Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Walking in the Dark

- At the Desert Retreat House -

I was in a store yesterday and noticed all sorts of “Back to School” sales going on. Out here in the desert region where we live,  the kids already went back to school yesterday and soon students all across the country will do the same.

As I think about school starting up once again, I reflect on the “almost ludicrous” way in which we have come to envision the process of education in our culture – students sitting at desks opening up their brains for teachers to pour knowledge and information into them. We think about the educational process as an “acquisition of knowledge,” and we assume that the more "schooling” you get, the more knowledge you acquire until you figure it all out.

Actually, I don’t think that this even comes close to how the education process really works. As I see it, the more you learn and know should always lead you to a deeper wisdom about just how much you don’t know and how much more there is to learn about everything in life.

The doctor I see is a mentor to several medical students and on a recent visit to his office I had an insightful conversation with him about the importance of teaching prospective doctors the value of embracing uncertainty in their profession. He told me about a trend that started about 30 years ago when a professor at the University of Arizona introduced a course called “An Introduction to Ignorance,” mandatory for all incoming med students to help them realize that, while they may think they are in school to learn all there is to know about the human body, the opposite is probably true.

Medicine, like all scientific knowledge is quite limited and filled with more questions than answers. There is much that we don’t know about diseases and healing, and on top of that we all keep changing and evolving so the practice of medicine involves lots of guessing and experimenting. In fact, the best doctors are those who see don’t see unresolved questions as roadblocks but as doorways to further exploration.

I am reminded of something Columbia Professor Stuart Firestein once said about the role of “uncertainty” in the field of science, suggesting that scientific discovery is not the neat and linear process many may imagine; instead it always involves:

..feeling around in dark rooms,
bumping into unidentifiable things,
looking for barely perceptible phantoms.

As I see it, this wonderfully refreshing understanding about scientific endeavors is perhaps even more aptly applied to the study of theology and to the spiritual quest.

It seems somewhat odd to me that while many physicians and scientists today admit to how little they actually know and embrace the mystery of it all, many religious people have moved in the opposite direction. They have “hunkered down,” clinging to their sure and certain answers about who “God” is and what “God” expects.

And yet, “God” is the ultimate mystery. In fact there is nothing about “God” that can ever be figured out, never any clear-cut, immutable answers.  “God” is the mysterious transcendence that cannot even be named let alone known or defined.

Personally I think every seminary and school of religion in the country should follow the example of the various schools of medicine and science and teach their students a mandatory course about embracing uncertainty - Ignorance:101.  Maybe such a course should be offered to anyone who attends a church or temple or a mosque.

Many people may feel as if they have failed when their quest for God leaves them with more questions and perhaps even doubts about what they already know. I say they have progressed into the next phase of their journey.

Many centuries ago, St. John of the Cross described the spiritual quest in this way:

If a person wants to be sure of the road he treads on,
he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.

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