Questions and answers

I have been delighted lately that this our congregation has truly become a community with children. It makes me happy because being intergenerational means we are bringing in the more of the world - we are not leaving people out. I am also happy because children bring more energy, more enthusiasm, and they help us more jaded grown-ups to see the world from a different perspective.


Now, I shared fully in the raising of a child and I know all too well that it's not all delightful. This is not only true at home but also in places like this. In congregations accustomed to more quiet, the gurgling, talking, banging, and crying that comes along with the wonders of childhood can sometimes feel a bit of a disruption. And that's something that we commit to accept because of the importance of those small people to our lives and to the future of our world.  And it's not all that different from the way we commit to accept the foibles that come along with each age in the human journey. I will not be so indelicate as to detail the challenges that come along the way - use your imagination.


Now, those of you who have every had a close acquaintance with a child of about three years of age know one of the ways they force us to consider things from a different perspective - the magic word "why?"


This word appears as children realise there are causes to things and explanations behind events. They come to recognise that there are ways of making sense of the world and they begin looking for that understanding everywhere.


Sometimes "why?" becomes the response to just about everything you say. You quickly descend down a spiral of explanations that may - occasionally - end with an impatient "because it just is!"


Children are endlessly curious as they explore a world that is really completely new to them.


What about grown-ups. Do we lose that curiosity? I think we do start to become accustomed to the fact that we're not going to get answers to a lot of our "why" questions, but that doesn't mean those questions don't still persist.


In this month that we have dedicated to questions and answers, today's exploration is of that question: why?


Why are we here?


Why is anything here at all?


As I get older, there are more and more often times when I walk up or downstairs, arrive, look around and say "why am I here?" But that's not the kind of question I have in mind exactly.

The questions gets to what is our purpose - it enquires about the very nature of our being alive.  Is there a purpose to our existence?


It is easy to dismiss these kinds of questions as the pastime of intellectuals with too much time on their hands. Maybe if they had a few three year olds chirping "why, why, why?" all day, they'd be cured of this foolish obsession.


But there is much more to the "why?" question. You don't have to be someone who sits in great leather armchairs with a brandy and a cigar to ask such questions. Maybe the rest of us don't state the question quite so plainly - maybe we don't wander about philosophically asking everyone we meet " what is the meaning of life?" but, in different words or without words at all, we wonder about it nonetheless. 


Our answers to the "why?" question has everything to do with what we feel we should do in this world, how we feel we should live, and how we can possibly respond to a world that is full of both astounding beauty and hideous pain.


The great 20th century Christian mystic, Thomas Merton, tells us that our purpose is who we are:

"If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for."


The lack meaning in life - the lack of an answer to "why?" is like going on a journey without a wonderful destination in mind.  If you've travelled anywhere - even to another city - you know that travel can be very hard. You try to buy at ticket online and the site is down. You finally get to the site, and you can't find a reasonable fare. You finally find an acceptable fare and your card doesn't work. You finally get it to work - maybe with 15 minutes on the phone to your bank - and you buy the ticket. Hurray. Print it. Uh oh... printer's out of ink and you don't have any more... This is before you've even left your house!! If you don't have a sense of a great destination - whether you will ever get there or not - you will obviously give up quickly.


Humankind has long wrestled with the "why?" question and yearned for a motivating sense of meaning and purpose. I told an abbreviated creation story in the time for all ages. Every culture has created such stories. They felt a tremendous need to understand why they were here, where they came from, and what that meant for their lives. Those stories answered the question for them - they gave people a place, a story, and a purpose.


In today's world, we find a broad mix of perspectives. In many places in the world, humans have the understanding that we are here because God had a special plan for us. For those who believe it, this can be a powerfully motivating framework for living their lives. 


In other places - in religions arising in the Indian subcontinent - we are here because the circles of birth and rebirth and the karmic accumulation of our previous lives put us here. 

For many in the more technologically developed countries of the world, "why are we here?" is answered by scientific explanations. And many others feel that a scientific understanding of creation would demean human existence - empty it of all meaning.  They feel that the value-blind, ruthless process of evolution gives us no greater reason for being than any other creature. Without that mission, that divine nudge, they find life's sorrows harder to bear and less reason to keep trying to make things better.


The yearning for an explanation of origins is not a vain pastime and it is not a sign of ignorance. It is a plaintive cry of "who am I?" and "why is my life worth living?" and "what will give meaning to this existence" - we long for meaning.


Not too surprisingly, we find that when supernatural and scientific views of creation come into contact, there is often friction. Is that a surprise? If my world view is that my life is giving meaning because God created me in God's image, then that organises my whole outlook on the world. I can't let anything endanger that perspective. It would risk pulling my whole life's foundation out from under me.


Hence the pitched battles about science vs. creationism. It's not just stubbornness, it's the critical role played by our understandings of who we are and why we are here.


Some of the scientific side also recognise the importance of the inspiring, meaning-giving, story. The scientific perspective does not make one immune to the need for meaning or make unimportant the sustaining role of seeing a special place for humankind.


Brian Swimme is one of these others. He tells the story of creation from a perspective that is both scientific and awe-inspiring.

"...just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a flower, we are the universe in the form of a human. And every time we are drawn to look up in the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself. And this changes everything."


The "why?" question has no answer. It is a question that seeks not an explanation for living but a motivation - not a cold, mechanical accounting but a rich, inspiring mythology - not a road-map, but a glowing, attracting, vision of a direction.


Without purpose and meaning, how can we cope with the pain of life, with the disappointment, with the grief, with the very fact that our lives will end and that we don't know when or what - if anything - we may leave behind.


Religions have given us two strategies for coping with such questions. The monotheistic faiths told us we have a purpose. Other faiths, such as Buddhism, teach about how to be here in each moment without attachment to outcomes.


"I have considered the lilies of the field

and all flowers, their delicate transience,

how they do not labor

how they know no purpose  but themselves,

and in themselves they are complete."


So writes Jane Pearn. Can we live like this too? Without, as she puts it, neither "...a god of story nor a striving toward some imagined end."


Wisdom thus offers us two different kinds of answers to the question "why?" Find a myth that pulls you forward or learn to live in and with the glory of the present moment.

Be thankful that you are in a Unitarian congregation. This means you don't have to choose one or the other of these approaches to finding meaning!


In fact, the best way to live is probably a combination of the two - to be in a place where we have an understanding of the wondrousness and specialness of our existence drawing us forward and also an ability to be right where we are - accepting and treasuring each moment as it is. 


That is a difficult balancing act, but it is an important one.


Whether we find an answer or not, we must all engage with the "why?" question if we are to survive. 


Without doing so, we live a life devoid of meaning and purpose - a life where each sorrow sends us reeling for lack of a solid foundation.


The alternative that so many fall into is a life with no other meaning than momentary thrills. Such a life is the equivalent of a diet rich in junk food. There are some great momentary highs, but nothing to sustain us for the long haul. When the sugar wears out or the latest toy rapidly loses its appeal, we need the depth and complexity of whole grains and protein! We need a rich and complex understanding to our lives to enable us to carry on - to keep on moving forward.


And this, we do together. This big question we face with hands joined - with hearts open - ready to embrace what comes. We face it with minds open - neither ready to believe or anything or so sceptical as to believe nothing. We do this with arms open, ready to support one another when we falter.


We keep on moving forward with purpose, with meaning, with love, together.