September 18, 2012
“All men by nature desire to know.” – Aristotle, Metaphysics I.1
|“Boy with Squirrel” – John Copley, 1765
Tom loved to ask questions — he wanted to know things, know about them, know where they came from, know why they were there. Ever since he was a little boy he remembered thinking about questions and seeking other people for answers. Not in a rude or obnoxious way, he wasn’t asking to get attention or show off. He simply wanted to know. Why can we look directly at the moon but not the sun? Where do the stars go in the day? How do birds know where to go in the wintertime? Tom thought a good deal; even when he was playing with others or watching TV he was always thinking of questions: Who made up the rules of baseball? How exactly does that movie come from the cable in the wall?
As Tom got older school helped in answering some of these questions — science class was one of his favorite parts of the day. He even woke up early to watch the Discovery Channel before school. He read lots of books but to his surprise every time he found an answer to one question there was always another question to take its place — like the multiple rows of teeth in a shark’s mouth. Questions seemed to snowball, gathering in number and also in seriousness: What happens after death? Is there any meaning to life? Why is there anything at all?
During high school Tom started to hear discouraging things from people whom he put these questions: “You can’t ever know the answer to that,” “That isn’t a meaningful question,” or his least favorite response: “That’s just the way it is.” Many of his friends didn’t even seem to care about these questions, let alone possible answers to them; they just weren’t interested in figuring things out if there was no immediate value in it. But his friend’s disinterest and his teacher’s nonchalance didn’t discourage Tom — he still felt deep within himself that these were important questions and that there were answers to them. If only he could find them.
And so Tom went to college, partially because everyone else was going but mostly because he thought he would find answers. His science classes were helpful. He learned details of the universe, physical laws and biological evolutionary theories. And some of his earlier questions were given answers, but the new questions, the deeper questions remained and intensified. Where did matter come from? Why are humans different from other animals? His humanities classes also aided his understanding: psychology taught him some things about human behavior, history gave him a bigger picture of the world and its destiny, literature taught him about man’s aesthetic sensibility and glory. Philosophy helped him to focus on the right questions, but didn’t offer much by way of answers. The professors and other students, once again, didn’t seem interested in answering the clever (or not so clever) questions they formulated.
Tom began to sense that it was in religion, in the thought and experience of the Absolute, that he was being driven to all his life, from his rudimentary curiosities as a child to his sophisticated scientific hypotheses. But this Absolute didn’t seem like a law, or a force, or a theory. The Absolute, the fulcrum of his questions, seemed more and more to have a personal quality and character. It was a Someone he was after in his quest, not a Something. This thought scared him at first; Tom was no longer in control of his universe. But it also seemed right; everything was too well planned, life seemed purposive, even in suffering there was a sense of profound tragic significance. The more he thought and searched for this Someone, the more he had feelings of affection, of devotion, of love. He didn’t just want to know about this Someone; he wanted to know this Someone, he wanted to tell others, he wanted to live with others who also felt this presence in their lives. Tom began to feel, for the first time in his life, that he was no longer alone in his search for understanding, in his desire to know. He knew deep down that there must be others who also had this desire, who wanted to commit themselves to this search and to share this search with each other. A new question now pressed on Tom: Where can I find these others, this community?
Does Tom remind you of someone, perhaps someone you know all too well?