get our feet wet, maybe even fall in. But if we don’t make the effort we won’t get to the other side, the other safe place, the next point on our journey.

In life, we start with the teachings we inherit from our families. Those may be religious teachings or morality lessons or opinions about any number of things, passed down through the generations before us.

We accept them pretty trustingly for many years, until our own experiences lead us to question their accuracy. That experience might be education or a friend or teacher who opens a door or our own maturing bodies and brains.

At this point, for many of us, the cognitive dissonance, the sense of our modern knowledge being out of sync with traditional knowledge, begins to work on us. Adolescence is the time when the ability to think abstractly clicks in and suddenly it’s clear that we don’t believe what our parents believe. How do we handle this? We’re still dependent on our families for support.

The choice to go or to stay must be made. And eventually, many of us stepped off of the safe bank of tradition and placed our feet on the first stepping stone, moving toward the solid ground on the other side of the stream.

Sometimes we get stuck and stay in the middle of the stream for a long time. If we have no companion on the path, we may not have the courage to go on alone and we retrace our steps to the safe place we just left. But if there’s someone nearby to fish us out of the creek, or if we have a sturdy walking staff, we are likely to take the next step and the next, with the faith that we will be okay on the other side.

So what does this all mean? It seems to me that it’s understandable that many people prefer the certainty of the answers of their inherited faith, political stance, or moral values. Fear prevents many people from risking the loss of a world view. Arguing doesn’t change minds---ours or theirs.

What can we do with this understanding? Can we be more compassionate? More willing to listen? More able to find the values we hold in common? Less likely to be scornful? More interested in making new friends than in excluding anyone who doesn’t agree with us? Because it seems to me that the more we disdain those who don’t agree with us, the more polarized our society becomes and the less able we are to change minds. Our only tool is modeling our values, not in rejecting people.

Mysteries abound in our human lives. Perhaps this is one we can solve. I’m reminded of a song called “Get Together”, from the 60’s: the last verse says “You hold the key to love and fear, all in your trembling hand; just one key unlocks them both, it’s there at your command. Come on, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we can help to alleviate others’ fear by listening with compassion. May we have the courage to seek friendship with people who are different from us and may we live our values of justice, mercy, and love, in order that others may be free. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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