Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #15 - A mystery is something in which I am myself involved - A thought for the day

January 06, 2024 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 15
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #15 - A mystery is something in which I am myself involved - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation

Following on from last week’s thought for the day in which I reflected on Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “A Small-Sized Mystery,” I want to remain close to one of the basic points I made which was that, despite all the very bad stuff happening in our world at the moment, both at home and abroad, there always remains in play the mystery of the world’s appearance and reality which is not something that can properly or fully be understood through human categories, whether moral, philosophical, religious or scientific.

This mystery can meaningfully be called the “source of all being” and it has often been given the name “God” — but, in the creative, free spirituality (jiyū shūkyō) being practised here, there is no need to insist that this name need be used. However, in our culture, “God” is a word that is hard to avoid and, given this, I tend to follow the philosopher and religious naturalist, Henry Nelson Wieman (1884–1975), in saying that:

“Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however unknown, does certainly exist”
(Henry Nelson Wieman: Religious Experience and Scientific Method, Macmillan, 1926, pp. 9).

Now, amidst all the uncertainty in the world, it is with this mysterious “Something” that “cannot be doubted,” that I think we need to remain connected. It is also why I believe a creative, free spirituality, jiyū shūkyō, remains so vital. Along with Imaoka Shin’ichirō-sensei, who has so far most fully articulated in what consists jiyū shūkyō, I want to say clearly that:

“Whether we speak of gods or Buddhas (神とか仏とか) or not, it is the attitude of life that one must stand on the foundation of something ultimate to carry out everyday living that is, I believe, a religious attitude” (‘What does it mean to “base education on religion”?’ in “Seisoku’s Education,” 1967).

But, given that our culture, quite rightly, places such a high value on the use of reason and evidence, it’s really hard to push against the idea that the mystery of life, and this mysterious, primordial “Something,” is a kind of problem that can be solved using the aforementioned human moral, philosophical, religious or scientific categories. Especially important in all of these categories is, of course, the use of reason and evidence. 

However, it’s vitally important not to lose sight of the fact that, although there are problems which arise in life that need to be analysed and, if possible, solved with the aid of reason and evidence, the mystery of life is not a problem to be solved but something very, very different. 

But, if life is not a problem to be solved, then what is it?

Well, I don’t think I’ve come across a more pithy and accessible answer to this question than that proffered by the philosopher and Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973) who said:

“A problem is something which I meet, which I find completely before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity” (Being and Having, p. 117).

But, one of the great problems within the Enlightenment-inspired liberal religious tradition in which this community stands, especially as it has unfolded into the modern scientific age, is that, to quote one of Marcel’s students, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999), it so often failed to see that “our experience of the world involves us in a mystery which can be intelligible to us only as a mystery” (Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning, p. 76). The failure of liberal religion, when it has occurred, lies, not in valuing highly reason and evidence, but in the over-estimation of their reach. They have their esteemed and useful places, but their limits need frankly always to be acknowledged . . . or trouble will follow. To my mind, no one has put this insight better than John Locke (1632-1704) in his introduction to his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690):

“When we know what our muscular strength is, we shall have a better idea of what physical tasks we can attempt with hopes of success. And when we have thoroughly surveyed the powers of our own minds, and made some estimate of what we can expect from them, we shan’t be inclined either to sit still, and not set our thoughts to work at all, in despair of knowing anything or to question everything, and make no claim to any knowledge because some things can’t be understood. It is very useful for the sailor to know how long his line is, even though it is too short to fathom all the depths of the ocean. It is good for him to know that it is long enough to reach the bottom at places where he needs to know where it is, and to caution him against running aground. . . .”

As a product of the liberal religious tradition — particularly during the pandemic as I, along with other family members, helped nurse my wife’s daughter through her final days of life — I began to realise just how ill-equipped I was in this regard. As the pandemic ran on, I took the opportunity to look back through my archive of addresses stretching back more than twenty years, and I began to see how for too much of the time, religion had shown up to me primarily as a problem to be solved. Consequently, many of my words now appear to be like examples of a dog endlessly worrying at a bone the goodness of which has long been wholly extracted. For that, I must express my sincere and profound regret and apologies.

I saw that religion, and by extension, spirituality, had basically become to me — as it had to many of my historical liberal forebears and contemporary colleagues — simply a problem which I met, which I thought I could find completely before me, and to which I could lay siege and reduce to simple answers solely through the use of reason and evidence. I foolishly failed to see that these essential plumb lines, which helped me not run aground when sailing close to the shore, in the middle of the ocean — that is to say in the midst of the mystery of life — simply couldn’t work. I realised I needed more fully to heed the poet John Keats’ (1795-1821) prescient reminder that for human beings to live most fully and creatively they needed to remain “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” This is, of course, Keats vitally important idea of “negative capability.”

Now, alongside the use of reason and evidence, humanity has, of course, always needed to nurture this negative capability — this willingness to accept “our experience of the world involves us in a mystery which can be intelligible to us only as a mystery.” But in today’s science and technology driven world, when the problems we need to solve using reason and evidence are so many and huge — and, potentially, so overwhelming — it is vital that liberals, who have abandoned formal, traditional religion in their millions, are offered ways by which, with a clean heart and full belief (pathos), they can regularly come back home into a community that is consciously centred on the mysterious “Something” upon which all life depends.

And it is here that I think we find the great contemporary relevance of the kind of creative, free spirituality (jiyū shūkyō) I am trying to articulate and practice here with you. It is because jiyū shūkyō, even as it continues to affirm the vital role of reason and evidence in human life, always also remains willing to acknowledge, and bow reverently and with gratitude to, the profound mystery of life, to that “Something” which cannot be doubted, and upon which all things depend.