Friday, October 31, 2008


I just returned from a week in the San Francisco area, and was stunned to find truth on a single sheet of paper tacked to a bulletin board. I took the pamphlet with me, and have copied it here so that it may be shared.

Do You Ever Doubt? Question? Wonder About God?

The great scholar William Temple once wrote, “Until we have reached the perfect understanding, which must be beyond our grasp so long as this life lasts, the wise man will alternate between these two activities, using his religion as the inspiration and guidance of his life unless he sees real reason for disregarding it, while he is as relentlessly thorough as his mental capacity allows in bringing to bear upon that religion the purging criticism of philosophic inquiry.” In other words, he's describing the wise man as someone who is continually doubtful. Sound strange? It's not.

Every one of us has felt, at some point in our lives, lost, confused, and unsure. Perhaps we thought we had the answers, but then learned we were wrong. Songs play over the radio every day about it, lamenting how we feel. In fact, it is a sin of pride to ever believe that we have the answers – even about God. If we close off our minds to ideas which do not fit our preconceived notions, we push ourselves farther down the dangerous path to arrogance than we ever intended. “Objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny,” evolutionist Steve Jay Gould explained, adding, “and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail.” The old idiom, “the more you know, the more you realize you don't know,” is true of God as well as life. “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt” says Bishop J.A.T. Robinson. Our duty is not to hotly debate whether God exists and whether any given religion is the only way to know him; our duty is to seek the truth, realizing that in the end, whatever little we think we know, there is an unending supply of that which we do not know. “Never, in all eternity, shall we reach a point where we have accomplished all that there is to do, or discovered all that there is to know,” argues Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware. Saint Irenaeus said, “not only in this present age but also in the Age to come, God will always have something more to teach man, and man will always have something more to learn from God.” Eternity signifies unending progress; as Eastern Orthodox bishop Newman puts it, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

But how do we reach this perfection? By seeking the ultimate truth; that is, by seeking God. The symbolism of death and rebirth is an image of change and transformation; it occurs repeatedly in all human history, all myth, all fairytale and folklore, all true religion. In seeking God, we will find that we are constantly being transformed, changing, growing, and thus striving toward perfection. But it is not entirely an intellectual pursuit; it must involve our whole being. “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment,” the Muslim mystic Jalal-uddin Rumi wrote; “cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is intuition.” The Pali scriptures describe the true disciples as those who are “anxious to learn.” The Christian mystic Eckhart phrased it this way: “why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of Him is untrue.” Similarly, the early Church father Evagrius warns, “God cannot be [fully] grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.” Every facet we uncover leads us to the overwhelming truth that there are million more facets yet to be uncovered. Even the atheist Bill Maher glimpses this truth when he says, “there is only one reasonable standpoint. It is not the arrogant certainty of religion, but doubt. Doubt is inherently humble.” Doubt is not only natural, it's honest, and it encourages us to keep attempting to find the answers, so long as we are not proud of our ignorance. We must always be learning, listening, growing, and we must learn to love growing, for in the ages to come there will be nothing more – or less – than this. “By doubting we come to inquiry,” states Peter Abelard, “and through inquiry we perceive truth.”

It is in my nature, not just me personally but as a human being, to be inquisitive and to seek to understand the mystery around me. I will continue seeking until I wake from the dream which is this life – but, in this life, I will not determine all the answers. Answers will evade me, even to the bitter end. But if there is to be no conclusion, no closure to this great and divine and spiritual mystery, then all is for naught. There is no meaning if there is no answer. Humanity would not intrinsically desire to find this ultimate truth, if it did not, in the end, exist; poet-saint Kabir described it thus: “behold but One in all things.” It is not enough to wait idly: “draw nigh unto God, and he will draw nigh unto you” (James 4:8). Mystic Tito Colliander writes, “it is for us to begin. If we take one step towards the Lord, he takes ten towards us – he who saw the prodigal son while he was yet at a distance, and had compassion and ran and embraced him.” If we search, honestly and with an open heart as well as an open mind, we will find in all of the true religions of the world, past and present, the same virtues: humility, self-denial, perseverance, charity, love. These are only small manifestations of the eternal truth, but they help to guide us toward that ultimate answer which we eternally seek. It is a long and possibly lonely journey, but it is one we must take. “Narrow is the way that leads to eternal life,” Christ taught, “and few find it,” because so few of us truly search for it. The taoist monk Chuang Tzu similarly stated, “great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses.”

“O nobly born,” reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “the time has now come for thee to seek the Path.” So long as we acknowledge that we have doubt and are willing to search, we are on the right path. So long as we are honest about being unsure, it does not matter if we follow Christ, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or Moses, or Ekeko, or Krishna, or Zoroaster, or Sango, or Baha'i Ullah, or Joseph Smith, or even Richard Dawkins. It is enough, then, to say: “all I know is that there is something ultimate to know, and that I do not yet know it.”

There is an anecdote recorded in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and it goes as follows. One day some of the brethren came to see Abba Antony, and among them was Abba Joseph. Wishing to test them, the old man mentioned a text from Scripture, and starting with the youngest he asked them what it meant. Each explained it as best he could. But to each one the old man said, “You have not yet found the answer.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “And what do you think the text means?” He replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Antony said, “Truly, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said: I do not know.”

1 comment:

  1. I’m glad you’re interested in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Here’s a link to a Guide that covers this book and other books of the Oxford Tibetan Series.
    If you find this useful, please mention it on your blog.


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