Philosophy often takes hits for trying to answer the great questions. There is a sense that we can somehow develop an intellectual formulation that can explain this basically infinite reality we call the Cosmos.
However, my training in philosophy centered around Immanuel Kant’s assertion that “The mind can ask questions that it can’t answer.” In other words, the emphasis I received taught me that asking the great questions is still important because the act of questioning itself opens us to an experience of reality only possible when we acknowledge that we don’t know.
My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, wrote:
“That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of trees.”
One of the reasons I love her poetry so much is that she acknowledges the great questions while bowing to the mysteries that can be experienced at times, but never articulated as intellectual formulations.
My growing love for poetry stems from the fact that it lends itself to pointing to the experience of everyday mysteries we can open ourselves to without making dogmatic statements. Even the very form of poetry lends itself to multiple interpretations.
The great religious scholar Karen Armstrong asks an important question: “What if all of the religious texts of the world were experienced as poetry rather than prose?” It seems to me that if religion dropped dogmatic beliefs and replaced them with means to open ourselves to mystery and wonder, we could have avoided all the religious wars fought over who was right and who was wrong in their understanding of God.
I am concerned about the growing ties of religion with nationalism. It is very dangerous. It has a long history of ugliness. To see this growing movement in the United States and other parts of the world frightens me because we know — if we are wise — what it will lead to.
To remember that we do not know is one of the important roles that philosophy can play in our lives. If we learn to love the questions more than the answers, we open ourselves to a life of “radical amazement.” We would abide in a state of wonder, a state of mind that seems impossible to hold and be violent at the same time.
We could enjoy the experience of trees even as we know that we cannot “solve the mystery of trees.”
To Wisdom and Wonder and Mystery!