First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

seek ... nurture ... serve

A Life of Inquiry

April 8, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

In the well-known Sufi story of “The Lamp and The Key,” a man is walking home late one night. He sees the Mulla Nasruddin who is searching under a streetlight on hands and knees for something on the ground. The man asks Nasruddin, “Mulla, what have you lost?” A Mulla is a Muslim who is learned in Islamic theology. Nasruddin replies that he has lost the key to his house. The man offers to help him look. The two of them are soon down on their hands and knees searching for the lost key. After a few minutes of unsuccessful looking, the man asks Nasruddin: “Where exactly did you lose the key?” Nasruddin motions toward his house which is encased in darkness and says: “Over there, in my house.” Dumbfounded, the man leaps to his feet and asks, “Then why are you looking for it here?” Nasruddin answers: “Because there is more light here than inside my house.”

The story suggests that we need to search for spiritual truths within ourselves, in our own homes, and not rely on what’s convenient or on authorities outside ourselves.That doesn’t mean that truths can’t be found nearly anywhere. Truths can be discovered through a teacher, through nature, through a sacred text or elsewhere. But the point is not to give ourselves over to them blindly. Our sources of authority must be true to who we are. If they impede us from being the loving and ever-evolving individuals we long to be then our search will not be fruitful and the key will not be found.

The Sufi tale sheds light on this month’s worship theme: What does it means to live a life of inquiry? When we are searching for spiritual truth, where shall we look? What are the ways we have of knowing truth?

To inquire means to explore, question, investigate, even doubt and be skeptical. Unitarian Universalists embrace the life of inquiry. We love to ask questions and to search around for answers. We like to examine things. Inquiry is essential to our religious growth and learning. It’s often said that Unitarian Universalists love the questions as much as and sometimes more than the answers. Our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle encourages us to be seekers. It affirms and promotes “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The 18th century Universalist minister Hosea Ballou said that “doubt is the incentive to truth and inquiry leads the way.”

As doubters and inquirers in search of truth, we resist dogmatism. Multiple truths and discernment take precedence over rigid ideas and convenient answers. We don’t just accept a particular source of authority without question. As educator, Brandon Trean, writes:

Regardless of how this really ends, regardless if any religion is correct, regardless if a God or Gods exist, regardless if any consciousness continues after death, regardless if reincarnation exists, regardless if science has all the answers to this material world, regardless if ancient scriptures or scientific journals are true … This life is yours to lose, yours to snooze and yours to choose. … So don’t let some authority, regardless of how subtle or likable, stop you from loving, inquiring, growing and evolving.

Our non-creedal approach to theology and religion sets us apart from some, though certainly not all other, religions. We try hard to steer clear of set thinking. Our preference is for creativity and open-mindedness over the status quo and outmoded traditions. We don’t do this for its own sake but in order to grow – in love, compassion, justice.

Our openness to asking questions that are unconventional has actually gotten us a reputation as heretics, and it’s gotten us in a lot of trouble historically. When our forebears challenged the trinity or the divinity of Jesus or Biblical miracles, they found themselves scoffed at, exiled, or worse. Some lost their lives over these theological disputes.

Given this history, it’s always been curious to me that our embrace of inquiry sometimes gets characterized as frivolous or even empty-headed, as though we, willy-nilly, believe any old thing. There is a danger, of course, in our open approach. We can get so caught up in asking questions and considering every side of an issue that we never move to a commitment or decision. I love to ask questions but I also like discovering a few answers, even if they are partial, along the way.

The reality, though, is our approach to doing religion requires a lot of us. No one is handed their beliefs. Individuals in our religious community have to do the work of shaping and grappling with their own ideas. We build our own individual theologies in community and work to discern the God or no-God of our own understanding.

In crafting their values and their lives, our religious forebears asked rigorous theological and social questions that were of upmost importance to them and to their communities of faith. They were striving to unearth truths that they could believe in, truths that made practical sense and that had intellectual and experiential integrity. They were intellectual powerhouses and luminaries. They were educated, well-read, and articulate. They were Biblical scholars. They used the scientific method and investigation to get at the truth. They were accomplished individuals in various fields of study and in various professions. Their minds were sharply honed for deep thinking.

Emerson, for example, studied the Bible and rejected the idea that the Biblical miracles were scientific. While serving as an ordained Unitarian minister, he found he could no longer in good faith serve communion to his parishioners. In his search for truth, he turned to Asian religions, and read and studied the Bhagavad Gita. He was also as many of you know a distinguished writer, known for his contributions to Transcendentalist thought. But his life of inquiry wasn’t of the mind alone.

His spiritual engagement with Asian religion and nature helped to bring heart and mysticism into the Unitarian side of our faith. He was vocal about the need for a holistic approach to the spiritual life that makes experience a cornerstone of faith. Living a life of inquiry is not just about the mind. It’s also about the whole person, including the wisdom of our bodies and perceptions. As a Soul Matters facilitator wrote:

I store unconscious knowledge in my body which somehow, sometimes almost magically, can translate into explicit, conscious knowledge. Sometimes all I need is to let myself really feel the clench of an upset stomach or the restlessness that resist sitting still and suddenly I become aware of a conflict I didn’t know I was experiencing. I can access my body as a source of information in ways I cannot access my unconscious [or conscious] mind.

When I meditate, I quickly notice know how much tension and anxiety I’m holding and where I’m holding it. I notice if I’m feeling light, distracted, worried. I know if I’m breathing deeply or doing surface breathing. I know if my mind is racing or receptive. Sometimes when I meditate, especially when I am chanting, tears spring up and I find myself welled up with emotion. Checking in with my body helps me know my heart. As Shakespeare said, “Go to your bosom; knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.” To trust our emotions and tune into them is a powerful way of knowing. When there is heartache, our hearts literally hurt. The same is true for joy. Who has not been overcome with joy by a stirring piece of music or a stunning piece of artwork or by coming upon an egret along the Tulpehocken? These encounters can open us into another way of knowing, a heart-centered experience of ourselves and the world.

Inquiry is a serious sounding word, but a life of inquiry doesn’t always have to be so intense and serious. It doesn’t have to be a pursuit. Doing nothing can sometimes be just what’s needed. Author Doe Zantamata says, “taking time to do nothing often brings everything into perspective.” This is the practice we sometimes call being rather than doing. It’s a Taoist approach. In Taoism, the idea is to allow things to flow rather than be rigid. Lao Tzu wrote: Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

The classic example for ministers often comes when it’s time to write a sermon. When I’m working on a sermon and I get stuck, I may try to push through – because I have to be ready for Sunday. That can be the worst possible approach. If, instead, I stop working so hard to pursue a train of thought and force an idea, I usually regain perspective. and get unblocked. A 10 or 15 minute walk or even pausing to do a load of laundry can do wonders.

When we are more free-flowing and allow ourselves to be curious and playful, we actually improve our ability to know. And it appears to be part of our evolutionary make up. We love to explore things, to learn things, to do things, even if there’s no obvious benefit. We travel to places we will never go back to. (Stafford) Inventors and scientists have long known that a dream may help them solve a challenge more quickly than one more experiment. Or a walk in nature may unscramble a problem you’ve been working on for months. We may be well-served by wasting a little bit of time learning or doing something silly or trivial or by doing useless things.

In our reading this morning, Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science in the UK, describes how we humans are naturally curious. Much of the time humans are curious about what he calls “the minor tittle-tattle of our lives.” We snoop around just because. I’ve had the experience of getting curious and finding myself spending more time on something than I would ever have imagined. Stafford observes that:

it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future. And thank goodness – otherwise we would have evolved to be a deadly-boring species which never wanted to get lost, never tried things to just see what happened or did things for the hell of it.

Yes, thank goodness. The life of inquiry makes life interesting. It makes us interesting.

It invites us to live everything - to live fully, to experience fully, to love fully. The poet Rainier Maria Rilke expressed the life of inquiry eloquently in his “Letters to a Young Poet.” A young poet had written to him seeking advice and he responded as follows:

I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

I invite each of you to be a little more intentional in living the questions in the coming days and weeks. Are you looking for the key- the truths – in your own house and not just where it seems easiest? Are you searching your mind and body, allowing yourself to explore, to do nothing, to be open?

My hope for each of us is that our inquiry will be filled with curiosity, engagement, and openness.

Blessed be. Amen.