A Curious Faith



Richard P. Feynman, from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:

I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with…He’ll hold up a flower and say “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree…And he says – “you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist…take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is; but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more of the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just a beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure. Also the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower evolved to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which show that a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds; I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Richard P. Feynman, from “The Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Culture,” (delivered to a room full of scientists):

A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false…We must discuss each question within the uncertainties that are allowed. And as evidence grows it increases the probability perhaps that some idea is right, or decreases it. Now we have found that this is of paramount importance in order to progress. We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified – how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.


On a road trip decades ago, I became acquainted with the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, through listening to the NPR “Radio Reader” show.  Hearing the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! , his sense of humor reeled me in right away.  And over the years, I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to know him through his own books and resources about him.

A website devoted to all things Feynman describes him “a unique and multi-faceted individual.” That’s an understated summation of this “scientist, teacher, raconteur, and musician” who “assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, expanded the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, [and, incidentally,] translated Mayan hieroglyphics.”

You might remember Feynman for his participation on the Commission investigating the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986; notably, the dramatic moment when he revealed the cause of the disaster simply and elegantly: by dropping a ring of rubber into a glass of ice water and pulling it out, misshapen.

More than any other person, I associate Richard Feynman with what it means to live a life of curiosity, so this morning I draw largely on his words. I find him inspiring, partly because, to my mind, his insatiable curiosity is naturally linked with almost limitless possibility – for when we recognize that life holds infinite possibilities, we can indulge what I think is a natural impulse of curiosity.

This is a religious notion, reflected in the words of my colleague Victoria Safford:

To see, simply to look and to see,
is an ethical act and intentional choice;
to see, with open eyes, is a spiritual practice and thus a risk,
for it can open you to ways of knowing the world
and loving it that will lead to inevitable consequences.”


Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist, who always said that he was motivated for the fun of it, for the sheer pleasure of finding out how the world works, what makes it tick. (Robbins)

Hear Feynman’s own words:

People say to me, ‘Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?’ No, I’m not. I’m just looking to find out more about the world, and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything, so be it. That would be very nice to discover…My interest in science is to simply find out more about the world, and the more I find out the better it is. I like to find out.”


That innate curiosity inspired Richard Feynman from a young age to question what he did not understand, whether it was the properties of science or the miracle stories he learned in Jewish “Sunday school.” In one of his books, Feynman recalled what he experienced there:

When I would hear the rabbi tell about some miracle such as a bush whose leaves were shaking but there wasn’t any wind, I would try to fit the miracle into the real world and explain it in terms of natural phenomena.


Some miracles were harder to understand than others. The one about the leaves was easy. When I was walking to school, I heard a little noise: although the wind was hardly noticeable, the leaves of a bush were wiggling a little bit because they were in just the right position to make a kind of resonance. And I thought, “Aha! This is a good explanation for Elijah’s vision of the quaking bush!”

As an adult, he compared his disbelief in the stories of the Bible as miracles to another common childhood understanding.

If I had thought back to when I was much younger, [he says] the Santa Claus story could have provided a clue for me…When I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I wasn’t upset; rather, I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon to explain how so many children all over the world got presents on the same night!


But the story of Santa Claus seemed inconsequential to him compared with what he heard at the temple. That was more dramatic, in young Richard Feynman’s mind, and it led to a crisis of faith when he was about eleven years old. Here’s how he described it:

The rabbi was telling us a story about the Spanish Inquisition, in which Jews suffered terrible tortures. He told us about a particular individual whose name was Ruth, exactly what she was supposed to have done, what the arguments were in her favor and against her – the whole thing, as if it had all been documented by a court reporter. And I was just an innocent kid, listening to all this stuff and believing it was a true commentary, because the rabbi had never indicated otherwise.

At the end, the rabbi described how Ruth was dying in prison: “And she thought, while she was dying” – blah, blah.

That was a shock to me. After the lesson was over, I went up to him and said, “How did they know what she thought when she was dying?”

He says, “Well, of course, in order to explain more vividly how the Jews suffered, we made up the story of Ruth. It wasn’t a real individual.”

That was too much for me. I felt terribly deceived: I wanted the straight story – not fixed up by somebody else – so I could decide for myself what it meant.

Richard’s parents never insisted that he go to temple after that, and he says this “crisis” resolved his difficulty

rather rapidly, in favor of the theory that all the miracles were stories made up to help people understand things “more vividly,” even if they conflicted with natural phenomena. But [he said] I thought nature itself was so interesting that I didn’t want it distorted like that. And so I gradually came to disbelieve in the whole religion.

Dr. Feynman said that to contemplate the vastness of the universe, fully appreciating the

mystery and majesty of matter, viewing life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is…very rare, and very exciting.  It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing – atoms with curiosity – that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders. Well, these scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.


Feynman admitted that for some, what he described could be interpreted as a religious experience; but the sort of religious experience, he said, that is too great for what he understood as the religion of the church. “The God of the church isn’t big enough,” he concluded.

Well, I wish I could have told Richard Feynman about Unitarian Universalism. We do make room for the wonder of science and the mystery of what is unknown. We value curiosity as a means of expanding the range of our knowledge and the depth of our experience, to learn more about our lives and our world. Feynman would have described this as “data” to enable us to make better decisions about the way we live.

The Reverend Galen Guengerich says that curiosity, when combined with discernment, is the basis of wisdom.

If we keep our wits about us, we will develop the kind of deep insight and accrue the kind of broad experience that accounts for wisdom [he says]. Then, when we need to decide which of the paths before us leads to virtue, we will have, as Reinhold Niebuhr once put it, “the wisdom to know the difference.”

We “question authority,” to quote a once-popular bumper sticker. It’s an outright dare to defy dogma, encouraging first-hand knowledge; a dare to try out new frameworks, rather than to try to make every new idea fit into the frame we already have; to let go of certainty, in favour of being willing to embrace the paradox that is living with ambiguity; accepting the potential for discomfort.

That’s not always easy. We’re called to accept ourselves and one another as we are, but at the same time to never stop trying to learn and grow – as the Reverend Thom Belote puts it:

to manifest a generous curiosity about each other and about the culture of our faith. For newer Unitarian Universalists, that might mean listening to the formative stories and experiences of born and bred UUs.  For birthright Unitarian Universalists [and, I would add, just long-time UUs], that might mean taking the time to listen as newer UUs talk about the formative stories that they were told. For all of us, it might mean seeking out ways to be less isolated and more in communion with our larger movement. – To foster connections among one another, setting aside our own egos; our own need to always be right.

When we stretch the boundaries of our certainties, greater understanding, deeper compassion, more joy, and a greater sense of peace can be the consequences. But we’re taking a risk when we dare to live a life of curiosity; for when we ask “why” – when we stretch those boundaries of what we think we know for sure – we risk having to change: to change our usual patterns of thought, or even our lives.  That’s a tough call, isn’t it?

But chances to stretch the boundaries emerge all the time, for human beings are questioning machines. One of the songs we sing from our hymnal – “We Laugh, We Cry,” – says this well, in its final phrase:  “to question truly is the answer.”

Curiosity usually begins with a question.  And of course, there will always be questions we cannot answer. We can and do apply our experience and our understandings, but we have not experienced everything. The great religious studies scholar Huston Smith, in his autobiography, related an encounter between a Zen master and student:

“What happens when we die?” asks the student.
“I don’t know,” is the answer.
“But you’re a Zen master!”
“True. Quite true. But I am not a dead Zen master.”

A fellow named Brandon Trean, whose website boasts “wisdom without the calories,” writes in favour of living a life of curiosity, cautioning against letting “some authority, regardless of how subtle or likable, stop you from…inquiring, growing, and evolving.” He continues:

Regardless of how this [life] really ends, regardless if any religion is correct, regardless if a God or Gods exist, regardless if any consciousness continues after death, regardless if reincarnation exists, regardless if science has all the answers to this material world, regardless if ancient scriptures or scientific journals are true…This life is yours to lose, yours to snooze and yours to choose…


This reminds of a line from one of Mary Oliver’s poems:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Why not invite into it more wonder and mystery and awe?!  That’s where the connections are – connections with other people and other ideas. Why not let your curiosity carry you along to new discoveries!

But there’s no need to rush the process. As the nineteenth century Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised, be patient:  “… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and…try to love the questions themselves … Live the questions now. “

And there’s no need to do this by ourselves, in isolation. To carry forward a metaphor from last Sunday’s reflections: Like jazz musicians who embark on a riff without knowing exactly where it will take them, we embark on a quest backed up by this community, as surely as a soloist is backed up by the band. And all along, we get to be not only the player, but the composer, too.

Somewhere I read that, to mystic poets – like Rilke, perhaps – everyday people are like sponges, floating on an ocean of sweetness and blessing, trying very hard not to get wet. Living a life of curiosity, in this curious faith, let us dare to immerse ourselves in the questions – in the sweetness and the blessing.  May it always be so. Blessed be.

Selected Resources

Belote, Thom, “Tribal Unitarian Universalism,” November 3, 2013.Eller‐Isaacs, Rob, “With Curiosity and Courage,” January 3rd, 2010.

Feynman, Richard P., The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman, Cambridge, Mass: Helix Books, Perseus Publishing, 1999.

Feynman, Richard P., as told to Ralph Leighton, “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Further Adventures of a Curious Character, New York: Bantam, 1989.

Robbins, Jeffrey, in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

Sykes, Christopher, No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994.