THE ULTIMATE QUESTION
My friend described in his e-mail a "big" issue he was pondering having to do with our expanding population and dwindling resources. He raised questions he found to be important and invited me to ponder with him the "big" issues of our day -- as he would refer to them.
My friend -- a community psychologist and anthropologist, retired and living abroad where he last taught in a university -- now enjoys the leisure of prodding me and others with information he digs out of his regular scans of the world-wide web. He is a delight to be with, stimulating, funny, insightful, and always a provocateur who nudges people toward thinking outside their comfort zones.
But his e-mail came at a time I was pondering other matters. For instance, it has come to me that the "big" issues and questions are not the same as "ultimate" issues and questions; nor for that matter are they the same as another group I would call "immediate" issues and questions.
The issues in the "immediate" category have to do with the daily and regular concerns of home, relationships, work, and finances -- all important enough that they may feel "big" in the anxiety they can stir. Likewise, the "big" issues and questions can -- and need to -- concern us to the point where we become informed citizens of the world, engaging the perplexing challenges facing our planet in matters of environment, religious extremism, economic collapse, population growth, the widening gulf between rich and poor, etc. We will not sit idly by while these catastrophic scenarios perform their dance of death boldly before us.
But, these are not the ultimate issues, are they? And, in fact, if we cannot or will not ask these ultimate questions, we will very likely fail in asking the big and immediate ones as well.
So, what are these ultimate questions? I have no doubt you can supply your own list if you pause for just a moment to think about them -- as I had been prompted to do so when my friend sent his e-mail.
What prompted my thinking about the nature of the ultimate question was a date that popped up on my calendar: June 26, the birthday of C.G.Jung. And I, for some reason, came to think about his visit to the Athi Plains of Nairobi, Africa in the autumn of 1925. There, in a broad savanna, with no sight or sound of another human being, walking a little distance by himself from his camp, he experienced what he called "the stillness of the eternal beginning, the world as it had always been ... ." There in that eternal silence he could hear the question within himself: What is our [humanity's] myth? In other words, he was asking what do human beings bring to this world? Why are we here?
And, as so often may happen, I found myself asking another question, one that I first encountered in the writings of a major theologian of the 20th century, Paul Tillich. The question: "Why is there something and not nothing?", which probably originated with the Greek philosopher, Parmenidies, 5th century B.C.E.
I know, the question may sound to our ears as contrived, speculatively wasteful of our time because any answer will likely satisfy only the person who attempts an answer. But, as with most ultimate questions, its significance lies in the asking and not the answering. When we remember where Tillich was when he asked that question in desperation, we may then pause to ask it for ourselves.
Paul Tillich was a philosopher/theologian with a keen intellect as well as a formal and informal education that served his mind very well. Born in 1880, in Starzeddel, a village near Berlin, Germany, ordained as a Lutheran minister but planning to become a professor, he volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the Germany army in WW I, believing in "a nice God who would make everything turn out for the best" only to find himself breaking down after prolonged service under deadly enemy fire. From the hospital where he recuperated before returning to the front lines, he wrote his family of the terrible catastrophe and "the end of the world order," as he faced almost certain death in the trenches. "Why is there something and not nothing?" Tillich found at that time he had no answer but a koan-llike question.
But is it not the case with all ultimate questions that they re-direct our thinking? Jesus of Nazareth asks, "So what does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and lose their soul?" Or the Buddha simply put it, "What is suffering?" Jesus responds to his question by pointing toward another realm of reality, the Kingdom of Heaven, that intersects this worldly order. This may not satisfy you, nor may the Buddha's preaching of the Four Noble Truths and the EIght-Fold Path. Still, their questions remain, and they may bring us into the creative sphere of a meditative silence, if heard through the clatter of the cacophony playing in our minds.
However, there are times when the ultimate question intersects the big and immediate ones. As when I arrive home and my wife greets me, after a particularly grueling day at her work, with this question: "What do you think about Chinese take-out tonight?" That is immediate, it's really big, and I can see in her eyes it's ultimately important I answer this one right!