A friend asked me what I mean by mystery. It was not an easy question to answer. This friend would call himself a realist, meaning that he wanted an answer that was concrete and sensible. By sensible, I mean something that can be perceived by the senses or by reason. But mystery is not sensible – it isn’t perceptible to the physical senses, nor is it perceptible by reason and reason’s tool, logic.
When I was in college, I became an agnostic, partly in reaction to hypocrisy in the church, but mostly because I found I couldn’t reason my way to God. God just didn’t make sense. There were no logical arguments for God that I couldn’t demolish to my own satisfaction. So I concluded that there was no way that I could know whether God existed or not. I spent over thirty years in that agnostic way of thinking. Through all those years, I had recurring dreams of running though the church building where I grew up, searching for someone. I had no idea what those dreams meant.
There were two basic fallacies underlying my agnosticism. One was the confusion of God with religion. Of course religion is hypocritical. All religions are human institutions and subject to the flaws and weaknesses of human beings. Religions and the units within them have power structures, customs, rituals, dogmas, taboos, and unreasonable expectations for themselves. Religions are like every other human institution, full of conflict and faction. Nevertheless, religions are inspired by a glimpse of God, no matter how they may distort that revelation, and they give us tools to begin our search for God. To me, that means that all religions should be respected but not turned into idols by confusing them with Godself.
The second fallacy was my conviction that I ought to be able to reason my way to God. When one lives one’s life in an academic community, working every day to help students grow in understanding, reason generally becomes the measure of all things. I lived in my head and did not question my assumption that all things were subject to the mind’s understanding. I remained interested in the bible and in theological issues, because my field was medieval language and literature, but I didn’t take either the bible or theology personally.
It was only when my life fell apart that I began to look for God. When I did, there was no great revelation, no sudden awakening – only a slow, sure, growing awareness of God in and around me, a knowing that had nothing to do with the senses or with reason. Over a period of several years, I discovered mystery.
More about mystery in the next post.