The Asking Is the Answer
The known is always dead; the unknown is always
[Editorial note: I wrote this essay twenty years ago and
had forgotten it. It is dated, and was written by a young man who was
still primarily fascinated with all things new, but I think it still
has something useful to say twenty years later.]
We are in the throws of a great spiritual upheaval, a fundamental questioning
of our place in the cosmos.
Are we merely one among many organisms, with no special significance,
as the deep ecologists say? Are we ultimately special, created in God's
image and placed at the pinnacle of creation, as the Christians say? Are
we stewards of the planet, endowed with consciousness for that purpose?
Are we the consciousness of the universe, the way the universe knows itself?
Are we individuals only, each of us merely attempting to assure our own
survival? Who are we? In what ways are we connected, and in what ways
separate? To what extent is our purpose and role in life given shape by
cosmic forces, and to what extent are we creators of our own purpose?
To what extent are we responsible for managing the planet and to what
extent should we leave it alone?
These are all spiritual questions that arise for me as a result of seeing
the devastating impact we are having on the world. I gather from the resurgence
of interest in the spiritual traditions of the indigenous people of this
continent and in the ancient goddess traditions that I am not the only
one asking these questions now. Who am I, Who are we, and What is the
cosmos, are the essential spiritual questions.
It is clear enough that western religious traditions have left us ill
prepared to deal with these fundamental questions. Christianity particularly,
at least as we generally understand it, has left us with an unproductive
understanding of our place in the cosmos. We have seen ourselves as the
pinnacle of creation - how could we be anything else if God became Man?
The spiritual crisis precipitated by the environmental crisis is the recognition
that we have presumed too much in placing ourselves at the center of creation.
It is less clear, but also seems to be true, that science, that other
arena for asking fundamental questions, also has not prepared us for the
task at hand. This is harder to understand because the enduring trend
of scientific inquiry has been to remove us from the exalted positions
where we like to place ourselves. And it is scientists who are sounding
the alarm most loudly regarding the damage we are inflicting on the Earth.
Nevertheless, Science has not given us the tools we need to address
our environmental problems. Or if it has, it has not given us the will
to use them. More important perhaps, technological control and financial
gain have too strongly influenced our scientific inquiry. If that is the
case, we are right to question the validity of our science.
To whom, then, do we turn for guidance in approaching the fundamental
questions raised anew by our destruction of the Earth? Whom can we trust
to guide us? Who has the answers? It seems to me that answers are not
actually what we need most. What we need is the ability to live creatively
with the questions.
By this I mean two things. In the simplest sense, I mean not being overly
eager to find the answers; instead allowing the questions to hang about
for awhile, so we can play with them and explore them and experiment with
answers to them. I mean enjoying the game of inquiry rather than rushing
to the win or lose conclusion.
Sherlock Holmes repeatedly admonished Watson, "It is a capital mistake
to theorize before you have all the evidence." Science has been a domain
of people who dared to observe first and theorize later and subject theory
to further observation, thus keeping the questions alive.
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould hints at this in the conclusion to
his book Wonderful Life (WW Norton & Company 1989), a study of the
"Burgess Shale" and its implications for our view of the history of life.
And so, if you wish to ask the question of the ages
- why do humans exist - a major part of the answer, touching those aspects
that science can treat at all, must be because Pikaia survived
the Burgess decimation. This response does not cite a single law of
nature, it embodies no statement about predictable evolutionary pathways,
no calculation of probabilities based on general rules of anatomy or
ecology. The survival of Pikaia was a contingency of "just history."
I do not think any "higher answer" can be given, and I cannot imagine
that any resolution could be more fascinating. We are the offspring
of history, and we must establish our own paths in this most diverse
and interesting of conceivable universes - one indifferent to our suffering,
and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or fail, in our
I read in this "answer" to the "question of the ages" less than normal
certainty about our place in the cosmos and more excitement about the
process of inquiry and exploration.
There is a mild disclaimer in this statement that is relevant to my
discussion: "touching those aspects that science can treat at all." What
science can not treat is the effect of fundamental uncertainty on our
very sense of identity. And this is my second meaning of "living creatively
with the questions:" allowing the questions to invade our lives totally,
allowing our lives and our very selves to be riddled with the fundamental
uncertainties of our existence.
This is less the domain of science and more the domain of mysticism.
In the religion I know best, Christianity, there is a mystical tradition
of living from uncertainty. It is exemplified by The Cloud of Unknowing,
written in England in the 14th century. The unknown author of The Cloud
of Unknowing wrote,
For myself, I prefer to be lost in this nowhere, wrestling
with this nothingness, than to be like some great lord travelling everywhere
and enjoying the world as if he owned it. Forget that kind of everywhere
and the world's all. It pales in richness beside this blessed nothingness
This could be read as a condemnation of all knowledge, a call to return
to Eden before the birth of self-consciousness. But The Cloud seems
to me not to be advocating such an escape, as if that were even possible.
In my own experience, the lesson of Christian mysticism is a recognition
that human knowledge is essentially limited, however useful it might be
in a practical way. Our sense of self has become inextricably linked with
what we know or think we know, but creative power derives from unknowing.
Unknowing makes knowing possible. The known is always dead; the unknown
is always giving birth. All answers divide reality into that which is
only partially true; undivided truth lies in the asking.
Although my experience says that mystical uncertainty makes a difference
that is relevant to the environmental crisis, I am in no way sure that
I am properly interpreting the Christian mystics - especially considering
the changes in language and thought that have occurred in the 600 year
since The Cloud of Unknowing was written.
So I am not inclined to try to revive the Christian mystical tradition
- as much as I think it has something to offer. Even the author admits
that what he is talking about "cannot be explained, only experienced."
And even though I have explored this territory for more than a decade,
and have experienced something that resonates with the words in The
Cloud, I cannot know what he was thinking and whether I have experienced
what he is describing. What use, then, to try to draw on this tradition,
or any tradition? Except for the enjoyment of it. Only at the level of
shear enjoyment are the multiple layers of uncertainty a benefit and not
As long as we approach science and religion as ways of establishing
certainty, as institutions that have the answers, we rob them of their
vitality, which derives from living out the asking of important questions.
If we reach for the fruit of certainty too quickly, we miss immersing
ourselves in the earth, air, sun and water of uncertainty. The questions
nourish us if we will only let go of our claim on the power and control
that come with the answers.
Applying this to ourselves, where I feel we need it most, is hard because
of the way it challenges our sense of identity. Challenging the foundations
on which we have built our lives, examining them and testing them against
experience, letting go of the assumptions we use to define ourselves,
discovering the hidden ones we hold most tenaciously, is unsettling. And
it should be! Is it not deeply unsettling that our ways of living and
thinking are ravaging the planet? Shouldn't that fact cast us into deep
uncertainty about the assumptions we use to order our lives? We are destroying
the basis of our own lives and taking a good portion of the rest of the
life on this planet with us. We should be unsettled. We will be unsettled,
one way or another, productively or destructively.
We are faced with an unprecedented crisis. We have the opportunity to
restore the essential questions of our existence to their proper place.
We are already asking them in many ways on many levels. We can continue
to explore, and apply with appropriate caution the answers we arrive at,
and thereby find a place for ourselves in the natural world that recognizes
our limits; or we can grasp at the control that is certain knowledge,
and hasten the destruction that we are surely bringing upon ourselves.
Not being focused on certain answers may seem crazy when we clearly
need creative solutions to our problems. Perhaps we are caught mentally
and spiritually in a finger trap - the sort that gets tighter and tighter
the harder you try to escape it. Acknowledging and living with and internalizing
the fundamental uncertainty of our lives on this planet may be the surrender
that frees us from the trap and unleashes the creativity we need so desperately.