How Do We Know? or Spiritual Discernment in the Information Age

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video Here]

“Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”[1] I offer these words as a way to begin exploring our January ministry theme, discernment. When we discern, we attempt to “see with clarity.”

I love this theme for kickin’ off the new year. It can take us beyond the standard new year’s resolutions which—not always, but often—emerge out of guilt, anxiety, self-nagging: I will lose weight. I will be more open-minded. I will exercise more regularly. I will drink less. I will finally write that novel I’ve been aching to write but keep putting off. I will make an effort to connect more with family and friends. I will unplug. These kinds of resolutions are important. They play a role in our efforts at self-improvement. They help us set personal goals. None of them is easy. But so often we make them in an attempt to fix something we imagine is wrong with us. So often they come from a negative-leaning self-appraisal. And so often that negativity comes from outside of us. That is, it reflects societal values—or what we assume are societal values—what can be quite shallow values—and it has very little to do with what we really want for ourselves. Again, there’s a place for such resolutions in our lives, but I think we can and ought to go further and deeper as the year begins. Exploring discernment as a central feature of our spiritual lives moves us away from making resolutions to fix something about ourselves that may or may not need fixing, and moves us towards discovering what is true for us, what really matters in our lives, and what kinds of living will bring meaning and fulfillment. I like how Kathleen McTigue put it in our opening words: “The new year can be new ground for the seeds of our dreams.”[2]

So, what do I mean by discernment? To begin, I commend to you Jerry Lusa’s essay in our January newsletter (which is also at uuse.org[3]). Jerry writes, “Discernment is about finding the essence of things.” Discernment is about “going past the mere perception of something and making detailed judgments about [it]. It is the ability to judge well.”  He includes a quote from Anne Hill, a California-based neo-pagan writer, publisher, teacher, musician and blogger. She says discernment is “the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again.”[4]

One could argue—and Jerry’s essay hints at this—that we practice discernment all day long in every context imaginable. Much of our discerning is about our daily routines and feels more or less inconsequential. We discern what we shall eat for breakfast. We discern whether we should take an alternate route in heavy traffic. We discern whether we shall read or watch television before we go to bed. Meaningful living and a life of the spirit aren’t necessarily tied to this level of “everyday” discernment, though certainly one could also argue from a Buddhist, or perhaps a Taoist, perspective that the more mindful we are about even the most mundane aspects of our day, the more meaningful our living will be.

So whether we’re seeking clarity about the mundane or the transcendent, the common or the extraordinary, the secular or the sacred, discernment becomes relevant to our spiritual lives—in fact, it becomes an essential and intimate feature of our spiritual lives—when we pursue it as an intentional process—a thought process, a contemplative process, a process of reasoning, reflecting or ruminating; a process of assessing or analyzing; a process of deliberating, of musing, of praying, of feeling, of intuiting—any process that we use intentionally to bring some sense of order and meaning to our lives; to help us distinguish between truth and falsehood; to help us distinguish between what matters most and what matters least; to help us distinguish between what is coming from within and what is coming from without. It’s any process we use intentionally to guide us to our center—or to guide us back to our center if we’ve lost it; to guide us to our own voice—or to guide us back to our own voice if it has grown silent; to guide us to our most authentic self—or back to that self if we’ve somehow grown distant from it; or to guide us to some reality greater than ourselves that we experience as sacred, holy, life-affirming, life-giving, saving, salving, healing, sustaining. In short, spiritual discernment is an intentional process that leads us deeper into ourselves or out beyond ourselves. “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”

And once we arrive there, once we’ve gained clarity, once we have truth, once we have our authentic self or that reality greater than self, then we have the capacity, the grounding, the confidence, the nerve, the will to make good decisions, to judge well, to select wisely, to act with integrity, to move forward on our path, to plant the seeds of our dreams.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not easy. I think what I’m describing as discernment is very difficult. Even with great intentionality, great focus, great discipline, the line between truth and falsehood is not always clear. The line between what matters most and what matters least is not always clear. Our most authentic self is not always clear. And certainly the nature of some life-giving, sustaining reality greater than ourselves is not always clear. Light shines in but doesn’t always luminate.

This week I’ve been imagining our capacity for discernment as a continuum. On one end of the continuum discernment begins, and there are reasons it is difficult to begin. On the other end … it ends. Discernment meets its limit—we can only gain so much clarity. I want to say a few words about each end of the continuum.

At the beginning we have a situation about which we need clarity. We have raw data, information, thoughts, sensations, joys and sorrows, problems to solve, dilemmas to manage, decisions to make, conflicts to resolve. Discernment begins as we pause, as we lean back, as we enter into that intentional process of thinking, contemplating, reflecting, musing or praying in order to gain clarity about the situation. And, keep in mind, we’re not simply thinking about the situation. We’re thinking beneath the situation; we’re looking for our truth in relation to it, our sense of what matters, our voice, our center, and at times we’re looking for our relationship to a life-giving, life-affirming reality beyond ourselves. But note: the act of pausing to think about a situation, let alone beneath a situation, is difficult in its own right. I’m pretty sure it’s not a natural human tendency. It’s a skill we develop. It takes practice. How often do we admonish our children and grandchildren to “think before you act?” How many times as children did we hear that advice? And ignore it? Pausing, leaning back, taking a breath—for the sake of discernment—is not a natural human tendency.

But there’s more to the difficulty in this information age. The world has changed remarkably in the last decade. When we lean back from a situation today, we are more and more likely to find ourselves leaning into a mighty river of information. When we lean back from a situation today, we are less and less able to pause and  reflect on a situation because the space—mental or otherwise—in which we had hoped to do our reflecting is filling up with more and more information. We are firmly ensconced in the information age. Things move and change so quickly that whenever we pause to discern, we risk falling behind—at least that’s how it feels, and the feeling is potent.

And then one of our devices beeps. Our pop-tune ring-tones interrupt. Even with our phones on ‘vibrate,’ it’s still an interruption. We have to see who’s calling, or texting; who’s pushing what new message.

And of course, sometimes we mean to pause for discernment, but instead we check out our Facebook page. Ohh, my friend (who is not an actual friend) posted an article with an interesting headline at Huffington Post. I’ll check it out. Hmm. Not so interesting, but there’s another author I know. They link to her blog. I’ll check it out. Hmm. This is funny. And wise. Might work for a sermon. Think I’ll tweet it. Oh, a colleague just tweeted the link to a sermon video. I’ll check it out. Uh, this is great, but I don’t have time to watch the whole thing. Wait, Colbert said what? I have to check it out. Hilarious. Ooh, a new video from one of my favorite bands. Gotta check it out. Very cool. I have to share this. Quick, back to Facebook. And so it goes.

Within the span of a decade the number of ways for people to communicate, connect, network, conduct business, report, offer opinion, advertise, sell, barter, share ideas, books, music, movies and inventions has exploded—perhaps not beyond measure but certainly beyond our wildest Y2K imaginings. Information now comes at us constantly. Constantly. We live in a message-saturated society with the potential for hundreds, if not thousands of voices to enter our consciousness every day from all corners. I suspect we’ve all developed unconscious filters to help us ignore most of it; but even still, the flow of information is staggering.

Don’t misconstrue my intent. I am not complaining. I’m not lamenting. I’m not pining away for some lost pre-internet golden age where there were three corporate TV networks, rotary phones, and newspapers printed on actual paper. (Remember Newsweek?) I’m not interested in going back. I’m not one of those clergy who talks about how much we’ve lost in this information age—how terrible it is that we interact as much online as we do in person, how we’ve lost some bit of our soul because of it. We have lost something. No question. But I feel strongly that as long as we can manage ourselves rather than the information managing us, then we’ve gained far more than we’ve lost. I like all the new tools. I’m not an early adopter, but I adopt. I feel very much at home working with email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, I-tunes, and I’m moving towards e-books. I like figuring out how to use the tools to best express and promote our liberal religious message. But I’m also aware that in an information-soaked, data-infused, message-saturated, device-permeated culture, spiritual discernment becomes all the more difficult: discerning the line between truth and fiction, discerning what matters most, discerning one’s voice, discerning one’s authentic self becomes all the more difficult because there is so much information. How do we know which information is accurate? How do we know which information is relevant? How do we know which information will guide us in a healthy, productive, life-giving direction? Where on earth is clarity?

The answer, at least for me this morning, strangely, lies at the other end of the continuum where our capacity for discernment ends. Earlier I read Tracey Smith’s poem “It and Co.” For me this poem as a provocative yet oddly comforting statement about the limits of our capacity to discern. I take “It” to be a reality larger than ourselves—reality in an ultimate sense—God, Goddess, Gaia, the earth, the universe, the cosmos. The “Co.”—the company—is us, humans. We are curious.  We are curious about It. We are trying—we’ve been trying for millennia—to discern the essence of It, but the light we shine never reaches far enough. We never gain clarity. “Is It us,” Smith asks, “or what contains us?” And then: “It is elegant / But coy. It avoids the blunt ends / Of our fingers as we point. We / Have gone looking for It everywhere: / In Bibles and bandwidth, / …. Still It resists the matter of false vs. real …. / It is like some novels: / Vast and unreadable.”[5]

She’s got us out at the far reaches of the universe, the limits of our perception, the end of the continuum. She’s got us at the door to the Holy of Holies, but we can’t peer in. She’s got us at the entrance to the mountaintop cave, but we can’t peer out. In traditional religious language, we can’t gaze upon the face of God. There’s no more clarity to gain no matter how much light we shine in. This ultimate reality is “vast and unreadable.” It “avoids the blunt end of our fingers as we point.” It rests behind an unpiercable veil. It is, in the end, utterly mysterious. And knowing this is important. Because here is a space that will never fill up with information.

Here we can pause, lean back, breathe. And while we can’t name what we’re leaning on, here we also aren’t caught in a river of constant data. Here we aren’t drowning in a sea of new facts and opinions. Here we can discern. We can’t discern It with a capital I. But we can move beyond the beginning of the continuum where information is flowing relentlessly. We can look closely at the situations of our lives. We can gain clarity. We can’t discern ultimate reality, but in the space it provides we can certainly discern our truth, our own voice, our most authentic self, and the things that matter beyond ourselves.

And we don’t have to go to the far reaches of the universe to enter this space.  There are hints of this everywhere: in the dark of winter; in the cry of a newborn baby; at the mountain peak; in the lover’s embrace; in the watery depths; in the nonviolent resistor’s courage; in crashing waves and tidal pools; in the wild abandon of children in summer (acting before they think); in those old stone fences running through New England woods; in the farmer rising before dawn; in crocuses breaking through the still frozen March ground; in elders sharing their stories and their wisdom by the light of a blazing fire. In all of it some mystery abides just below the surface constantly calling to us, constantly beckoning—some vast and unreadable essence, some beautiful and compelling but obscure essence, some take-your-breath-away, put-goose-bumps-on-your-fore-arms, send-chills-up-and-down-your-spine essence, some holy hallelujah cry just below the surface. And yes, the second we try to name it, the second we point our blunt fingers at it, the second we shine too bright a light, it slips away. But it keeps calling.

Some will find this confounding. I don’t. I find it comforting. There is something deeply comforting for me in the constant presence of a mystery constantly calling out to us, constantly presenting itself to us, constantly inviting us to seek, to search, to discern, even if it remains elusive. Its presence makes us curious. Mystery makes us curious. One of the most central and endearing human qualities is curiosity. If the presence of a vast and unreadable mystery inspires curiosity in us, then it invites us to be human. It invites us to discern. It invites us to plant the seeds of our dreams. Consider this: the absence of mystery doesn’t offer such invitations. Curiosity is a lot more challenging in the absence of mystery. I prefer the mystery. I know it may never be revealed, but there’s a lot we can clarify along the way. Thus, may we continue to seek. May we continue to discern.

Amen and blessed be. And Happy New Year!



[1] Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 83.

[2] McTigue, Kathleen, “New Year’s Day,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #544.

[3] Navigate to http://uuse.org/topics/monthly-ministry-theme/ and scroll down to “January Ministry Theme: Discernment” (posted 12/31/2012).

[4] Anne Hill, The Baby and the Bathwater (Bodega Bay, CA: Serpentine Music, 2012).

[5] Smith, Tracy K., “It  & Co.”  Life on Mars (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011) p. 17.