Kids tend to think concretely. They need to know exactly, precisely, and accurately what’s going on in the world around them. Makes me think of the old joke about a child drawing on a piece of paper. The teacher asks, “What are you drawing?” and the child responds “God.” Then the teacher says “But no one knows what God looks like, how can you know what to draw?” to which the child replies “they will when I finish my drawing.”
It’s hard to maintain this childlike need for certainty throughout the rest of our life though many people certainly do try. We want to know things like exactly when we’ll die, why bad things happen to good people, precisely where our consciousness existed before we were born, why there is anything in the universe at all rather than nothing. Some spiritual traditions cater to this innocent need and supply the exact answers. Some even say maintaining the belief despite evidence to the contrary of these answers is an act of performative faith.
Our innocent need for concrete faith causes many people to give up on religion when it is challenged or shattered by an event that doesn’t make any sense. For example, my grandmother decided to give up on religion when her sister suddenly died of breast cancer. No loving God she knew could have killed her sister. Therefore “the whole idea of religion is a bunch of comforting lies,” she told me. She is being perfectly human. Before her sister’s death religion made sense, and afterwards it didn’t, so she tossed it all out. Black or white. Yes or no. God or no meaning to life at all. Most people stay at this level of spiritual understanding. Yet spiritual maturity says that religion, like life, is mostly a grey maybe with a God that may or may not exist in any understandable form. Perhaps there is a divine purpose to our life and a reason to it all. Perhaps not.
Scientifically, most of us conform to certainty like my grandmother. Yet no spirituality is certain. Some spiritual practices will work for some of us some of the time, and then they won’t. Does that mean we should give up on it all together? Or keep searching? Are we truly looking for the answers, or is the purpose to enjoy the search itself?
Mature spirituality encourages us to embrace mystery. To accept that we are finite beings in an apparent infinite universe of possibilities and accept there are some things in our life times we will never know for sure. To continue the spiritual search for meaning is to develop our fullest creative mind because it rejects certainty. We have to keep thinking about it. Like the scientific method, we should test theory after theory after theory until we find something that works for us and for our community. And then keep testing it to make it better throughout our lives.
This embraces the eternal mystery in which more answers only bring us more questions. Perhaps, if that child spiritually matures into an adult and is drawing again, when they are asked “but no one knows what God looks like, how can you know?” The spiritually mature adult would say: “I don’t! But I’ll keep drawing anyway…”