Knowing Nothing About God

Knowing Nothing About God

October 17, 2021 | Barbara Merritt

    The first thing I would like to do this morning is thank the Reverend Sarah Stewart for inviting me back into the pulpit. She invited me last year, in October, in the middle of the pandemic lockdown, but I had to decline. When it comes to the technological challenges of zoom and virtual participation and broadcasting church, I am a complete and utter failure; in fact, I couldn't even handle the microphone this morning. I didn't know then, I don't know now, and I’m probably not going to be very good at it in the future. But I have, like you, found virtual encounters to be essential and I am delighted that Sarah and this church have figured out how to do this well. And I am especially grateful to all of you who are able to be with us remotely this morning. I kind of want to wave to you, and I’d like the whole congregation to wave to you, and I’m kind of hoping that you'll wave back. I do believe that we will get through this and that whenever we can gather in the future, we will be together and there will be hopefully wonderful reunions in person. Meanwhile, wherever we may be, we are asked to meet the challenges of today. And I also believe that the liberal religious search for more truth, and more love, and a greater capacity to serve, is indeed expected and it demands the cultivation of humility, the virtue of humility.

    Admittedly, we here at this church. we need to say probably over and over again what we don't know about God, about reality, and about our own lives, especially at First Unitarian. We bandy about the word of God rather frequently in the covenant, in the doxology, and in the Lord's Prayer. The question is, what do we mean when we refer to God? What can you and I possibly know about the divine? About the holiest of holies? The creator of the sun, the moon, and the stars? The energy at the heart of existence, a truth that is eternal. Having dedicated my entire life to trying to come closer to this higher power, I am somewhat startled at the age of 72 to have to admit I know nothing about God, and I never did, and it's looking extremely likely that I’m not going to know anything in the immediate future. Before exploring what it means to cultivate and indeed celebrate not knowing, and thus earning some theological humility, there is a caveat; I cannot speak to the true believers on either side of the religious divide. The dogmatic fundamentalists who are to be found by the way in almost every faith tradition already know exactly who God is, and who God protects, and who God saves. They have specific creedal words that nail that door shut and anyone who doesn't agree, who doesn't play along, is going straight to hell. Neither do I hope to speak to the dogmatic atheists, they already know what is real and what is fantasy, and they are absolutely certain that there is no God, no creator, no higher purpose to existence, and anyone who disagrees with their evidence, and logic, and experience, is deemed to be gullible, delusional, naïve, or stupid, and they can be legitimately mocked, dismissed, ignored, which is a metaphorical kind of a “you too can go to hell”.

    In a wonderful new book by Adam Grant called Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know, the author claims that dogmatic individuals on either side are suffering from what he calls fat cat syndrome, they rest on their laurels, on what they know thus far, and make the assumption that there is not more to know. Grant offers a priceless definition of arrogance, he says arrogance equals ignorance plus conviction; ignorance plus conviction, what a combination. But he offers an inspiring alternative, embracing not knowing. He starts by using the scientific model, as he said, good science is searching for what is true, and favors curiosity over closure, doubt over certainty, and humility over pride. As in all serious endeavors, and I would include theology at its best, he urges us to encourage and actively open mind searching for reasons we might be wrong. He writes, if knowledge is power, knowing what we don't know is wisdom, and his preference for not knowing is practical, as well as theoretical. He reminds us “finding out you are wrong means now you are less wrong.”  He says, if you can't look back at yourself a year ago and say how stupid I was, then you must not have learned much this year. He adds, don't boast about how much you know, marvel at how little you understand. Certainly, it seems that the whole world has been given a crash course in not knowing. Covid 19 has humbled us all. At one time, many of us thought that this illness would only affect Wuhan China. Not a lot of us believe that 20 months after we locked down in the United States, and then later got vaccinated, that we would still be wearing masks, but our ignorance about epidemiology is just by way of example. The longer we are alive, the greater the chance we are given to discover how little we understand.

    The paradigm shifts are constant in a changing world. One of the wonderful books I have recently read is called Finding the Mother Tree. Those of us who bought the old Darwinian model that nature is only a competitive battle for the survival of the fittest are now confounded, and I might add delighted, with the new scientific evidence that trees not only compete, but they also cooperate and collaborate, and they are not just isolated plants. Rather trees are connected by a vast underground network of mycelium fungus, that mushrooms are their fruits, and this mycelium sustains and nourishes all kinds of species as well as the children of the mother tree. How is it that we have so frequently stumbled into thinking the trees are separate, isolated, and alone? How is it that we have so frequently stumbled into thinking we are separate, isolated, and alone? I have been told that there is actually only one sin and that is believing that you yourself are cut off from life, separate from love, separate from God. An arrogant declaration that what is ultimately true is only the self, the self-sufficient isolated self is, I believe, the primary sin in the children's story today. We were offered an ancient legend that claimed that arrogance in fact is the very definition of evil. Is that true? Is our arrogance, our pride, our egotism, our selfishness, a primary cause of that which takes us in the wrong direction? Can it really only be one sneer that cancels out a lot of good? I think the answer is yes.

    In Grant's book, he writes that our determination to keep out threatening information, i.e., anything or anyone we don't agree with, let's loose what he calls the totalitarian ego, and the inner dictator, and this arrogance is not just a threat to us as individuals, but also to our larger community and society. I assume that you have been as bewildered as I have been by the emergence and the strength of QAnon and other wild conspiracy mongering movements. What is the appeal of believing such things as that Bill Gates has put microchips inside of vaccinations? A recent book called Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon offers a deeply unsettling answer to the question as to why people embrace such thinking. The author's research explained QAnon followers are this way because in an uncertain world they are seeking a sense of agency and community QAnon makes them feel smart, superior, and united. The movement is particularly appealing to those who are lonely and disenchanted with their lives and the emotional benefits of believing they are defending innocence, goodness, and the American way, is much more important to them than the dogma that is being espoused. Ouch for all of us who might have once been attracted by the illusion that we are smart, superior, or united. To all of us who might also enjoy feeling a sense of agency and community, and for those of us who at times have felt lonely or disenchanted by some aspect of our lives. We can say “there but for the grace of god go I” or “there, but for the grace of love” or something, some power go I how. Very fortunate we are if we have found a different kind of community, a tribe in which we feel we do belong, the resources and commitments which allow us to navigate what is admittedly an uncertain world.

    The Baal Shem Tov stories about humility ground us. The root of the word humble is humus; humus, of the earth. The Baal Shem Tov claimed that one humble sigh is better than all of our book learning, all of our education, all of our arrogance, especially if that study has made us judgmental or feeling superior. Especially if our study has ever made us sneer at those who have not had the privilege to learn. He wanted for his son-in-law someone who didn't know, who doesn't know, and who won't know. And he understood that this study in humility was to go on to the end of our days, always challenging us to let go of our ignorance and our overconfident convictions. Always inviting us to stay open and curious, always admitting we have at the very best, a partial understanding and grasp of reality. As T.S. Eliot put it, “humility is endless.”

    When I was the minister at this church many years ago, I used to give lots of sermons about humility. Nothing has changed. My favorite 20th century theologian Howard Thurman insisted that all spiritual seekers have to stay open and curious. Thurman, the grandson of a slave, growing up in the Jim Crow era, and becoming the spiritual mentor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., was especially eloquent about confronting a particular arrogant conviction that sometimes takes hold of the human mind. and that is the conviction that there is no reason to be hopeful. We really are separate and alone, and that there is nothing inside of us to trust and nothing outside of us to help us move forward

    What brings on this feeling that we are stuck in being separate? it can be a death, a broken heart, a terrible injustice, or illness or betrayal. It might be disabilities, or aging, or shattered dreams. Thurman calls these the tragic facts, and they are likely to show up in every human life sooner or later. But what Thurman proclaims is I will not be daunted by an interval, he pronounces these tragic facts as temporary, as simply a moment in time. And he also asks all of us to stay attentive and receptive even in the most brutal of circumstances. He reminds us “ahead of us is far more than we now think, far more than we now believe”, and he practically shouts “I shall not allow the events of my life to make me their prisoner, I shall believe that life has much more to it than experience has disclosed to me”, and he adds, “there is no experience, no interpretation of the meaning or significance of life, that can possibly exhaust all that life has to say.”  Or as a Unitarian poet and troubadour named Rick Manson once put it, “he had come out of this locker room in the second half of this basketball game called life, and he looked up at the scoreboard; the other team's score was 89 and his team 6, and it occurred to him at that moment that he wasn't going to win this particular game, but that he was going to play one hell of a second half”. I don't presume to know what your experiences in life have been thus far, or how you read the scoreboard, but all of us have to figure out what to trust as we go forward into an uncertain world. As Thomas Merton articulated, the way ahead, I have no idea where I’m going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end, but, he says, he will trust that God will lead him on the right road and will not leave him alone.

    What I have come to trust over a lifetime is that truth is more powerful than lies, that love is more powerful than hate, that joy and beauty have more to teach me about reality than despair, and ugliness and the spiritual practice of forgiveness and compassion will take me farther than harsh judgments and sneers. And finally, that in all circumstances, I have the choice and the privilege to act now and to stay open and to listen for what is yet to come in my vocabulary. I will continue to call that truth and love and joy and hope by the name of God, but no name can possibly contain the vast realms of reality that the human mind cannot imagine, let alone define or understand. And as Isaiah reminds us. God's ways are not our ways, and our thoughts are not God's thoughts. Besides, I don't believe that the names we place on reality are what ultimately matter, what does matter is that each of us figure out what is trustworthy in the midst of the challenges and the contradictions of our world. We are called to figure out what our answer will be when life doesn't turn out the way we thought it would. But what will our answer be when we don't know anywhere near enough to navigate an uncertain future? How do we trust in existence where our ways are not the ways reality unfolds? Howard Thurman offers an image that, in closing, I hope you will remember. He was climbing a mountain full of beautiful tall pine trees when he suddenly crossed over the timber line, and they were mostly rocks there, where no more trees were there but some scraggly little bushes close to the ground trying to eke out an existence. When there was brutal wind and snow and freezing cold temperatures, but on closer examination to these bushes, he discovered that they had exactly the same kind of needles as the pine trees, and that in truth they were trees; only they were trees that were growing horizontally, clutching the ground where their seed had taken root, and getting by as best they could. And this is what Howard Thurman wrote about them because he heard those trees talking, he said, it is as if the tree had said I am destined to reach for the stars and to embrace in my arms the wind, the rain, the snow, and the sun, singing my songs of joy to all of the heavens. But this I cannot do, I have taken root beyond the timber line and yet I do not want to die, I must not die, I shall make a careful survey of the situation and work out a method, a way of life that will yield growth and development for me despite the contradictions under which I must eke out my days. In the end, I may not look like other trees, amen, I may not be what everything in me cries out to be, but I will not give up. I will use to the fullest every resource in me, and about me, to answer life with life. In so doing, I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains upon demand, the life that is in it.

    I say to you this morning, our lives have been sustained thus far, and for that reason alone we have every reason to trust that we can keep going. We can keep hoping. we can keep working out our own ways to answer life with life, increasing our gratitude for the life that has been given to us. May we go forward always knowing that we don't know.

    The Rev. Dr. Barbara Merritt, Minister Emerita