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What You Don’t Know


Religion gets talked about a lot in my house. Not, however, generally by me.

It may be more sacrilegious than having or not having any particular religious beliefs to admit that I can rarely get myself worked up enough to care about the existence and/or specific nature of deity. Basically, I have trouble believing in the kind of God who would prefer me to focus on obedience and belief rather than trying to live a good, kind, helpful life, which is hard enough as it is. So, I tend to leave theology to those who find it interesting and whose brains seem better suited to it. Call it division of labor.

The thing is, I’m still attached to religious ritual. Since I grew up Unitarian Universalist, the rituals I’m familiar with and fond of span a rather wide gamut: lighting the menorah, hymn singing, maypole dancing. My mother brought us to different a Christian church every year on Christmas Eve, and come this time of year, I find myself itching for a traditional Christmas Eve church service, with scripture readings and carols and candles in flimsy white paper circles to be lit during “Silent Night.”

Partly, this is about tradition. The winter holidays are replete with things that have meaning just because we do them every year. We did many of them as children with our families and know that others are doing their own versions. In this way, the religious parts of December are pretty similar to the secular parts—decorating the tree, wassailing, drinking eggnog.

But that’s not all of it. I was challenged a while back (in one of these discussions I didn’t manage to escape soon enough) to say what use and meaning I saw in religious ritual and that loosey-goosey term “spirituality.” I didn’t know what I was going to say until I said it, but it felt right coming out: Despite being a happy agnostic with little attachment to any particular theistic system, I’m reluctant to let go of religious rituals because of the space they provide to remember and pay attention to the all the stuff I don’t know.

Choosing not to pursue one particular mystery or category of mysteries is one thing. But forgetting that there are mysteries, settling into the feeling that everything is known or knowable (or at least everything that matters), is scary. Especially as someone who makes a living either sounding off on stuff or correcting the language of other people sounding off on stuff; taking some time to pay attention to the simple fact of really big unknowns feels important to me. It is, to use an out-of-fashion word, humbling.

Last winter, Wired magazine had a cover feature called “What We Don’t Know,” in which various people reported on the current state of thinking about questions such as “How does life arise from nonlife?” and “Why do hot dogs come in packs of 10 while buns come in packs of 8 or 12?” The introduction, written by John Hodgman, who plays The Daily Show’s resident expert, is a clarion call to curiosity in “an incurious age when action and certainty (what we in scientific circles call ‘jockism’) seem to outvalue nerdish doubt and curiosity.” Those who are convinced they know everything, he wrote, become “self-satisfied, flabby, and prone to wearing tunics and lounging on grassy lawns. . . . it is questing after big answers that defines and propels us as a species.”

Words to stir any proud nerd’s heart. But to be curious, we first have to be comfortable not knowing, comfortable with ambiguity and paradox, comfortable with changing our minds in the face of new evidence. This goes for making policy, for how to be a good spouse, and for “spirituality” too, not just for scientific riddles.

When I do seek out a “spiritual experience,” from lighting a candle to a full-blown group ritual, I’m not usually looking for enlightenment (which is why the intellectual replacements for dogma don’t do it for me, even when I would, in another setting, be interested in their points). I’m not generally looking to receive a message or have a prayer answered, be strengthened in my moral resolve, or even feel deeply connected to the oneness of all things.

Those things can be important, but what is most precious to me about these kinds of spaces is stepping back from needing to know what things mean and what I’m supposed to do about them, and remembering to be humble in the face of the big questions, the big world, the complexity of the human animal.

As the New Year approaches and the 12 days of Christmas (yes, it starts on the 25th, not ends) slip by largely unnoticed, I’ll be on the lookout for times to sit with the mysteries, both the ones I want to pursue and the ones I expect to stay mysterious.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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