I love the stars. Not as in “Dancing with . . .” or in Hollywood or Washington DC. I mean the stars in the heavens. The night sky in rural Vermont where I grew up, far from the glare of urban lights, was a source of endless wonder and entertainment. Part of the attraction of the stars was their sheer beauty and mystery, providing a glimpse of light-years past history; this was heightened by my love of the stories of Greek mythology. So many of the mythological heroes and heroines are up there—Cassiopeia, Gemini, Hercules, Leda the Swan, Pegasus, Andromeda, Orion (my favorite). I had a National Geographic star map of the Northern Hemisphere on my bedroom wall that showed the constellations in the night sky, traced from star to star as in the beloved dot-to-dot books of my earliest memories. I learned that, because of the tilt of the Earth, some of my favorite Northern Hemisphere constellations (like the Big and Little Dippers) could never be seen in the Southern Hemisphere and that folks “down under” got to see constellations (like the Southern Cross) that I would never see in Vermont. We never had a telescope, but I spent many nights looking at the stars through my Dad’s hunting binoculars.
In the first scene of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn begins his Sunday homily by asking “What do you do when you’re not sure?” He then tells the story of the sole survivor of a shipwreck, a sailor who finds himself floating with a few salvaged provisions in the middle of the ocean on a raft he’s lashed together from floating spars. Using his nautical training, he looks toward the night sky and reads the stars, sets a course for home, and falls asleep. But clouds roll in and block the stars for the next twenty nights. As his provisions dwindle, as thirst and starvation threaten, he begins to have doubts. Is he still on course? Did he set his bearings correctly in the first place? Was his reading of the stars accurate enough to get him home? Or is he doomed to a slow and lonely death in the middle of an unfriendly sea?
As a philosopher, I am comfortable with doubt and uncertainty—I actively seek to foster the habits of challenging “givens” and questioning “absolutes” in my all-too-certain students every day. Philosophy, I tell them, is the art of asking better and better questions, but has little to do with getting definitive answers. Once several years ago my oldest son, who was then in his middle twenties, told his stepmother and me at a restaurant lunch “I don’t think I believe in God. I’m an agnostic.” To which I responded “Good. You’re too young to be certain about anything yet, let alone about God.” And I meant it. Certainty is vastly overrated. Because with certainty comes closure, and with closure comes a “Get Out of Thinking Free” card that you can play any time someone challenges what you are certain about. This attitude about certainty and closure predates my academic path toward philosophy; in truth, it is probably the most fundamental and hard-wired reason that I became a philosopher. I’ve been suspicious of claims to certainty my whole life, even while growing up in an atmosphere of religious absolutes and conviction.But there are times in everyone’s life, including mine, when it would be nice to see a few fixed points, to be able to take a reading on the stars. There is a part of me, although seldom allowed to have the floor, that longs for a certainty shared with others, the reassurance of believing that we’ve got it right, that we’ve got a map or a blueprint that’s reliable. My parents and other respected authority figures gave me such a map when I was young. Here’s the map of the spiritual life, and here are the fixed points that you can always rely on when you think you’re lost and need to find your way home. The Church. The inerrant Word of God. The plan of salvation. Original Sin. Heaven and Hell. The Easter story. The Ten Commandments. Conservative values. I could have tacked this map on the wall right next to my constellation map; I suspect a lot of Baptist kids did. But it wasn’t very long before clouds covered my spiritual sky. I had no difficulty using the language of the spiritual map I had been given, and could at least talk a good game with others who, using regular sightings of our common spiritual stars and constellations, reported success in navigating their way through the sometimes stormy seas of the soul. But truth be told, I hadn’t gotten a clear reading using that spiritual map in years. Sometimes I wondered if I had ever set a good course using that map. Maybe the map I had been given is gloriously attractive and infinitely interesting in its detail, but false. Maybe it’s like the wonderful maps in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, fascinating and detailed guides to a world that doesn’t exist. The time comes when the map and accompanying directions have to be tested and either updated or discarded. Otherwise they become a lie.
That’s where I was eight years ago when I went to Minnesota on sabbatical, intending to write about coping with the absence and silence of God. Perhaps the time had come to be honest and throw the map from my youth away, in order to find another one unencumbered. But I’ve slowly discovered something curious and hopeful since then, looking once again with older, more experienced eyes, at my spiritual map. For the first time my spiritual night sky has become less cloudy, and I’ve been able to see a few stars. And although I’m in a very different part of the ocean than before, maybe even a different hemisphere, some of the familiar constellations are in view. Easter is still there. Scripture is there, but looking a lot different, bigger and more colorful, than I remembered. And my favorite constellation—the Incarnation. It’s never looked so bright and beautiful. There are some new ones that I’d never seen before—Community, Daily Prayer, Silence, Listening—and some of the constellations on my old map are entirely missing. There are still plenty of clouds in my night sky, and I’m looking forward to maybe finding out what stars these clouds are hiding. But I’ve seen enough to know that I’m not lost, that my old map was more reliable than I thought, and that a spiritual sky map should never be laminated and hung on a wall. One should never laminate something that’s alive and growing.