A Holy Curiosity
May 5, 2019, Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast, Maine
“In the beginning, there was the Question, and the Question was with God, and the Question was God.”
So begins a common narrative we tell ourselves in our faith tradition.
While it may not fit for some of us, many come to Unitarian Universalism as adults with this story: we were raised to be good, pious Christians. God was in His Heaven, all was right with the world. And then something about that story began to ring false to us. Maybe it was the confusing ontology of the Holy Trinity, three beings that somehow became one omnipresent God. Maybe it was the literality of the Resurrection story. Maybe it was the discomfort of a priest or minister preaching assuredly that our friends or loved ones were going to Hell for seemingly arbitrary reasons.
Whatever the reason, the story goes, we began Questioning.
And for those of you who resonate with the story, you probably understood exactly what text I was referencing at the start of this sermon. (It’s the Gospel of John.)
But if you didn’t get that reference, don’t despair that you don’t share this story! I don’t share this story either!
I never believed there was much in my religious life I needed to unlearn. My upbringing was almost aggressively secular. I didn’t go to church as a child, and while it was impossible to escape the religious imagery embedded in Christmas even in our Nativity Scene-free household, Easter was always understood by me as “the day we get candy and presents from the Easter Bunny.” The stickers in the ubiquitous Paas Easter egg dyeing kits always had one sole fluted cross among the hatching chicks, bunnies, and flowers, and I remember asking my mother, “why is this cross here?” Her reply was “oh, don’t worry about that. Some people are religious about Easter. That’s not really for us.” It was a rude awakening when my dad, a lapsed Lutheran, tried to explain that Easter was in fact one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar. I remember my brother and I looking at each other uncomfortably, silently wondering when the miniature “He is risen!” sermon given to us at the kitchen table would end.
The absence of religion in my house made church feel like a forbidden world I couldn’t understand. And because of what I had been told about God, not by my parents but by the culture—that God was a man, that God was stern and spent a lot of time telling people what they couldn’t do—I wasn’t sure I wanted to understand church.
So I guess you could say, even though a lot of my own story isn’t that of a classic Christian-turned-UU, the Question was still supreme. Unsatisfied with the God-optional stance of my childhood, I went looking for answers, just like those Christians who, for whatever reason, become curious about the world outside what they’re being told about faith. These questioners have begun to listen closely to their own holy curiosity.
That phrase, “holy curiosity,” is drawn from Albert Einstein, who said “One cannot help but be in awe when (we) contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.” It’s not hard to find renowned artists, scientists, poets, and philosophers, from science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to Harlem Renaissance folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, extolling the virtue of curiosity. Indeed, the questioning impulse is central to those who examine, analyze, and offer alternatives to the dominant understanding of a field. Often, these learned types, more so than religious luminaries, are who UUs look to for guidance and wisdom on the human condition. In many of our congregations, you’re more likely to hear us quote Carl Sagan or Nelson Mandela than Matthew, Mark, or John. Somewhere along the way, theistic religion, or “organized religion,” or any other number of religious belief became associated with unquestioning belief.
But you know what I’m curious about, is how this happened in the first place. I want to understand how “faith” became associated with unthinking, uncritical belief.
The truth is, the impulse to condemn or shut down curiosity is an old one, and while it can be found in religion, it’s just as likely to be seen in philosophy and story. Have you noticed that in a lot of fairy tales and moral stories, things don’t turn out well for people who get “too curious”? Snow White opens the door to an old woman who’s really a murderous queen in disguise, and pays for this mistake with her life. Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, and Sleeping Beauty all narrowly escape this same fate. The urge to tell children not to pry into what isn’t their business, to not ask questions, and to believe what they’re told is baked into Western culture. Even if you’re the type of parent who never wants their child exposed to all the problematic associations of some fairy tales, these stories reflect more than just a parenting sensibility: they speak profoundly to some of the wounds we carry from having been raised in a society that regularly lifts up the virtues of compliance and obedience. We see these wounds in a would-be dictator who condemns investigators and journalists. We see it in those who follow orders to imprison asylum-seeking children at our southern border. And we see it in those who continue, against all evidence, to deny that there’s any need to act on behalf of our climate and the sustainability of our earth.
Clearly, these wounds have yet to heal over and fade. While we may no longer be directly asking our children to learn from the cautionary tales of Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood, our society still picks at these wounds that tell us, in so many small ways, to keep our questions to ourselves.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism, two of the theological lineages from which UU comes, began as responses to a dogmatic, restrictive form of Calvinist Protestantism that quashed curiosity. John Calvin himself said that the most direct path to finding God is not to “attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed.” One shudders to imagine what he might think of two UUs engaged in a heady theological debate. And yet, resisting Calvin’s doctrines of sinfulness is one of the theological pillars we as a faith hang our hat on in the modern day.
From such noble beginnings we come.
But keeping up our curiosity is a discipline.
Perhaps we UUs are not hidebound in dogma the way the faiths—or non-faiths—of our childhoods were. But I have seen us become bound up in other ways. Instead of becoming curious about civil disobedience, I have seen UUs get rigidly attached to ineffective letter-writing campaigns. Rather than get curious about our own discomfort with a new justice issue we know little about, I have seen our people double down hurtfully, and resist listening and learning. Instead of getting curious about someone else’s religious beliefs, I’ve watched us make dismissive and judgmental remarks.
Where is that holy curiosity that brought us to this place?
Did we lose it?
There are times when we all need comfort in the well-worn and familiar security blanket of a belief that’s been with us for a long time and seen us through thick and thin. This is human. But there are still other times when we start realizing the limitations of that security blanket. There might be holes worn in it. Maybe it’s just woven for a body that’s much smaller than we’ve become since it was made. It might even be so wrongly sized for us now that we’re contorting ourselves to get the same comfort from it we once did. And if that’s the case, maybe it’s time to take a tip from tidying expert Marie Kondo and examine whether that security blanket of belief still sparks joy.
Where are the places of your discomfort?
When was the last time someone questioned you in a way that made you feel not angry or sad, but simply… unsettled? As if something was amiss, but you couldn’t figure out what?
I wonder whether you’re curious about that now.
These are the signs that the discipline of curiosity may be something worth examining in your life. Once upon a time, you began to question… and the Question became God. You had within you a holy curiosity.
In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept known as “beginner’s mind.” In a famous story from the Zen tradition, a young student seeks to study with a famed Zen master. Master and student sit down to tea, and the student, eager to prove himself worthy, begins boasting of everything he’s learned about Zen. The master quietly begins pouring tea into the student’s cup as the student continues bragging, but instead of stopping when the cup fills, the master continues pouring. Tea spills over the rim and all over the floor until the student can no longer restrain themself. “Stop!” the student cries. “Can’t you see the cup is full? No more tea will go in!”
“This cup,” says the master calmly, “is you. How can I show you Zen unless you empty your cup first?”
Having a beginner’s mind means having a mind empty of preconceptions, open to new findings, to curiosity and eagerness. While we cannot realistically maintain a beginner’s mind at all times, in matters of spirituality, justice, and relationship, exercising this discipline becomes necessary. This is true whether or not we believe in God; whether we find our ground of being in the study of science and the natural world; whether our idea of the Ultimate is the human spirit. As Don Vaughn-Foerster tells us, we swing like pendulums: from the discomfort of newness to the practiced familiarity of old rituals; back to the discomfort of growth and finding our old ways no longer serve; and back to comforting familiarity as we settle into the new furrows. At each stage, we may find we need to empty our cup. Once, church was an unfamiliar and mysterious world to me. In my years attending UU churches and training for the ministry, I’ve become learned in its ways. In fact, I’m beginning to feel a little like that student who might need to empty their cup. And I wonder: what might it take for me to see church once again as an intriguing adventure?
Although I’ve spoken about it as a discipline, rediscovering our holy curiosities does not have to be a joyless endeavor. We can begin by observing the places where we chafe, where we feel a little less comfortable than we once did. Once we find them, the real work can begin, and we can start to ask the questions that will bear truthful answers.
We were told stories about the nature of faith—about our faith—when we were children. And then we began to question those stories. Maybe not all at once; maybe it began with a doubt that wouldn’t go away. Maybe it came crashing like a waterfall, disrupting the surface of your placid pool. And question by question, your journey led you here. In time, you told new stories. Maybe you’re still writing them. You claimed new truths. Maybe you’re still finding them. You began to understand yourself in new, different, and exciting ways. You did as the Spirit, and as curiosity, led.
Where does it lead you now?
Is it pointing you out your door, or further inward?
Is it showing you how you can better show up for others in need?
Is it aiming you toward a salve for your own broken places?
Where is it leading us, together?
Maybe there’s no one answer. Perhaps nothing is that easy.
But I sure hope you have a holy curiosity to find out.
Albert Einstein, interview with William Miller in LIFE Magazine, May 1955
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536
Don W. Vaughn Foerster, "Like Pendulums We Swing," retrieved from https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/5497.shtml