The Asking Is the Answer

The known is always dead; the unknown is always giving birth.


[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. He states,

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 own way.

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 and nowhere.

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 a problem.

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.