As I turn another year older — just a couple of clicks now away from 60 — I grow more and more convinced that the single-most destructive force to peace, beauty, humanity, and all that is good in the world is certainty. Or the presumption of it anyway, since all but the most foolish among us have long ago abandoned any pretense of it, along with the tired and thoroughly discredited notion that popularity plus bombast equals truth. Just because a proposition has long been proclaimed to be true by a great many enthusiastic people is in no way a guarantee of that proposition’s veracity. In fact, it’s often the other way around. Group-think and confirmation bias prop up a hollow idea long after its circular logic has collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity. Extremists of every stripe, on all sides of issues, speak for no one but themselves leaving the mass of humanity somewhere in the middle, busy putting bread on the table, appeasing the landlord, and keeping abreast of ever-changing tax policies, and when there’s time to breathe, maybe picking up the guitar, grilling some hot dogs, and playing fetch with the dog.
But the din of absolutism intrudes upon our tenuous serenity from every angle. There is no rest for the weary as we are preached to endlessly by the indefatigable curators of dogma who bolster their claims with passages from ancient texts, the same texts that a few pages later spout savage nonsense no one any longer believes — executing people for working on the Sabbath for example. Do the fundamentalist, self-appointed stewards of scripture really think a quote from Leviticus, a provincial record of specific religious doctrine, social rules, and tribal history from 25 centuries ago, has any universal authority in today’s global, multicultural, and pluralistic world? Yes, they do. Because the ancient Hebrews were clearly squeamish about gay sex — that’s just how some tribes are — dogmatic literalists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam decree that it is “God’s Law” that homosexuality is a most grievous sin demanding a great deal of scrutiny, suppression, and in extreme cases, violent elimination. Adultery, in stark contrast, although equally taboo in Leviticus, earns at most a passing glance and is considered largely a private family matter. Thankfully, extremists in the Abrahamic faiths are increasingly outnumbered by more moderate voices.
We know so much more now about human sexuality and the fluidity of gender designation and sexual preference. These days most of us accept the fact that sexuality is a mystery. When someone tells us who they are and who they love, we believe them.
In his autobiography Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, preeminent religious studies scholar Huston Smith wrote, “We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.” The bracing honesty and disarming humility of this declaration catches us off guard, for it is at once an affront to our own carefully maintained belief system, and a bold affirmation of our deepest suspicion — that none of us really knows what we’re talking about.
We don’t know what being born really is. Where did we come from?
We don’t know what being alive really is. What is a person? Protoplasm with an urge? A spark from Divine Mind? A worthless sinner?
And if we cannot answer those questions, how can we say what death is?
Still, you can’t throw a stick without hitting someone who thinks they have all the answers. They know what we are, why we’re here, who made us, and where we’re all going. They’ve got the whole enchilada rolled up, plated, and ready to serve. They’re deaf to the criticism levied by the mystics of all faiths: that any explanation of the mystery distorts more than it reveals. The wordless silence of contemplative prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate service far surpasses the recitation of learned scrolls, no matter how reverent.
It is in our blood to wonder; of this we can be sure. The philosophical quest, undertaken in all cultures and utilizing every conceivable method — reason, revelation, and metaphor to name three — is a long and winding cord of interlacing strands, like the veins of a river delta viewed from space. Claiming that your strand is the only one requires willed ignorance of the wide array of thought systems all around you.
Living with uncertainty requires great courage and considerable elan. Your unwillingness to plant your flag in anyone’s camp makes you a threat to all of them. But you’re no longer content to simply shop for the best entrenched position to which to pledge your allegiance. You are flagless, beyond all borders, and alert to the fragments of truth hidden beneath the surface of all contradictions. You’re willing to change your mind as more is revealed. As Walt Whitman wrote in his poem Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” If we are part of the mysterious whole, then provincial partiality seems dimwitted at best, dangerously arrogant at worst.
The world’s scriptures are the invaluable creations of our ancestors struggling to understand their place in the mystery. Through the lens of their entrenched sociological structures, tribal belief systems, and unavoidable personal biases they framed the mystery of existence in vocabulary inherited from their fathers. Any claims of authority, let alone divine revelation, must be met with tentative and respectful skepticism. Theology is born in disputation and therefore always has a ring of belligerence to it — what made it to the page was fought for long and hard. We can therefore forgive its authors their bold assertion of infallibility. But we have come too far to remain bound to arbitrary traditions that belong to another time, another place, and a completely different set of circumstances. It is for us now to read with our inner sight the writings of the ancients, and come to trust our own interpretive authority. We can be emboldened by the way Jesus and Paul rejected the orthodoxy of the Temple leaders, or the way Muhammad criticized the tribal codes of Bedouin culture, or the way Buddha defied the authority of the Brahmins. The founders of the world’s religions were revolutionaries who pushed boundaries, challenged injustice, questioned authority, and drew deep from the well of direct experience. Let’s learn from them.
As the Zen teacher Matsuo Basho cautioned his students, “Don’t seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old, instead, seek what they sought.” It isn’t enough to pick a group and join it. It isn’t enough to follow a teacher, no matter how wise and illumined. It isn’t enough to assuage your fear by subscribing to a ready explanation that puts your tribe in the winner’s circle. If anything, let the discomfort and angst of your uncertainty sharpen your edge into a blade with which you cut away falsehood. Being uncomfortable is good. Insight is born from the chaos of cognitive dissonance and takes root in lived experience. When you’re knocked off your seat you find your feet. Teachers, traditions, rituals, texts, and communities are all powerful tools we use to build our lives. But they mean nothing if there is not beneath it an inkling of one’s own, a gut feeling, a resonance, an alignment, a beam of light unbidden that rises up and feels at once familiar and known, even though its origin is a mystery. Moses trusted his mystery. Muhammad trusted his mystery. Jesus trusted his mystery. Buddha trusted his mystery. Why do we not trust our own?
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com