The Big Questions

On Curiosity: The Big Questions

By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
March 26, 2017


First Reading

By Bertrand Russell

It is the things for which there is no evidence that are believed with passion. Nobody feels any passion about the multiplication tables or about the existence of Cape Horn, because these matters are not doubtful. But in matters of theology or political theory, where a rational man will hold that at best there is a slight balance of probability on one side or the other, people argue with passion and support their opinions by physical slavery imposed by armies and mental slavery imposed by schools.

Second Reading
By Unknown

O Love, I know a lot.
I can list the capitals of Europe,
thread my way through the periodic table,
and name the last names of all the artists who ever painted in Rome.
I know a lot,
but I have so few answers.
Fewer and fewer all the time.
And the questions themselves
get more convoluted, more subtle and cunning,
making me wonder if I even want to know the answers.

my footing isn’t so sure.
my map crumples into powder at my feet.
the lights go out, the engine seizes, the song is cut off.
And on those days, I don’t need Paris or Prague,
and I don’t need answers.
I don’t even need the questions.
What I need is a squeeze of my hand,
a shoulder on which to lean,
a voice that says, “We’ll do it together,”
a smile that does not say “chin up” and “be tough,”
but which simply stands close, silent,
arms draped around my stooping shoulders.
Give me no lectures on clumsiness when I stumble.
Give me no pep talks on vision when I cannot see.
Just be there, o precious Love,
whenever I am not strong enough to admit I am not strong.
Be there. Hold me. And then walk with me all the way home.—-

The man was feeling desperate.

He’d been driving for what felt like hours.

He was late.

And he couldn’t find a parking spot.

Losing hope, he ultimately cried out God, help me, I’m late, this is becoming a disaster, if you do this one thing I promise I’ll mend all my ways!”

Just then, as if by a miracle,  he catches sight of a blinker, spies the turning of a wheel, and watches with astonishment as a car pulls out right in front of building where he needs to be.

Thrilled, he calls out again: “God! Nevermind, I found one myself.”

God. What is god, who is god, Does God even exist, Or, perhaps, why do all these people keep talking about something that obviously doesn’t?!

Those are some of the questions we might have about this being this word, this concept, that plays such a role in the life of human society and has, for such a long time.

Whether or not you believe in a God who can find parking spaces or fix things for us, whether you’ve found yourself praying to something or someone in difficult moments simply for comfort and strength, or whether you utter the name of the holy only when you accidentally trip, hit your head, or stub your toe….

Whatever we think and feel about God and God’s existence or non-existence, as UU’s we are open and welcome all. Part or our new mission is exactly this: to “foster understanding and connection between people from all beliefs” – part of our mission is to create the conditions in which whatever belief I hold or she holds or you hold can be seen, honored, held, respected. Just as we respect each person who comes wanting to participate, learn and grow.

And while belief is sometimes framed as a yes or no, either/or question, the life experiences that lead to them are not always straightforward,  our faith journeys not entirely predictable.

A couple of weeks ago as part of the new UU orientation class we all got to share the story of our religious upbringing. I recounted some key moments from my own growing up years, like the time my 6th grade bible study teacher talked about the concept of faith. My family and I were living in South Korea at the time and I was attending a Southern Baptist Missionary school. Bible study was a required class. But pretty new to me. I didn’t totally get it. I didn’t always like it. Though mental slavery would be an overstatement, I did feel a little strong-armed by it sometimes.  And there were things – miracles and impossibilities, that just didn’t make sense to me as a budding scientist-engineer. So I had questions. Lotsa questions for my teacher.  Particularly, one day, about this thing called faith. So I asked and I asked and he paused and he thought and then he responded that faith means not having to ask questions. Which is when my growing resistance and all those questions  merged with my budding preteen rebellion and welled up as a gut level, full bodied “what kind of fool do you take me for” kind of feeling. Faith means not asking questions? That sounds like a simple way to get me to stop asking questions! It sounds like a side step designed to avoid critical reflection, it sounds like nonsense. Looking back it feels like a key life turning point, as part of my brain simply shut down against the the whole religion thing, right then and there, it just didn’t make sense.

Even as, at that same school, though with different teachers,  in a different place and at a later time, another part of me had a wholly separate kind of experience. I found something –  I was at bible study camp, all the cool kids went, it was fun, it was freeing, it included classes on frosting cakes and time to swim and leap off car tire swings and go for hikes in the mountains and sing my favorite Olivia Newton John songs with my best friends. And there were moments where we could rest in a lull after all of that activity and listen to some persuasive speakers sharing stories of courage and hope and redemption, who helped us connect with each other and imagine how we might open our hearts to something that could change our whole outlook on life…  It was a heady mix that I could not resist.

And so I was born again. Amazing what personal experience can do to change one’s mind.

Now, being born again meant sharing the message so I dutifully set out to convert parents & my brother and my sister with a similar passion that I’d found for myself. And discovered I wasn’t able to convert my family’s opinion on much of anything except perhaps their openness to being converted – I think my efforts only reinforced their dubiousness around the teachings I was trying so hard to promote with them.  Seems they liked being strong-armed as little as I did.

Soon after that, my family moved back to Europe, I tried a new church there, I went for a while, and I couldn’t recapture the feeling. I stopped trying to convert them or anyone else, decided that religion didn’t make all that much sense afterall, and we all moved on.


Still, looking back maybe it seems almost predestined that I should become a UU  – because we’ve got both in our history – those who were rebellious against anyone who would tell us what to do or think or feel, and those who were as moved by what they’d found in their religion as any evangelical.

You have your own religion or, lack of religion story, I know. With its own twists and turns. Perhaps yours also includes feeling strong-armed or some personal rebellion, maybe yours also includes moments of truth and connection.

Either way, when we arrive at this church one thing many have is clarity about what we don’t believe. We may not know what’s true, but we know what we’ve rejected. We, on the whole, prioritize education, reason, science. We know what does not make sense to us.

And in that way too, we are part of a long line of Unitarian Universalists,  who left the larger Christian denomination that was promoting ideas in which they no longer believed. Our forebearers said – we’re not so sure that God is a trinity, we’re not so sure that God would punish us with this thing called hell, we’re not so sure that all these miracles in the bible really happened… we’re not even all entirely sure there is even a God out there…

And so we split off of the mainstream religion of the day, along with countless others as part of  a much larger phenomenon that began about 500 years ago in 1517. That’s when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door and kicked off the Protestant Reformation.  When Christians everywhere began to define themselves one against another, peeling off from the original Catholic faith:

First lutherans, calvinists, anglicans.  Then the baptists, congregationalists, methodists,  later the pentacostals, the adventists, mennonites. It was a time that kicked off division and splitting and division and splitting so that, depending on how you define it, there are now somewhere between 10 and 33000  denominations in the world.

And that’s just Christian denominations.

There are a lot of ways to understand religion out there, and a lot of people who believe very strongly that theirs is the right way, that there is the best way. That’s why they split off in the first place.

That’s why we split off. We actually no longer even identify as a Christian denomination and in an irony of life, while there are so many belief systems we UU”s easily embrace, Christian ideas and practices can be among the harder ones, bringing out our misgivings, our dubiousness, our skepticism…

And when you add into the mix that there are Christian denominations, like our evangelical cousins, that appear to be heading 180 degrees in the opposite direction, whose focus, unlike ours, is not so much on science, logic and reason, but more on  experiences of the holy, when you realize that we and they tend to be on different sides of the political spectrum… you see one of the challenges.

That’s just one example.

There are, today, so many divergent ways of understanding the world. Such divergent philosophies in theology and politics. And there is, echoing the Bertrand Russell reading, great, passionate argument possible in all of it. On every side. We see it all around us. Lots of passion.

And as facts, and knowledge, and answers become submerged in overwhelming flows of information and misinformation, as trust in universal truths seems to be waning, as all viewpoints are, more and more, being seen as simply relative to all others, it becomes increasingly clear that just having knowledge or the “facts” is not enough to bring people together around just, fair, life-preserving and life-enhancing policies. And so, our second reading comes to mind.

I know a lot, Jan/George read, but I have so few answers. Fewer and fewer all the time. And the questions themselves get more convoluted, more subtle and cunning.

We do know a lot, but there’s so much we don’t know. About the big questions about god and religion, or the big questions about how to create jobs or big questions about how to resolve the innumerable differences between innumerable groups who have strong convictions about their particular points of view.

Or even just how to welcome all faiths, really welcome all faiths, in this place. (in our hearts)


As I was washing dishes the other day, thinking about all this, about the magnitude of the challenges in our world as well as pressuring myself about a long list of things that I needed to get done that day,  an Einstein quote popped into my mind: a problem can’t be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it. My pressured frame of mind was not likely to create new solutions. Limited thinking creates limiting solutions. And some problems – need a totally different approach. Don’t yield to formulas or simple logic. Can’t be solved by working harder or faster or smarter, with more pressured thinking, better arguments, more facts or more knowledge.

There was an article in the Economist magazine about quantum physics a couples of weeks ago. About how it is maturing and evolving practical uses, about the fact that we now know that some absolutely impossible things are real,  like, that a subatomic particle can be both here and there at the same time. That’s called “here-there-ness”  – an appropriately nonsensical name for an  illogical phenomenon in an otherwise very logical field. Or, like certain subatomic particles can be connected to others such that, even at huge distances, one impacts the other – it’s called entanglement. [[With these new understandings, the article describes, literally, quantum leaps becomes possible in what we can do – including, for example, the ability for computers to solve calculations that would take millenia for even the best supercomputers we have today. ]]


There is a theory that every 500 years there is a major shift in religion. A consciousness shift. The last one began in 1517 w Martin Luther and the protestant reformation. With all that separating & differentiating and aligning around our differences.

This year is 2017 so we are due for another shift, right about…. now.

What if that shift is a quantum one. Not one that proves, through simple facts, this is true and that is not, or through straighforward logic, I am right you are wrong, but is about a new way of connecting that, like the here-thereness of the atom, includes some “right-wrongness”? Some larger impossible paradox that nevertheless holds us all? A paradox that has room for your beliefs and mine and theirs and even though they don’t match, there’s something to all of them? Or, more important, there’s something, a very important something, to each person that holds a belief?

It makes me wonder if the ways I am sometimes unable to really see another is part of what creates an entangling dynamic in which that other or others feel unseen, alienated, separate, and split off? When I see something I don’t like in someone or a group and I deny their full humanity, and if I do that with others in large movements – might that be part of what causes another to be less able to see clearly, themselves?

500 years ago, people were living in a time where there was a need to pull apart. There needed to be a corrective to abuses of the church and people needed to self-differentiate, escape group-think, needed to engage mind as well as heart. We, as UU’s have been an important part of that.

We are living in a time when there is a need to come together. And we can be in important part of that. I wonder what happens when our focus, among different groups and theologies, is less on skeptical questioning, and more on open-hearted wondering. Less on pulling apart, more on weaving together.

For years, I took my teacher’s response to my faith question as proof that he was foolish, or closed-minded or both. Only recently have I begun to wonder whether he was actually trying to help me see something, about my own state of mind, to which I had previously been completely oblivious.

Maybe he could tell that I was looking for holes – and because I was looking I would find them. Maybe he could tell that my questioning was not of the curious but rather the skeptical kind. Maybe he could tell that my state of mind was cutting me off rather than opening me up. Maybe he wanted to help me find a way in, to a new understanding and a different experience, and I didn’t realize it.

I used to think I knew a lot. These days, once in a while, I realize that what I do not know massively eclipses what I do.

But even as I, or we, may be less able to rely on facts and knowledge to guide our world, what if we can trust our unfolding experience. Rather than giving my own beliefs about what is or isn’t true the power to separate me from others, perhaps I can allow my experience to shape a larger, growing understanding.

Maybe it’s that space in between the facts, in between the logic, beyond our current reason, where we simply need, find, and can offer, something much simpler, always available, on another plane of consciousness. Maybe that’s where we find love.

my footing isn’t so sure.
my map crumples into powder at my feet.
And o



n those days, I don’t need answers.
I don’t even need the questions.
What I need is a squeeze of my hand,
a shoulder on which to lean,
a voice that says, “We’ll do it together,”


Just b

e there, o precious Love,
whenever I am not strong enough to admit I am not strong.
Be there. Hold me. And then walk with me all the way home.