Many contend that they love mysteries, that they enjoy reading or watching a good intrigue or “who done it” -- of course that’s really a lie. It’s not untrue that they enjoy such material -- just that intrigues or “who done its” are not mysteries. In both of these genres by the time we get to the end the “mystery” is resolved -- we know it was Ms. Scarlet, in the library, with the lead pipe.
“Mystery” went out of favor upon the arrival of the Enlightenment, which brought the belief that humanity has the potential of understanding everything, eventually. Granted, we have come to understand a lot since the Enlightenment began. This progress has conditioned us to assume we can figure out everything. So, we get genuinely perturbed when we don’t.
I suspect this is part of our current culture’s (that’s “your” and “mine”) difficulty with faith. By its very definition, faith involves mystery. The book of Hebrews proclaims “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” In 2 Corinthians Paul tells us, “For we live by faith, not by sight.” If we know something, if we can see or touch it, we don’t have to “take it on faith.” As a culture, we like to “know”, for knowledge gives us a feeling of control. “Faith” and “mystery” are then antithetical to control, which seriously messes with our heads.
A rather intelligent fellow, Albert Einstein, said, “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” Every time we expand our island of understanding about a subject there is now even more shoreline where “what we know” meets the ocean of “what we don’t know.”
Having “faith” entails accepting “mystery”. This acceptance of mystery does not preclude trying to increase our understanding and knowledge of that which we have faith in. Such a practice is called “theology”, which is “theo” = God + “ology” = understanding. Contrary to popular belief, we are all theologians for we all have some “God understanding.” Some have explored their understanding of God more than others, but we all have some concept of God.
As we examine and explore our “God understanding” we are pushing on the horizon of what we know about the God we have faith in. This is good. And this is frustrating; remember Einstein? The more we “know”, the more we discover we “don’t know.” For every question we answer, for every mystery we resolve, that is replaced by even more questions and mysteries. Do we keep pushing that horizon of understanding of God, knowing that every step we take brings us further into mystery and questions we didn’t even know existed. This can seem like a very ineffective process (and our society loves efficiency), that the more we come to know about our faith the more we comprehend how little we know. Kind of makes you want to give up -- do we? This just might be a measure of how comfortable are we with mystery. Are we willing to step into where we know some things to be true, but comprehend that there is much we still don’t know.
Frederick Buechner (pronounced “Beekner”) is a highly influential writer and theologian who stated, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “To say that God is a mystery, is to say that you can never nail him down. Even on Christ the nails proved ineffective.” To be a person of faith means that we have to compartmentalize, and set aside, our need to have “the answer” to all our questions, particularly our spiritual questions. Maybe we also need to change how we look at our sacred texts. You’ve heard it said that the Bible isn’t so much a place to find the right answers as it is a place to find the right questions.
Our pre-Enlightenment ancestors had a “leg up” on us, they weren’t as hung up on “knowing” and could live into the mysteries of life and faith more readily. We have to work at this. As children in school we were taught to have the answer to the question. It wasn’t until higher levels of education that we were taught that there may be multiple “right answers” to a question. And even later that we were encouraged to enjoy a question that we don’t have an answer for. The same progression is true with our spiritual formation.
Christ said we have to come to him as children (Mark 10:15.) There are many layers of meaning to this statement. One of those layers is that we have to be as open to the mysteries of faith, God and Christ as children are to the mysteries of why an “oven” that makes no heat cooks things and “Where does Elmo go when we turn off the TV?”
The Rev. Scott Wipperman is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Helena. He enjoys nature, is a fixer-of-many-things and is truly enamored with Helena.