The Urge to Know
I didn’t care what other kids said about Santa Claus, I wanted to find out for myself. If we had had one of those wildlife capturing cameras when I was growing up, I would have hidden one near the Christmas tree to catch Santa in the act (with infrared light of course so Santa wouldn’t know I was watching him). As it was, I fell asleep in my hiding spot and missed Santa putting the presents under the tree. By the time the next Christmas came around, I had extracted a confession from my parents to satisfy my curiosity. I knew our chimney wasn’t wide enough for him to come down! What I hadn’t realized was they had to leave the back door open for him to come in!
One of the qualities that are typical in the Unitarian Universalist temperament is the urge to find out for ourselves. Some of us became UU because they had had enough of being told to believe things that we just couldn’t accept as true and scolded for asking questions. Christian fundamentalist views are built on articles of faith including Immaculate Conception, virgin birth, the Garden of Eden, original sin, and bodily resurrection that many of us don’t believe. As evocative story, we can find meaning and interesting interpretive angles to appreciate … just not as cold hard fact.
The first Unitarians and Universalists and today’s Unitarian Universalists all had and have significant questions about these articles of faith. When they read the Bible for themselves, as Protestants were told to do, they came up with unorthodox interpretations. They also didn’t want to accept the revealed word as an unquestioned source of Truth. They believed that the truth in the Bible should also be consistent with the truth they discovered in the natural world through science. And that caused problems. Having inquiring, curious minds became a religious impediment to staying in the traditional Catholic or Protestant Christian molds.
The Transcendentalists who arose out of Unitarian circles near Concord in the 1830’s and 40’s, also asked questions. They heard about the new ideas coming from the German Transcendentalists. Leading Unitarian clergy gathered to discuss and investigate these new ideas coming from British, Irish and European philosophers, writers and poets. Their curiosity pulled them away from Christianity to wonder if they could experience God directly unmediated by a savior. Their close contact with the bucolic natural world promised a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.
Thoreau famously wrote:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…
The Transcendentalists were very optimistic about our human ability to find the answers we are looking for by seeking them. In his essay “Nature,” Emerson writes that the answers are available through our intuition:
We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design.
Today we live in a paradise for the curious. The World Wide Web has such amazing width and depth to it. Yes it is full of cat videos and selfies, but it is also a deep well of knowledge and understanding. The number of books that have been digitized is staggering. So much is available just for the asking that I sense it is changing deeply what it means to know something – or even the need to know when you can you can Google it whenever you want. It is easier to be curious than it has ever been before.
And it is becoming more and more apparent that having so much information and knowledge at our fingertips doesn’t make us wise. We still need to process, compare, contrast, check sources, discuss and reflect on what we find before we distill a little wisdom out of it.
That’s one of the great values of religious community. Yes, we can be spiritual and hang with friends and process what we find. And, a UU congregation provides a wonderful blend of intelligent like-minded people who enjoy being curious together and helping each other distill that wisdom that helps each of us grow and develop as human beings.
Yes, let us celebrate curiosity – and use it to change our minds and help them grow in wisdom and understanding … together.
Photo credit: Tyson Pough