The Questions Enliven Us

The Questions Enliven Us

The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and let their enormity wash over me. . . . Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe (Goodenough, 1998, p. 13).

I like the mysteries of life. I felt when young, and still feel now, the compelling nature of those dimensions of life which can’t be known and understood with certainty.  I appreciate explorations of the many mysteries that exist—the questions of beginnings, meanings and purposes—questions that have many possible answers and interpretations. The lack or impossibility of coming to know the central mysteries of the universe has never been a reason for me, or for cosmologists, to stop pondering them. Quantum physicists also ponder and create. They develop mathematical equations that describe—with precise findings that have been duplicated and proven many times—the nature of some elements and dimensions of the universe, but not ones that explain why the universe exists at all. Imagine representing the meaning of life mathematically!

the far hills of Cyprus

There are some big questions most fundamental for me. “Why is there a universe or multiverse at all? How can something be created from nothing?” are my favourite questions. They have so many possible and not necessarily probable answers.

Other prismatic questions that enrich my life are: In the face of the mysteries of life, what then must I do? What is my role?  What is the essence of goodness? Why does beauty seemed to be attached to the mysteries at the centre existence? Was love inherent in the universe from the beginning?

The Divine is felt in many theologies to be love. I have not found sufficient reasons to believe that. Much as I might want to think that the ultimate source or spirit of life (what many call the Creator or God) is ultimately one of compassion, in the face of human cruelty I cannot. When I think of what might be meant by “God”, my conception is that the central life force, if a god, is a god of freedoms—freedoms within limitations.

I am better pleased with ridding my thoughts of any kind of ‘Godness” attached in any way to human characteristics, and seeing instead a endless creative process—infinite in time and space. Theologian and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School Gordon Kaufman (2004) calls the whole process of creation and destruction, continuity and change, with its unknowable beginnings and on-going, perhaps infinite, bringing of the new into existence, “Serendipitous Creativity.” Not only a seemingly infinite creative process, but also one with moments of grace that made it possible for the earth to support life, and for human life to coexist with all other life forms.

Humans coming into being and evolving was an event for which improbable conditions were just right at just one small moment and never again—cause for wonder and gratitude. As science writer, Ed Yong (2016), describes it;

For roughly the first 2.5 billion years of life on Earth, bacteria and archea charted largely separate evolutionary courses. Then, on one fateful occasion, a bacterium somehow merged with an archaeon, losing its free-living existence and becoming entrapped forever with its new host. That is how many scientists believe eukaryotes came to be. It’s our creation story: two great domains of life merging to create a third, in the greatest symbiosis of all time. The archaeon provided the chassis of the eukaryotic cell while the bacterium eventually transformed into the mitochondria . . . . There is a huge void between the simpler cells of bacteria and archaea and the more complex ones of eukaryotes, and life has managed to cross that void exactly once in four billion years (p.9).

The countless bacteria and archaea in the world have never again managed to produce a eukaryote. And yet, that union is the reason that plants, humans and other animals, and anything else that can be seen without a microscope, exist. Why only that once? Why then?

I agree with poet Mary Oliver when she says “In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.” There is so much to wonder about. So much to beauty to appreciate, so much destruction to mourn and power to be in awe of, so many questions and wonderful answers. Yet the mysteries persist. Opportunities for wonder exist as permanent opportunities. For instance, the question of “why the universe exists at all” has never, and probably will never, be answered in a way that satisfies every human soul. We wonder why we here and who we are meant to become. We wonder why love seems to flow through life on earth, and try to understand human consciousness and how deep it can go in sensing hidden realities. I close my eyes and envision a chain of “whys?” extending and fading into infinity.

It pleases me somehow when I am reading nonfiction to come a page where the author is asking the great questions of existence. For example, Albert Schweitzer, beloved by so many for his compassion, his wisdom, his music, and his dedication to the poor people in Lambaréné, in the Ogowe district of Africa, wrote that pondering the elemental questions of life is necessary to becoming fully human. In his words,

Elemental thinking starts from fundamental questions about the relationship of humans to the universe, about the meaning of life, and about the nature of what is good. It is directly linked to the thought that motivates all people. It penetrates our thought, enlarges and deepens it more profound (1933/1990, p. 228).

Ursula le Guin, author of fantasies, essays, and literary criticism, in speaking of the nature of life reminds us “It doesn’t have to be the way it is” and suggests the thought that the universe, the Earth, could be otherwise is where imagination and fundamentalism come into conflict. Le Guin also believes in the power and importance of the big questions.

“Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?”To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken. . . . To open a door that has been kept closed is an important act (2017.p. 83).

Indeed.

Phillip Simmons, in his eloquent book about living with Lou Gerick’s disease, reminds us of the difference between mysteries and puzzles.

As a culture we have accomplished a great deal by seeing life as a set of problems to be solved. . . . We observe the world, we break down what we see into its component parts. We perceive problems and set about solving them. . . . And here is where we go wrong. For at its deepest level life is not a problem but a mystery. The distinction is fundamental – problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not (2000/2003, pp. 7-8).

Mysteries are to wonder about.  And be alert to. And be in awe of. And the questions keep us on our toes. Peering into places and realms where we’ve never looked before. Scanning the planet for new possibilities. Listening to the ideas of birds and winds and the cow in the field. I asked a former dairy farmer once, “Do cows have best friends?  That set us wondering.

Small mysteries such as pondering the inner life of plants and animals can exercise the imagination, be cause for amusement or communion. Bound together as we are on this small orb circling the heavens let us not assume too much. Or too little.

As we age, we may lose some of our memories, but let us not lose our questions.

Comments are closed.