Faith and Wonder and the Journey That Never Ends

My spiritual and ideological journey has been rather tumultuous of late, as those of you who’ve followed along and offered many kind and helpful comments here are no doubt aware. Last night, I stayed up late talking to Nicole about a lot of things. One thing that came up is my propensity (character flaw?) to charge ahead into new territory with a reckless confidence that tends to be, well, probably a little overweening. I was thinking about it, and although it’s part of my character that’s led me to countless rash decisions and half-baked philosophies, I realize that it’s also been necessary for me to get to where I’m at. It takes a certain sort of arrogance to step off the beaten path into the unknown. But the unknown holds forth the promise of things that are irresistible to a hopeless wanderer. I hope the wisdom I’ve gained by experience tempers me a little. But let me just be honest and say that I also hope I never lose the drive to go further than everyone says I should. Reckless or not, there’s no one who can hold me back. I always go past the no trespassing signs, past all the warnings that “here there be dragons”.

The analogy of cliff climbing popped into my mind. I used to climb a lot when I was a kid, just because I was impulsive and cliffs looked to me like things that were made to be climbed. I’d often find myself at a point where I couldn’t reach any solid handholds to keep going up – and getting back down to the ground seemed even more problematic. So I’d just have to examine every crack and knob around me, pick out what looked most solid, and lunge for it in faith that it would hold me. It never took me straight up the cliff – sometimes it took me back down to a lower position from which I could make the climb by a different route – but in spite of the zig-zagging and backtracking, I’d eventually make it up.

What does one have to do with the other? Well, my ideological journey has felt similar to cliff climbing, in a way. I’ve always been driven to understand, make sense of everything, hammer out a worldview that accounted for every bit of evidence with no internal contradiction. When long analysis of my current worldview left me unsatisfied that I had arrived yet, I’d lunge for the philosophy that looked most promising. I’d stop my ears to all those around me who were cautioning against reckless impulsivity and launch myself to the next, likeliest landing place – from Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism to Historic Reformed to the Scientific Method. It wasn’t a ladder straight up. It was slow, awkward, rough, zig-zagging. But I’ve made progress that I don’t think I could have if I never dared to leave the comfort of the familiar and cast myself into space, hoping I’d chosen a hold that could bear me up.

Of course the pattern still holds true. I love the scientific method. It’s really a phenomenal and powerful tool. In its own place its claim to truth is unassailable. But I’m realizing it’s not the top of the cliff. It’s not capable of supporting a complete worldview. It can’t account for everything, make sense of all the data. You can’t corral the infinite into a laboratory for observation.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s where faith comes in.

I had always been driven to seek absolute certainty and exhaustive understanding. I sought it in dogma and authority but I didn’t find it. Then I sought it in a philosophy that eschewed faith in favor of observation and evidence and rationality. But maybe it’s not there either.

I’ve been talking to a friend at work lately, and wonder has grown in me at the innumerable possibilities of the infinite and eternal. During our conversations, the sense has grown in me that the logical/rational/cognitive side of my mind, which I’ve always relied on in my pursuit of knowledge, is inherently inadequate. There’s another side of the human brain – the side that wonders and creates and has faith and is not anti-rational but is certainly supra-rational. And just maybe that model reflects all reality. Maybe the left brain world of the scientific method – as marvelous the truths as it uncovers may be – can never reach the whole. Never be the top of the cliff.

Maybe it’s sort of like male and female, yin and yang. It’s not that one is opposed to the other, but that they complement each other, imply each other, fulfill each other, infuse each other with meaning and truth.

Perhaps they intersect. Einstein’s scientific theory of relativity implies that every past and future always exists in an eternal now. If I travel at speeds approaching the speed of light, my present will exist as someone else’s future. But here’s the thing – they both will exist, and be fundamentally real, concurrently, albeit separated in space by a distance of light years. Years later, it seems that quantum entanglement, which Einstein famously denigrated as “spooky action at a distance,” appears to be observably true. Which suggests to me that all of space and time is inseparably connected, forever present, everywhere at once. Everyone’s present exists – somewhere – right now. But maybe it also exists right here. Funny how that’s exactly what the right brain mystics and dreamers have been saying for eons.

Maybe a lot of the psychic/paranormal/meditational phenomena that many scientists tend to scorn has no less basis in reality than all the proper observable subjects of the scientific method. Maybe, maybe…

Another friend, who was gracious enough to give me some valuable perspectives on another online discussion I was having, gently observed that he had thought I was someone who was able to consider other points of view and come to different conclusions than those I couldn’t see beyond at first. I wasn’t really showing that quality right then (at the time I was engaged more in the impetuous lunging ahead, trusting confidently and dogmatically in a chosen “handhold”). But maybe that quality of faith and humility and the willingness to truly entertain an idea that’s beyond my rational capacity is just as essential for learning more about this amazing universe we’ve been thrust into as my more left-brained reckless confidence in the rational.

All that to say, maybe a growing appreciation of science and rationality doesn’t exclude embracing mystery and paradox and that which is other than rational. Maybe, like two sides of a healthy brain, they’re both necessary for true understanding. Maybe, like the paradox of a schizophrenic quantum, it’s the only way to increase a true understanding of the world.

Maybe I can have rationality and faith. Maybe I can believe in the seen and the unseen. Maybe my wild lunging will keep getting me further up the cliff out of ignorance.

I haven’t finally found all my answers in dogma and revelation. The human authors of any scripture in any tradition are fallible, after all. David sinned with his heart and his eyes and his bloodlust. Could it be that he sinned with his pen, too? Would God not have loved him if he had? Do all the right-brained beauty of his psalms mean that there could be no left-brained errors of fact that he was blind to? Would that make them any less beautiful?

If God is a father, would he love his children any less for their reckless attempts to scramble up the cliff of truth that he’s allowed to remain hard and mysterious? Even if they make missteps? Even if their confidence is sometimes misplaced? Even if they often deny or downplay either the right brain truth of wonder and mystery or the left brain truth of rationality and empiricism?

I don’t know. I just know that I’m thankful for every handhold I’ve clung to along the way. I’m thankful for every step I’ve taken (no matter how poorly chosen some of them may have been). I’m thankful for every path I’ve followed, every truth I’ve sought, every mystery I’ve beaten my head against, every human attempt to bring the incomprehensibility of the divine into the light of language, every experiment of science….

And I’m thankful for everyone who’s loved and helped and shown me patience along the way. People are awesome. The universe is awesome. I’m glad to be a part of it. I’m glad that not even my desire for certainty and exhaustive knowledge has ever been able to kill my wonder and sense of mystery and – dare I say it? – faith.

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