The Spirit Searches Everything
Keeping Life's Questions


How is it that we not only think but also think about ourselves thinking and are aware of ourselves and the world about us? Is this awareness alone in the universe? Or is it in some way related to a quality fundamental to creation? Why is there not nothing? What is the universe made of? How does it run itself? Could there be a Spirit of life that cares for us? How might we experience this? Why is there so much evil, wrong, and suffering in the world?

Are we for anything? Can our lives be said to have meaning? What is a good life? How can we best live together? Why am I so often restless and unsatisfied? What is it that I long for? What happens to us at death?

These are questions I have found myself asking ever since I remember myself. And I have recognized them to be questions not just about me but about all of us. I once taught a seminar in which a group of university students met with me over a period of years to talk about these issues. Coming from different religious backgrounds, they were bright and vibrant and full of their own ideas and wondering. They decided to call our time together "Big Questions." We laughed at our audacity and asked what could be the biggest question of all: whether there was any point in asking our questions. We decided that we had to go on asking and exploring. More than homo sapiens-humans knowing, we are humans questioning-homo quaerens.

That exploration does not happen apart from the stories of our lives. 'At its heart," Frederick Buechner once observed, "most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Tillich, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own language, are all telling us the stories of their lives, and if you press them far enough, even at their most cerebral and forbidding, you find an ex- perience of flesh and blood, a human face smiling or frowning or weep- ing or covering its eyes before something that happened once."

Here are some of my questions and reflections, some of my hints and hopes, smiles and frowns, tears and stories that I hope might bring on yours as well.

One -- With Self Aware

In and Out of Body
I have had an out-of-body experience. When I was thirty-five and teaching at a theological school just north of Chicago, and also the father of three little boys, I began having feelings of fatigue and aching in my legs. The pain occurred after I had lectured for an hour or so or had been to a museum or the like. It was diagnosed as a problem resulting from cracked vertebrae in my lower spine. The doctor could not say what caused it. When I was an adventurous five-year-old, I had taken my picnic lunch high up into a box elder tree and then managed to slip and fall some forty feet to the ground. Luckily I only broke an arm and a leg, though I'm sure I terrified my parents. Maybe, Dr. Sweeney wondered, the damage had begun with that fall.

We tried special stockings, corsets, and exercises. Sometimes I had to lie down for hours to recover from the pain that made me cranky and upset. Pain medication did not seem to touch the aching, which now was in my back as well. The only thing that gave my some relief was liquor, and I'm surprised I did not become an alcoholic.

Finally, it was decided that I should undergo an operation for a spinal fusion. A piece of ileum bone would be taken from my pelvis and encouraged to fuse together with the vertebrae. This work of carpentry was complicated and lasted many hours. Later that night my blood pressure dropped dramatically. Sometime after midnight the surgeon and my wife, Barbara, were summoned back to the hospital. I have no specific understanding of what was done (presumably I was given more blood and oxygen), but several days later I realized that I had an uncanny memory of watching the doctor and my horizontal self from up above in a corner of the room. Dr. Sweeney seemed rather relaxed, which was comforting. I could not see the whole room, but I could hear him talking to someone else who was there.

This experience happened only once, and I don't really put a lot of stock in such things. Or, let me put it this way: I am on guard. Like Martin Luther, who was concerned about too much fascination with miracles, I am wary that interest in matters that smack of extrasensory perceptions and the like could deflect attention from the world in which we live and from the wonder and challenge of creation. Moreover, reasonable attempts have been made to explain near-death, out-of-body experiences in neurophysiological terms. Anesthetics or lack of oxygen can cause dramatically altered brain states and perhaps bring about such unusual sensations and phenomena.

What the experience did lead me to do, however, was to reflect on the astounding human capacity to have an awareness of self. There I was, even in my severely depleted state, somehow vaguely aware of myself and my condition. What makes human life seem so extraordinary is not only that we have consciousness of what is going on around us but also that we can be conscious of our consciousness. We can think about ourselves thinking and reflect on who we are. I do so as I write this. I am in a kind of dialogue with myself, observing, sometimes questioning and responding. I can imagine that you are, too, as you read this. It is this capacity that also enables humans to become aware of others and to be individuals, so that we can form friendships and live in community. It is our self-awareness that enables us to imagine past and future; to shape language and story; to be creative, self-critical, and responsible; and to have compassion and loves. Such awareness becomes more than consciousness-or is a higher form of consciousness-because we may also have some awareness of the activity of our unconscious selves. We may have some awareness that we have motivating forces within us that we cannot fully lift to consciousness. We are aware of feelings and emotions. We may be mindful of autonomous capacities for breathing and for turning bits of light on our retinas into sight, even if we do not understand how they work. We can be aware of our capacities for riding a bicycle, driving a car, or learning a language, even when we are not thinking much about them. Our bodies are included in our awareness. We can have a sense of our presence in relationship with others.

Much of the time we are not so reflective about ourselves. We do not always think about ourselves thinking in such ways. Consciousness, moreover, largely abandons us when we fall asleep, only to reappear when we wake in the morning with perhaps some reminiscences of dreaming. Yet, although we are not always aware of our awareness, one may also come to feel that such awareness of self is always there to some degree-that it never completely goes away.

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COPYRIGHT 1988-2006 BY FREDERICK HOUK BORSCH All rights reserved.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Crowley Publications for permission to reprint previously published material by the author.