For whatever reasons, I have long been fascinated by what I think of as the “Big Questions.” Is there a God, and what is he like, or He, if you will (using the masculine for want of a better, more inclusive pronoun)? What happens after death? Is there eternal life, a thing taught by most religions? What, if anything, is the meaning of life, and how do we understand or achieve it, or align ourselves with it? Why are we here in the first place? Who created us? What sustains us? What do we actually mean when we say that we are alive? What is consciousness? How did life come about? How did the universe itself begin, and will it someday end?
I have read whatever I could find in both scientific and what might be called mystical literature, and I have meditated as well for most of my adult life, trying to grapple with even one of these questions. I cannot tell you that I have found the answer. Perhaps it is not given to any human being to be able to lay such a claim. I believe there will, in fact, always be mysteries that we cannot grasp and fully understand with our limited human intelligence. Having said that, however, I still believe that this in no way means that we ought not to keep on trying.
As I get older, I have become more comfortable with the idea of mystery, (or again Mystery, if you prefer), what some mystics of the Middle Ages called the Mysterium Tremendum. Nietzsche famously claimed that God was dead. What could he have meant by that? Some consider Nietzsche to be a kind of secular mystic, an individual who had somehow gotten beyond the need, if that is the right word, for a personal God. If that is so, what he was able to achieve was an understanding of a Being beyond all characteristics that can be assigned by mere human categorization. In that sense, it could be said that any anthropomorphized view of God that he may once have held had died.
But today philosophy itself is, in a sense, also dead. The big questions that philosophers like Nietzsche and Kant, all the way back to Aristotle, once concerned themselves with have been taken over by scientists. Aside from the great mystics, physicists like Stephen Hawking now hold center stage in delving into the Great Mystery. And the answers they give, as well as the questions they pose, must give all of us pause.
Let us look for a moment, as an example, at the beginning of the universe. Unless one posits esoteric and not well understood notions of so-called imaginary time, most scientists think that there was a beginning to the universe at an event called the Big Bang. This event is thought of as a “singularity,” meaning a point in space-time at which the space-time curvature is infinite. What “came before” the Big Bang is therefore not a question that science can grapple with, inasmuch as all known laws of physics break down. Who is to say that a Divine Spirit may have not have been, as it were, the initial energy of this initial singularity? And, as to the question of who (or Who) made the Divine Spirit, such a question makes little sense, inasmuch as it assumes a “time before time.” This puts us back again to an anthropomorphized view of “God,” that is, of some being (or Being) who operates within the limits of human understanding, or even of the laws of physics.
The question all this raises, at least in my mind, is what may be the possibility of knowing this “God beyond God”? Mystics the world over, of every religious stripe and tradition, as well as outside of any religious tradition, all point to experiences they have had which seems to answer “yes” to this question. But this ultimately has to be left to each individual to know or to experience for him or herself. If it is to happen, every mystic must ultimately be willing to “kill God,” that is, to move beyond formerly constructed conditions, notions, or images of God, to what is beyond, or more than, or simply outside of all such every day human categories.
And what of life, too? I recently read a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times about subterranean bacteria found in a portion of the Lechuguilla Cave deep within Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. There scientists have discovered bacteria which have lived and thrived for at least 4 million years in total darkness with almost no water. Life has been known to thrive, too, at great depths in the world’s oceans under conditions which we normally consider to be totally inimical to it. The question this raises is not so much how that is, but more so, why that is. What does it mean? If virtually all of our experience points to the fact that life requires sunlight in order to exits, how do we explain life that needs no sunlight? And what does that do to our definition of what it means to “be alive”? Does living mean being able to grow? If so, are crystals alive, since we know that under the right conditions they grow? Indeed, everything that is physical consists of atoms and molecules and their smaller subparts, elementary particles such as protons and neutrons and quarks. These in a sense grow by combining with each other, and they move as well. Indeed, they are in constant motion. Could it be that everything, all matter, is in some sense alive? Could it be said that it is imbued with the life or the energy of the Divine Spirit, that God who is beyond all of our notions of God?
As I’ve said above, I have no absolute answers to these Big Questions. However, I believe that grappling with them is one of the most meaningful things that a human being can do. Of course, at some point it is necessary to accept the fact that we will never be able to plumb such questions to their very core. Not that this is an excuse for ceasing to try, or for throwing up our hands and saying that it’s all impossible.
Mystery and our attempts to understand it have always been and will always be a sublime part of what it means to be alive. In my view, most religions are inclined to give simplistic answers to the Big Questions. We are told to believe in this dogma or that, in this incarnation of the Divine or that, and that He (almost always masculine) is the one and only true God. I do not wish to claim here that there may not also be some good found in organized religion. And if people feel that they need the support of a structured system, of a hierarchy that interprets for them, or of a book that is believed to be inspired, then who am I to say they are wrong? But what I am talking about is beyond questions of right or wrong; I am trying to address what lies beneath, or beyond, or outside the categories we normally associate with religion.
That is surely what is meant by the Mysterium Tremendum, the Holy Grail, the Cup that endless refills itself. This knowledge is what is most worthy to strive for in life, even as we know that, at least with our every day human intelligence, it is a goal beyond our reach. But if the great scientists of the world are right, we need to strive all the same, although this may be one place where science and mysticism part ways. Scientists reason and make hypotheses, they test and experiment and observe and verify, while mystics sit and look within. Both approaches have their champions, as well as their benefits. In the end, perhaps it all comes down to intent. What is it that we think is most important?
There’s no doubt that humans seem more inclined to talk and to act than they do to sit and listen. But either way, the Big Questions remain with us, and they await our humble and our thoughtful consideration.