The Southern Gothic novelist Flanner O’Connor wrote that “Mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” Mystery can be hard to accept. It can be hard to live with. In a rational, information-driven society, mystery can be perceived as a problem to be solved, a question that must be answered, a thing to be googled, rather than a question for reflection.
Mystery threatens the modern mind because it reminds us of what we don’t know and what we may never know. To admit our not-knowing is humbling. And humility seems to be in short supply. So often humility is misconstrued as being weak or passive or ineffectual. All too often, being humble is seen as being a pushover or worse. The hubris of leaders around the world indicates the degree to which mystery and humility are perceived as ineffectual and weak. The kind of swaggering attitude that comes from power and privilege and greed has been taking root globally.
And yet, here we are living in a world with vast knowledge of sciences and the arts, with all our modern advances, and still there’s so much we don’t know and may never know. We haven’t figured out how to address climate change, or the refugee crisis, or how to achieve world peace. As much as we are learning from neuroscience and behavioral psychology, we don’t have a full understanding of how our own minds work.
I live with myself every day, and I pretty consistently find myself a great mystery. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t know what causes me to do or say or think a certain thing. Or why one day in the middle of a meditation I’m smiling and the next day tears are streaming down my face and the day after that I spend the whole meditation time thinking about all the tasks I need to get done that day.
I pretty consistently find other people to be a mystery too. When I do get it into my head that I actually know for sure some things about someone else, I am soon disabused of my certainty. People surprise me—all the time—by being far more complex and mysterious and interesting than I sometimes give them credit for.
Mystery threatens the modern mind with all we don’t know. We still haven’t been able to prove or disprove the existence of God or have any clear answers to what happens after we die. And I’d venture to suggest we aren’t ever going to have clear answers to those questions. I have ideas and opinions and experiences that inform what I do know of God and the afterlife, but my beliefs continue to shift and evolve. I’m a minister so theology is what I do. It would be easy to get caught up in thinking that I’m supposed to have definitive answers.
But that isn’t the way Unitarian Universalists approach their faith. This isn’t the way we approach life. Unitarian Universalism teaches us not to be embarrassed or threatened by mystery. Right there in our sources, the very first one, we affirm and promote that our living tradition draws on “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.”
Mystery nourishes and stimulates the modern mind. But it takes humility to recognize that. Maybe we don’t call it humility. We call it openness. Humility, openness, makes space. It makes space for us to take in the vastness of the universe, the dignity of others, and the perplexing nature of reality. It makes space for renewal, creativity, for what upholds life.
Children can be great teachers of the connection between mystery and humility. Krista Tippett who hosts the public radio program “On Being” learned about mystery and humility when she was studying at divinity school and had a little child. She was reflecting on the bible passage about becoming humble like a little child.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” In answering them, Jesus called a child over into their midst. And then Jesus said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4).
Tippett’s reflection on these words led her to this realization:
What I understood, what I saw in my daughter was this humility that is about walking out into the world every day and everything is new and everything is potentially amazing.
It was a stance. It was a willingness to be amazed and surprised and taught by the person walking by, the crack in the sidewalk, the bird in the air. . . .
That was my beginning of thinking about humility. The connection between humility and mystery is huge. This language that I learned from a geneticist, actually, about the spiritual life of a mystic and a scientist is it has this kindred quality that includes humility.
On the one hand, a passionate commitment to discerning truth, however best you can, at any given moment and living by truth. At the same time, living in a wonder and humility that these are things you do not, cannot, will not understand in this lifetime, everything, but there’s also everything yet to discover. (interview by Evan Rosa, https://cct.biola.edu/krista-tippett-humility/)
Children, sages, seers, prophets, poets, artists, and physicists embrace mystery and humility. They do not confuse information with wisdom. They practice instead what’s been called “conscious not-knowing.” Children just do this naturally. This conscious not-knowing insists that life can’t be summed up or reduced or controlled. Humility born of an appreciation for mystery honors provisional knowledge, the complexity of the universe, and our interdependence with all life. It honors our experience of wonder.
The Dalai Lama serves as an exemplar of this “conscious not-knowing.” (“The Diffusion of Useful Ignorance: Thoreau on the Hubris of Our Knowledge and the Transcendent Humility of Not-Knowing,” www.brainpickings.org) Every year, for eight years in a row the Dalai Lama traveled with the writer Pico Iyer across Japan. Iyer says that every day people would ask the Dalai Lama questions. They would ask him things like: "What's going to happen to Tibet? When are we ever going to get world peace? What's the best way to raise children?"
In response to these questions, this very wise man would reply, "Frankly, I don't know." (www.dailygood.org/story/1433/the-beauty-of-what-we-will-never-know-pico-...)
Compare the Dalai Lama’s “I don’t know” to the many voices who insist “I do know.” The many who are threatened by mystery and humility, who are embarrassed by it. Those who deal in absolutes—and we all can get caught up in that mindset—actually shut down progress rather than advancing it. They squelch the human spirit. They discourage free thought and the very way of being that renews the spirit and upholds life.
As much as we liberal religious folks affirm the mystery, as much as we relish openness and acceptance, cherish our doubts and questions, as much as we are free thinkers and accepting of many points of view, we also take positions. We take positions on climate change, immigrant and refugee justice, reproductive rights, human rights, incarceration, racism.
Sometimes our passion, which I love about us, makes it difficult for us to imagine that we might be wrong or limited in our approach to justice on these issues or that sometimes it’s just time to do things in a new way. As one example, in our justice work Unitarian Universalists have been learning how to practice humility in working with community partners. We have had to recognize that there are others in a better position to lead on some issues and that we UUs have to learn to be companions and collaborators who support those most impacted by a concern. Recognizing that we don’t actually have the answers can be threatening to us when we have so much passion for creating fairness and justice.
Václav Havel, who was a playwright, political dissident and first President of Czechoslovakia after the dissolution of communism, knew a bit about humility. He actually knew a lot about hubris. He describes the hazards of an ego-driven approach to civic society. He advocates instead humble respect. He said,
We must divest ourselves of our egotistical anthropocentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being, where it is judged. (‘The Search for a New Humility: Václev Havel on Reclaiming Our Human Interconnectedness in a Globalized Yet Divided World,” www.brainpickings.org)
To have a humble respect for the cosmic order leads to respect for others. To have an awareness that we are part of the cosmic order and share in it leads to respect for others. Rather than being masters of this world, we need to cultivate a humble respect for what transcends us, what is bigger than us, what is unknown to us.
Sometimes we need to allow ourselves and each other a little more space for humility and mystery to enter our lives and our hearts. We need to trust that others may have better ideas than we do. We need to trust what is beyond us, bigger than us, transcending us. And perhaps, as Pico Iyer, says, “being human is much more important than being fully in the know.” Iyer says,
The one thing that I have learned is that transformation comes when I’m not in charge, when I don’t know what’s coming next, when I can’t assume I am bigger than everything around me. And the same is true in love or in moments of crisis. Suddenly we’re . . . bumping off the broad, well-lit streets; and we’re reminded, really, of the first law of travel and, therefore, of life: you’re only as strong as your readiness to surrender. In the end, perhaps, being human is much more important than being fully in the know. (Pico Iyer, “The Beauty of What We’ll Never Know,” Ted Talk)
I hope this month you will take some time to practice conscious unknowing. I hope you will spend a little time relishing the mystery—the mystery of the natural world, of other people, of God, of yourself. I hope you’ll take time to bow to the mystery.
Amen. Blessed be.