The Unnecessary Hazards Of Promiscuous Mystery

As anyone knows who has read any of these “Skeptics” columns, I have very little patience, and even less respect, for that sub-discipline of theology known as theodicy:  the systematic process whereby a theologian attempts to “justify the ways of God to man,” in John Milton’s immortal phrase.  But there is one particular theodical tactic that puzzles me by virtue of its sheer persistence: the resort to mystery.  The “mystery response” is typically elicited when, in a theological conversation or debate, one cites radically different outcomes that, despite their incompatibility, a believer, Christian or otherwise, seeks to place on an equal footing in terms of supporting the goodness of God. A plane crashes. A hundred people are killed. A hundred survive. If during the conversation one asks how both the existence of survivors and the existence of fatalities are equally indicative of the goodness and providence of God, the religious believer, usually after being pressed on this point, often – I am tempted to say “always” – shrugs, spreads her hands, and says something to the effect of “Well … yes … it’s a great mystery, isn't it?”.  I find it fascinating that this response (a) concedes the existence of an anomaly, yet (b) does so in such a way as to avoid drawing the conclusion that either (b-1) there is no God or (b-2) there is a God, but that God is either unable or unwilling to exercise Her goodness in the phenomenal world.  In Archibald MacLeish's play JB occurs the little doggerel "If God is God, He is not good; / if God is good, He is not God". The appeal to mystery responds "Neither of the above". The premise is admitted, but the conclusion is rejected. And there the response usually ends. Uniquely among all the other theodicies with which I am familiar – dozens upon dozens of varying degrees of sophistication – the “mystery argument” does not even … well … argue.

Let me be clear at the outset:  I am a great believer in mystery.  And by “mystery” I do not mean merely “unsolved problems”. Questions like “What are dark energy and dark matter?”, “Is the Continuum Hypothesis true?”, “What experiments could confirm or falsify the existence of other Universes?”, “What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?”, etc, etc. … all these are profound questions. But I hesitate to call them mysteries, except in a purely metaphorical or hyperbolical sense. I am less certain of questions like “Does an algorithm exist for generating prime numbers?”, “Do analytical, non-perturbative solutions exist for the mathematics of superstring theory?”, “Who wrote the Voynich Manuscript?” (Sometimes long-standing mathematical conjectures do yield to proof. Example:  Fermat’s Last Theorem.) But I also persist in believing that certain questions do represent true mysteries, properly so called, e.g., “What made Mozart, Bach, Chopin, et al., musical geniuses?”, “What really happened when Blaise Pascal had his mystical experience of FIRE?” (To call it a “mystical experience” only labels the experience without explaining it.) I know of no exceptions to the following:  true mysteries always incorporate an element of what one may call The Ineffable. That is, the referent of the word “mystery” is always something that escapes characterization in language. An etymological trace of the ineffable ground of mystery is evident in the very derivation of the word:  the English word “mystery” derives from the Greek infinitive myein, meaning “to close,” usually to close the mouth and / or the eyes.  The mystery religions of archaic Greece all required that new initiates be blindfolded and remain silent while participating in their initiation ceremonies, a practice adopted by Christianity when catechumens – those awaiting initiation into the Christian mysteries – were required to physically leave the community just prior to the consecration of the Bread and Wine. Only after receiving the Sacrament of Baptism was a catechumen admitted to Communion (the “Mass of the Faithful”). (One of the more important changes of Vatican II was the revivification of the catechumenate from the early patristic era.) With both the Greek mystery religions and Christianity, this bifurcation did not pertain to one’s personal worthiness, but was rather a distinction of “raw” epistemology:  those who had not yet been initiated were not yet capable of apprehending the central Mystery. All mystery religions, including archaic Christianity, participated in this double affirmation:  one cannot understand the mystery, but one may be initiated into its apprehension.


Curiously, something analogous seems to be characteristic of modern physics. Is a photon a wave or a particle? The answer is “Yes”. Is Schroedinger’s Cat, prior to an empirical observation, dead or alive? Again, the answer is “Yes”. Ditto relativity theory.  If events X and Y occur in reference frames A and B, respectively, in relativistic motion with respect to one another, does X precede Y, does Y precede X, or do X and Y occur simultaneously? The answer is “Yes”. (More precisely, the answer is “It all depends” -- or even more precisely, "Both" -- in all the above cases.) In a manner analogous to the double affirmation at the core of mystery religions – the Mystery cannot be understood, but may be apprehended – physics and relativity involve double, even multiple, affirmations of seemingly conflicting assertions. All physics students – the undersigned very much included – eventually, as undergraduates or graduate students, reach a point where they acquire a “gut feel” for the “both-and-ness” paradoxicality of both quantum theory – the photon is both wave and particle – and relativity theory – events’ temporal sequences may vary by relative motion. (Also, gravity is both a local deformation of space-time and a force mediated by its own “vector” particle, the graviton … both / and … not either / or.) And in both cases, asking the question “But how can this be?” is usually a pretty conclusive sign that one has not (yet) been initiated into the Mystery. Except for those occasions when one has perhaps drunk too much beer or smoked too much weed, most physics students simply learn to live in that new conceptual cosmos where ideas like simultaneity and wave vs. particle simply cease to be issues, not because one has surrendered and given up, but because over time, one gradually learns to live in a Universe where such oppositions are only apparent. Usually without consciously realizing it, one has been … initiated into the Mystery. There are still genuine oppositions. Yes, the trajectory of starlight really does bend when it grazes the edge of the sun. But in such cases, there is always evidence for one alternative – the bending of starlight – and no evidence for the other – non-bending – whereas there is evidence for a photon being both a wave and a particle. In such cases, affirming both is justified.

What does all this have to do with theodicy via recourse to mystery? I would argue:  everything. Christian theology – the tradition I am most familiar with, though I suspect the same is true for the other monotheisms – is over-the-top committed to belief in the pure goodness of God. In fact, Christians are fond of saying “God is omnibenevolent, “ i.e., characterized by total, complete, categorical, and unalloyed goodness. This immediately gives rise to any number of self-inflicted conundra like the so-called "Problem of Evil", which has prompted a hundred generations of theologians to crawl up their own intimate bodily-orifices-where-the-sun-don't-shine in a byzantine quixotic search for a problem that had no reason to exist in the first place, apart from a square-jawed determination to save the appearance of the omnibenevolent God.  If Christian -- and other monotheistic -- theologians could learn to answer "Both / And" like physicists and mystery-religion shamans, there would be two immediate benefits:  (1) the "Problem of Evil" would cease to be such -- there would be only Good (and Evil), not the (pseudo-)"problem" thereof -- and (2) the Christian teaching about God would comport much more consistently with the for-all-practical-purposes-universal experience of all monotheistic believers across all cultures, whereby God is good sometimes and evil at others. (Re the latter, see Prof. and Rabbi David Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God.) Furthermore, while I cannot speak to textual issues in the Qur'an or the Hebrew Tanakh, I do know that there are texts in the Bible, as understood by Christians, that would accommodate such a theology. I mean texts like Isa. 45:7, which preserves its eerie anomalousness across multiple translations.  Much of the sting would be removed from the difficult passages Fr. Ron Rolheiser alludes to, and which necessitate such contortions to de-fang. Oh ... and ... did I mention the Book of Job, that text so decisively transgressive of any doctrine of an omnibenevolent God? Or, indeed, much of the Hebrew Bible.  (In his Answer to Job, C. G. Jung argued that Jesus came to earth so that God could grow Godself a morally responsible superego!) Finally, at least a start has been made toward a non-omnibenevolent God in classical "hardshell" Calvinism's doctrine of predestination, though I suppose orthodox Calvinists, no less committed to an omnibenevolent-God theology than other Christians, would argue that predestinating some people to Hell is no less an act of Divine love than predestinating others to Heaven. Outside of Christianity, I would point to the entire post-World-War-II / post-Shoah "protest" movement in Jewish theology as exemplified by people like Eliezer Berkovits, Richard Rubinstein, David Blumenthal, the late Elie Wiesel, Emil Fackenheim, et al., none of whom take the omnibenevolence of God as necessarily axiomatic.

Granted -- as my maternal grandfather in Arkansas used to say -- "I ain't got no dawg in 'at 'ere fight".  But, just as a matter that primes the wellsprings of sheer human compassion, it does pain me to see generation after generation of Christian theologians struggling with a problem they themselves have inadvertently created for themselves.  For their sake, I wish they would think outside the theological box.  But wot-th'-hell! ... as long as they don't, there will never be a shortage of subjects for future "Skeptics" columns. And if someday they do, then ... again, wot-th'-hell! ... there's always chasing down rumors about  Jimmy Hoffa and Area 51!

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Human sihlouette ... Christopher Michel ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Forest ... Pexels ... Public domain
Stonehenge ... Pexels ... Public domain
Council of Nicea ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
Suffering Christ ... Kim Bach ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

No comments yet, be the first to leave one!

You must be logged in to post a comment.