A relationship with any living thing involves a certain degree of mystery, since there is a capriciousness inherent in living things: an unknown quantity. It is this unknown which allows for new creations to appear – both good and bad.
Human beings have difficulty with the unknown, because it’s impossible to predict whether it will be positive or negative. In fact, anything obscure, mysterious, or strange, provokes a certain displeasure in the conscious mind; the mind simply wants to know.
When faced with an unknown, the mind will “invent” knowledge as a way of coping: a kind of “temporary knowledge” which can mollify the awful mystery of things, at least for a while. We see this trait very beneficially employed in the sciences, where it is used to formulate new theories, describe natural behavior, etc.
But this trait is far more pervasive than being used in just the sciences; it is not confined to only hypotheses which are employed to help explain the physical universe. Everything unknown has a belief system associated with it to help us deal with our ignorance. For example, we presume that the future will take a certain course, in order that we can predict with a feeling of relative certainty where we will be in two days, or two weeks; we use classifications and stereotypes to help us demystify the opposite sex, foreign cultures, other nationalities, etc.
In the face of the grandest Unknown, we make the baldest assumptions of all. There is nothing so perfectly beyond our grasp as the essence of God’s mystery. Yet the fact that we even mention His name during discussion betrays a puzzling paradox. Lao Tzu said it very succinctly: “The truth that can be talked about is not the Eternal Truth; the name which can be named is not the Eternal Name.”
It is a tricky problem to realize that the belief systems which we invent are not identical with the mysteries they attempt to clarify. Newton’s laws of gravity, for example, do not give us any knowledge about gravity itself. They represent a series of beliefs which happily coincide with the behavior of some unknown quantity, to such a degree that we can put those observations to practical use. But they do not inform; they only describe.
Likewise, our feeling of a stable tomorrow, based on the experience of so many yesterdays, is equally flawed. We do not know – we can never know – what will come tomorrow. All we have is a weak set of beliefs to shield us from the terrible uncertainty of the future.
The fact that these opinions about reality seem to work relatively well is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that they allow us to move forward, and to advance ever farther into the domain of the undiscovered. The tragedy is that we implicitly, after years of confirmation and familiarity, begin to mistake these opinions for truth. Once this occurs – when an opinion, bearing only a shadow-resemblance to truth, is misconstrued as the truth itself – then any future knowledge, if it does not resemble as our tried-and-true opinions, is misunderstood to be false.
Gravity was so well described by Newton, that people began to assume that his description must be close to the truth. But opinions have nothing to do with truth, except maybe as a mirror which reflects the light, or a lantern that carries light into the dark regions of the world. When Einstein presented his fundamental idea that gravity was not a true force, but merely a phenomenon resulting from a curvature in space-time, perhaps the flame was a little brighter, but the lantern had changed. People looked at the new lantern, housing Einstein’s theory, and they compared it to Newton’s. Finding that they were hugely dissimilar, and because Newton’s ideas had been mistaken for truth, Einstein was rejected.
Fortunately for science, it is possible to devise experiments that allow two, differing theories to be compared. It was discovered ultimately that space-time does curve, and people then accepted that Newton’s theory was just a working approximation, meant for only low-gravity situations.
But what about our more intangible beliefs, which are not so easy to prove or disprove? Our ideas about the future are so firmly rooted, for example, that we plan our lives according to how we think things will be twenty years down the road. How can we convince ourselves that this is only a working model, suitable only for rough guesses?
Or what about God. Everything that hides behind that word represents the roughest approximation of all. If we find ourselves considering for a moment that when we talk about God we are really talking about God, we should shrink away in horror. What can we possibly mean when we utter that word, “God”? We have no direct experience with the Unexperiencable. The finite cannot embrace the Infinite. At best, we use that word as it was used by the Prophets, but even Their language is one of utter mystery on that subject.
The relationship that we have with God, and which is strengthened and deepened by religion, is one of perfect mystery. We simply cannot know. Yet the mind is horrified by not knowing, so something must be invented to fill the vacuum.
This invention I would call our private ideologies. We take in what our culture says, what the Holy Books declare, what our life teaches us, and what our hearts confirm; and we distill from this mixture a kind of woefully incomplete conception that we then give the name of “God”. We imagine we know – at least, according to our ideology – when this fictitious being is angry with us, pleased with us, what He wants us to do, not do, etc.
The really bizarre piece of this puzzle is that our conception of God – which we invented as a way of at least beginning to approach Him – is what keeps us farther away than anything else. Because the real God is at all times so radically different from the picture in our minds, that even if He were to knock on our front door, we wouldn’t stand the slightest chance of recognizing Him.
Consider the past. People prayed day and night, devoted their lives to anticipating the coming of the Messiah, and then killed Him when He arrived. Mullá Husayn, one of the foremost, most dedicated followers of Siyyid Kázim, failed to recognize the Báb until He Himself made it plain Who He was. These people did not have an aversion to the truth. Many of them were intelligent, thoughtful, and devoted. But they had presumed their ideas to be, due to the weight of tradition and evidence, equal to the truth itself. This had the result of making the actual truth, when it came again in another form, foreign to them.
We as human beings are never able to deal with the truth directly. Since we are finite, we are condemned to relate to truth through a thick veil. Every philosopher of the past has attempted to penetrate this barrier; every mystic has defied himself, striving to clear away this final obstruction. But for as long as we remain finite, our understanding will be finite, and therefore the very best we can do is to develop opinions which will bring us ever closer to the truth.
For this progression to occur we must forever be abandoning the old to accept the new. As Lao Tsu observed, “Keep empty and you will be filled.” It is by learning to cultivate emptiness that we prepare ourselves for the influx of new ideas. In this pursuit, even our most sacred assumptions must be cast off for the sham they are (in comparison to truth). They may serve us for a while, and act as a guide along the way, but once they begin to mislead us they become our worst liability.
The essence of our relationship to truth is one of embracing mystery, and of accepting the unknown. This does not mean that we empty our minds of opinion – since we use those opinions to relate to the outside world – but that we realize the nature of what we call “knowledge”. When we accept that the content of our brains is essentially meaningless in the face of the Unknown, then we can discover a new flexibility which will allow us to free ourselves from these old opinions – in order to embrace new ones – at an ever increasing rate. In this way, we may each day discover a new mystery.
There is no blame to be given for mistaking opinions as truth. This is a natural propensity of the human mind. But we must accustom our tastes to the unknown, for the mystery of Who God really is is something that we would never guess in a million years.
Fortunately, we are given a starting point, and guideposts along the way, by the Messengers of God. In their language, we are taught the disciplines necessary, and the evidences to look for, to guide us along this darkest of paths. To a perfect eye it may be “the Straight Path”, but we begin it blind, and with no ability adequately to judge our progress.
Those outside the Faith often look at the ideologies developed and proposed by others, and realize how untrue they are (in the strict sense of “true”). Yet, at the same time, they also suffer the mistake of confusing those descriptions with the thing described. And so, in rejecting these fallacious assumptions made by all of us about the nature of God, they unfortunately also turn away from any further contemplation on what the truth of God’s existence might be.
We all fall into this trap. None of us, by calling ourselves a believer, is freed from the constant error we make in assuming that we truly know anything. It is only a tragedy that the words “faith”, “religion”, and “God” have become so misrepresented that the world is no longer interested. But these words have no relation to the realities they attempt to describe, except as guesses made by very innocent creatures! We are all innocent, when the true depth of these things is weighed in the balance. What knowledge can we have? Then it is up to each individual to determine for him or herself whether these words have any truth behind them. Though the belief may be utterly false, what it is based on might genuinely exist.
This is the question the world must ask: not “does the God described by religion really exist?”, because that God does not exist: He is only a description, devoid of life; rather, we must ask: “does religion point to a further understanding of what life is really about?” The issue of God will naturally come up during such an investigation, but “knowing God” is not what religion is about. Religion seeks only to further the spiritualization of men and mankind. It claims that our life does not end in death, and that the significance of this world will be discovered later. Is this true? Are there any tests that can be applied to validate these assumptions?
Those are the critical questions, I believe. If we focus on God, and whether or not He exists, we are asking a question which can never be answered truthfully, since “the name which can be named is not the Eternal Name”. The moment we debate God, we are merely playing with the vain conceptions of an ignorant species.
It is the significance of the question – what it implies – that deserves our attention. The value of Newton’s laws had nothing to do with gravity, or whether gravity truly existed. The importance lay in the impact that those laws had on society. That those laws reflected a glimmer of the truth was only a beautiful detail; instead, their value lay in their efficacy, or relative value to society. And the value to science was that it allowed us to plumb the depths a little deeper.
Religion does relate to God, but it does not offer us an understanding of Him – nor does it try to. The value of religion is that it is the only agency which can universely transform the hearts of men; while its future value is that it introduces us, step by step, into a further understanding of the meaning of life, and the role of our selves and the Creator. But we do not know these things; we only opine. We opine, and we labor to better ourselves, that some day we might appreciate the Great Mysteries to a fuller degree.
Hence the essence of any living relationship – of ourselves to God, or of our minds to truth – lies in accepting the fundamental mystery that we can never ultimately know the truth of anything. All of it is just a working hypothesis – however stable its foundation might be – and should be discarded as soon as we outgrow it.
The world looks at some of our older conceptions of “God” and “religion”, and turns away in disgust. Who can blame them? If I thought these ideas were attempting to describe the truth of the matter, I would run as fast as I could. But the real issue lies elsewhere. Reject the conception, but don’t discard the concept. Forget the package it came in, but do try to discover the meaning of the gift. There is more to be found here – by everyone. The question is: how far will your efforts take you?