Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wrong Question

In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, a pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent race creates the hypercomputer "Deep Thought" to figure out the Answer to the Ultimate Question about Life, the Universe, and Everything. After 7.5 million years of computation, Deep Thought provides the answer, which it affirms has been carefully checked for accuracy. The answer is 42.

It turns out that Deep Thought was asked for the answer, but no one ever determined what the question really was. It seems that Earth was then created as a vastly more powerful computer, run by mice, to figure out what the question was--or should have been. Earth, alas, was destroyed--in order to build a hyperspace bypass--five minutes before the question would have been figured out.

It has been said that we Unitarian Universalists are less concerned with having the right answer than we are with asking the right question. There's a legitimate explanation for this--it's because the answer can be no better and no more illuminating than the question that is being answered. And, as Douglas Adams' work points out, the answer is often meaningless if you don't even know what the question was.

Unitarian Universalists practice a religion that puzzles many outside it. Their questions show their confusion. They ask things like "What do you Unitarian Universalists believe?" and "Do you believe in God?" or "Do you believe in the Bible?" The answers we give are good answers, in the sense that they are accurate and that we offer them intending to be helpful. Our answers generally sound something like this "Well, some of us believe this, and others believe that, but still others believe differently still." Or we tell them "Some of us do, and some of us don't. But you'll very often hear us read passages from it or quote it during our services, either way." And we tell them that "Some of us believe in God, while others believe in a different sort of God, and some of us believe in several or many gods, and some of us are quite certain that there isn't any god at all."

Not surprisingly, our earnest questioners are puzzled, and frustrated. They feel they've been told the answer is 42.

The problem is that we're being asked the wrong question. Unitarian Universalism is not about what we believe. We are not a creedal faith.

The question that should be asked of us is "How have you agreed to be?" (meaning together, and in the larger world) , because we are a covenantal religion, based in what we have agreed and committed ourselves to.

What I believe, and what you believe, may be very interesting. We actually spend quite a bit of time and effort helping each other figure out what we--individually--believe. But we accept that our beliefs are, and can be, quite diverse, because as long as those beliefs permit and encourage us to be, in the ways that we are committed to, they're all equally acceptable to us.

This leads me to two points. I'm going to simply affirm the first, because I've made it before, in a slightly different context. When someone asks you what we believe, or any of those other questions, don't tell them that the answer is 42. Tell them that they're asking the wrong question. Tell them what the right question is, and what the answer to that question is.

Here's my version of that;
We are a covenantal religion. We are bound together because we affirm and commit ourselves to certain principles, in our worship, within our community, and in our dealings with the larger community. We firmly believe that we have an obligation to ourselves, to each other, and to all the world to work for peace, for justice, and for the improvement of life here and everywhere, for all people and all the earth.
The second point needs more attention from us.

Reading the Bible, one notices a pattern regarding covenants. There are covenants that are made--and broken--and which are renewed and restored, or which are replaced by new covenants which seek to recreate the covenantal relationship, having essentially renegotiated it.

So it is within our faith's history. One can trace covenantal relations back at least as far as the Mayflower Compact, made by and among the Pilgrims. It does not matter that we no longer have the same covenant as our distant--or more recent--religious ancestors did. Those covenants have been renegotiated and the fundamental relationships within our congregations have remained.

Lacking creeds, a lack we celebrate, we must carefully tend our covenantal relationship. This is true at the level of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and as a result, we review the principles which we affirm and promote, and we consider changes and amendments to them on a regular basis, so that we can refresh our relationship among our congregations and reaffirm it. It is equally true that we need to review our covenants within our individual congregations, to ensure that the covenant remains meaningful and to ensure that the nature of our relationship with each other remains fresh in our minds.

This is not a social club, although there is a healthy and vibrant social community here, and that is a good thing. This is more than that. This is a community brought together by vision, common need and common goals and bound together by our commitment to that vision, and to each other.

That is something which is worthy of frequent renewal and reaffirmation.

I've met only a few Unitarian Universalists who expect that we will achieve some great shared answer--at least not to the common sorts of questions that are asked about religion, the kinds of trivial concerns people have about what our creed is. But I believe that we know a significant part of the big answer, and that it's embedded in the principles we have and continue to revise and improve. We value reason and experience. We value wisdom. We value each other and the whole of the universe we are part of. We value how we make decisions. Those are key things, and while we may improve them, it's hard to imagine them being abandoned in any future version of our faith. Answers, good answers, lead to insight and action. We're getting there.

But do we know what our question is? It's important to ask the right one, remember?

I'll just close with this, a theory--a joke, perhaps--from a later work in which Douglas Adams carried on the story begun in his Hitchhiker's Guide.
There is a theory that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will disappear and be replaced by something more bizarrely inexplicable.
There is a corollary to that theory which states that this has already happened.
The power of the right answer and the right question may indeed be nothing more--or less--than the existence of the universe. But even so, the right answer means nothing without the right question.


ScottMGS said...

Good points, Ogre. It reminds me that (among the other million things I need to do right now) I need to formulate a statement of my own beliefs. It's a good point that we need to separate our own beliefs from the our congregation's (and our congregation's congregation's) covenants.

Yesterday, my minister reminded us that the UUA doesn't tell us what to do. He was talking about peacemaking and relaying his experience in a workshop at G.A. this year. In the workshop many people stated that the UUA should come out as a pacifist organization but, as he pointed out, we have many people who are not pacifists and do we really want them to leave? He said that we are not a "denomination" but an association of free congregations that band together in covenant.

I've heard similar passionate pacifist statements at my church and yet we're also supporting one of our own (a marine) at seminary to become a military chaplain.

Your last quote from Douglas Adams (one of my favorites) reminded me of Arthur C. Clark's short story "The Nine Billion Names of God".

JLH said...

I just happened on your site and wanted to thank you. This rather elegantly summed up the challenges I've known I've felt about explaining UUism. I'll be reworking this in my head for a long time. thank you for taking the time to put it into writing.

Jim said...

I've heard somewhere that what that supercomputer meant when it said that the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42 was that's because 42 is the number of dots on a pair of dice. I.e., the world's a crap shoot.