My wife and I have really gotten into HBO’s The Leftovers, now its second season. The Leftovers is about how people from one particular town deal with the sudden, seemingly random disappearance of millions of people from around the globe into thin air. It’s one giant allegory, tied together with fantastic acting and compelling characters.
This season the producers have picked an interesting choice of music to accompany the opening credits. It’s a song called “Let the mystery be” by Iris Dement, whom I’d never heard of until recently. (Give it a listen here.) The song is about accepting mystery in life, especially when it comes to life after death. As the opening goes:
Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
The song’s tone is light and folksy, but this clearly means something important to the artist. As it turns out, Iris Dement was raised in an ultra-religious Pentecostal family in Arkansas, but lost her faith in the church as a teenager. As she explained in a recent interview:
[B]y the time I was 16, I didn’t believe that story, that there was all this separation between me and all these other people in the world just because they didn’t claim Jesus Christ as their personal savior. I didn’t buy it, and I have to say, it wasn’t my choice to not buy it, because it meant having to leave the church.
I think the reason I love this song so much is that it conveys a profound and elusive message without getting complicated. That’s the very definition of great music, as I see it. In this case the message is extremely spiritual, and resonates a lot with me. That may seem surprising considering I’m a Baha’i (and thus believe in God), but bear with me.
A while back I wrote a post on this blog entitled “Real faith is admitting that you don’t know”. The whole point of that piece was to extol the virtue of humility when it comes to life’s great questions. The fact is that even if we follow a particular spiritual path and a set of religious teachings, we must admit to ourselves that we can’t truly understand things like the nature of God, what happens when we die, what makes up the human soul, etc. Our physical brains simply aren’t built to fully comprehend questions that pertain to the spiritual plane. They even have difficulty understanding how the physical universe works at subatomic levels. The “position” of the electron, a real thing with physical mass, is a function of probability and is influenced by observation, properties that make no sense given our understanding of how the universe works. We can grasp the concept through math and experiments, but truly understanding the electron is another matter. To imagine things that are not even contained within the physical universe is infinitely more difficult.
Spiritual humility is to accept this lack of knowledge and move on. We pray to God knowing that we can understand this Being only through weak metaphors. So one religious tradition approximates God with an elephant-headed deity, another with a muscular old man in the clouds, and another with abstract terms such as the “All-Powerful” and “All-Knowing”. In truth, God is none of these things, a point made by Abdu’l-Baha:
[I]f we form a conception of divinity as a living, almighty, self-subsisting, eternal being, this is only a concept apprehended by a human intellectual reality. It would not be the outward, visible reality which is beyond the power of human mind to conceive or encompass. We ourselves have an external, visible entity but even our concept of it is the product of our own brain and limited comprehension. The reality of divinity is sanctified above this degree of knowing and realization. It has ever been hidden and secluded in its own holiness and sanctity above our comprehending.
Many atheists and agnostics, I would guess, have arrived at a similar logical conclusion. After all, how can something that exists inside the physical universe understand something that exists outside of it? I would guess a lot of these individuals experienced a certain degree of religious literalism and certainty when they were younger — God is definitely a man with an elephant head, heaven is quite literally a place with clouds and harp-playing babies, etc. — and rightfully asked: “What?!” I don’t blame them. These symbols, these stories, these primitive approximations of God and of other metaphysical concepts belong to previous eras of human history, when people simply couldn’t rationalize as we can today. They were the best we could do back then to allow even for a glimpse into impossibly obscure concepts. And now that we’re all grown up, these stories have no more credence as literal expressions of truth than any of the bedside fairy tales we heard as kids.
I wonder if all those people who, quite understandably, rationalized their way into a lack of faith when they came of age know that there is a different way to believe. You can honor those ancient stories and traditions while acknowledging that they are nothing more than religious myths. It’s ok to look up at the stars and simply wonder, and silently ask “If you’re out there…”, and even to pray, knowing that you’ll be never truly understand who or what is listening. That also is faith.
Maybe I’m being naive, but in that sense I don’t see the great difference between us. We are all, in one form of another, confronted with the universe’s great questions, trying to understand the best we can. In the end, all we can do is let the mystery be.