The Great Unknowing

© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen

Centering Thoughts:

We are all visitors to this time, this place… Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love and then we return home. Australian Aboriginal proverb 

I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery, than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it. Harry Emerson Fosdick (UU)

Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt. Paul Tillich

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Rachel Carson

Story: A telling of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime story of Rainbow Serpent waking up


After moving to Tahiti, the French artist Paul Gauguin saw how island life contrasted greatly with his European roots. While there, questions came to mind previously asked by a school teacher: “Where did we come from?” “What are we?” and, “Where are we going?” These were prompts for students to reflect on the nature of life. A Gaugin painting features these questions. (Painting shown on monitors).

A close-up of the questions sits below the painting and is its title. Now held by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, they write:

In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, seeking in the South Seas a society that was simpler and more elemental than that of his homeland. In Tahiti, he created paintings that express a highly personal mythology. He considered this work—created in 1897, at a time of great personal crisis—to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas. Gauguin’s letters suggest that the fresco-like painting should be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant. He describes the various figures as pondering the questions of human existence given in the title; the blue idol represents “the Beyond.” The old woman at the far left, “close to death,” accepts her fate with resignation.

The human life cycle answered Gaugin’s painted questions, an obvious statement of fact—we’re born, we live, we die.

But my guess is that when you and I sing these questions we’re likely thinking of bigger questions with less obvious answers. I know I am.

(Hymn #1003 lyric slide shown)

In asking, “Where do we come from?” I’m asking, “Why does the universe exist?” and “Why am I here?”

In asking, “What are we?” I’m asking, “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is the nature of humanity?”

In asking, “Where are we going?” I’m asking, “Is there life after death?” and “Does my life matter?”

I ask these, and many more questions, because we Unitarian Universalists never receive a definitive truth text or travel guide for our journeys through life. Even though I realize no single Truth exists, it doesn’t mean we should stop asking the questions or seeking the answers.

(Congregation sings first verse of #1003)

When we ask ultimate questions like these, we’re doing theology. Narrowly, theology means the study of God. Broadly, it refers to ultimate concerns, all our beliefs, not just the possible nature of a God. Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Gilbert, author of Building Your Own Theology, a primary resource for our “This I Believe” classes, explains why exploring these questions is vital. He writes:

We fail to do our theological homework at our peril. Without a deep-rooted theology, this tumultuous world in which we live will be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. … Religion is that core of ultimate meanings, values, and convictions to which we commit our lives. (BYOT, page xiii)

In short, our beliefs matter because they inform our understanding and guide our actions. If our professed beliefs don’t match our actions, they’re not only worthless, they hide a set of actual beliefs.

Ancient people wondered how mountains form, what happens to the sun each night, and why we die. Like the Australian aboriginal story of the Rainbow Serpent, ancient stories provided pre-scientific answers to life’s mysteries.

Religious stories explain a people’s relationship to the gods or God, the Earth, and other creatures. The Genesis creation stories are one example. Stories tell people how to please the gods to prevent disaster, show gratitude for the fruits of the Earth, and live in harmony with one another. The Ten Commandment story, for example. The answers in these stories gave ancients a sense of control over their lives and eliminated some of life’s mystery. Religious myths also suggest rituals to bond the community, rites of passage to mark significant events, and hope in an afterlife to ease grief over a loss.

Although science has answered many ancient questions, many remain unanswered. In this we are no different than our ancestors. Beliefs, whether we call them religious or not, give life meaning and direction. Our theology or beliefs are the lens through which we see and understand the world.

(Congregations sings second verse of #1003)

If you’ve come to Unitarian Universalism to receive that travel guide of truth statements which eliminates the need to do your own theology, you’ve come to the wrong religion.

Instead, we give you travel companions and wayside markers to guide your journey. As the Fourth Principle urges, we undertake a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. We, your companions, form a community that provides boundaries and accountability, preventing anyone from straying into unacceptable or outlandish territory. Contrary to popular belief, UUs cannot believe anything.

We know something is unacceptable if it conflicts with one of our Seven Principles or values. For example, if you believe ethnic genocide justifiable, that conflicts with our First Principle which affirms the inherent worth of every person. If you believe little green men from outer space should be worshiped in our sanctuaries, we might consider that outlandish…at least until we see those little green men. As we say, revelation is not sealed.

A community provides opportunities for the creative exchange of ideas, for their refinement, and for ideas to be challenged, perhaps prompting reconsideration of some beliefs. I encourage you to sign up for adult education classes and Small Groups, engage in random conversations over coffee or meals, and attend services like the Forum and Worship. I hope you’ll participate in what you can.

I said earlier our beliefs matter, even if they change during our lives. Besides giving guidance for our lives, such as whether to love our neighbors as ourselves, our beliefs and community can provide comfort, hope, and a sense of grounding, especially when times seem difficult or chaotic. If you believe humans are basically good, then you can hope for a better future to come. If you believe a god will reward good behavior when you die, it gives meaning to the good you do for one another now. If you believe what we do affects the planet and all living things, it might stop you from exploiting Earth’s riches for personal gain. Beliefs inform our relationships, what’s expected of us, and how we understand the world. That’s a firm foundation for a confident walk through life.

(Congregations sings third verse of #1003)

Unitarian Universalism embraces freedom of religion and the right of conscience to believe what you must, not what you’re told. We are heretics because we choose what to believe, its root meaning. Ours is called a liberal religion because we are liberated from orthodoxy and fundamentalism. However, freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion or beliefs.

Despite my certainty that beliefs matter, admittedly, I enjoy a degree of not-knowing. I like, as our first Source describes, the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

Incomplete or absent answers means I exist in a misty fog cloaking all that is. That I exist without absolutely knowing why elicits my wonder, awe and appreciation for life. My spirit finds renewal in recognizing I am part of this miracle of existence. This Great Unknowing or Mystery calls me into the paradox of both wanting and not wanting answers to my questions.

(Slide of people gazing up at the night sky)

When I look up into the twinkling night sky, I feel I’m looking into that awesome Mystery. Its distant, dark empty spaces whisper to me, “Mystery…Mystery.” Similarly, years ago when I stood in the circle of gray-blue giant stones forming Stonehenge, they also whispered to me, “Mystery…Mystery.” Somehow, that mysterious sense of not knowing made me feel more connected, more a part of something larger than myself.

Life is full of mystery, riddles to be untangled, puzzles to be solved, knowledge to be gained. Perhaps that’s the purpose of life.

May this community provide you with a foundation for the questions you ask and the answers you seek, perhaps leaving a few unanswered.

May you enjoy the journey, even if you have no idea where it’s leading. None of us truly know, though we do know, we travel together.

Questions for Reflection & Discussion

  1. What of life’s eternal questions or mysteries do you seek answers to? What answers have you found that are meaningful to you, or guide your life in some way?
  2. Do you feel mystery is an essential component of life and worthy of being celebrated? Explain.
  3. Share with someone an experience of mystery or wonder that had a significant impact on you.