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


  1. Lionhear.ted said on February 20, 2018
    Good analysis of mystery! I'm confused though about your difficulty with theology. Is it because God seems to act good sometimes and badly others? Perhaps you're missing a key concept, God is more simple than karma. Philosopher's call it God's antecedent and consequent will. antecedally, beforehand always, God wills our good, that's why he created us. Consequently though, his will consistently respects what he created, he lets our choices have real effect because that's why he gave us freedom, so his will is consistent (or he isn't God), it;s our behavior that varies. Here is a concrete case of the mystery of suffering, not abolished or prevented but allowed and changed by God. Like it says, "If anyone would have a desire to say either God was not-good, or God was not-powerful, it’s her." But I've said enough; you'll have to read it for yourself.
    1. jrcowles said on February 20, 2018
      God acting benevolently at some times and badly at others … Yes … (this is also David Blumenthal’s problem in his magisterial “Facing the Abusing God”, which revolutionized my thinking on this fraught subject … after “Facing”, I was, as they say these days, “woke”). What I object to is the same syndrome that God-knows-how-many abused wives object to, when their husbands one day come home and rape them and crack their ribs, then next day undergo a paroxysm of remorse and buy that same wife lavish gifts to atone, not so much their wife’s pain, as to assuage their own guilt. Common syndrome, something I’m glad I experience only by proxy. In fact, I would go somewhat farther. If one could, per impossibile, read the Old Testament – and the New, though the semiotics are different there – “phenomenologically,” i.e., with a neutral mind un-“contaminated” by theological presuppositions, one would see in the character of YHVH almost a classically clinical abusive personality with similar mood swings. God “lets our choices have real effect”. And therein lies a whole complex, an entire syndrome, of problems. From what you say, God seems to act according to a certain “first principle”. (And I agree: this is God’s “first principle”.) That first principle is simply the following: PEOPLE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO DO WHATEVER THEY FREELY CHOOSE TO DO. OK … two points: (1) The God of the OT does not work and deal with humans according to His own first principle. Example: Jonah, who freely chose to NOT go preach at Nineveh. God beat Jonah into submission until Jonah – quite understandably – changed his mind, rather than be a seafood buffet in reverse. So much for God’s ostensibly sacrosanct view of human moral agency. (2) Even finite, fallible human beings know better than this. And herein lies the issue with the human side of moral theology of which – please forgive my in-your-face candor here – your argument is such a good example. Faulty as it is, imperfect as it is, ramshackle though it is, even human beings recognize that there have to be limits, not so much on the choices we make, as in our ability, as humans, to IMPLEMENT those choices. I can choose – strictly between my ears and inside the confines of my own skull – to go across the street with my shotgun and blow my neighbor Wally in half. But the moment I pick up my shotgun, cross the street, and attempt to IMPLEMENT that choice in the real world, an entire fearsomely majestic mechanism will be triggered to remorseless life: the police respond and try to stop me, and even if they fail and do not shoot me down, they will apprehend me and the machinery of the criminal justice system will have its terrifying way with me. Why? Because, as human beings, we realize that NOT ALL MORAL CHOICE DESERVE TO BE IMPLEMENTED, however freely they may have been chosen. I may freely choose coffee, tea, or milk. I may not freely choose to gun down my neighbor in cold, premeditated blood. I may freely choose to do the latter. But the system of law enforcement and criminal justice will deal with me harshly if I try. So saying that God “lets our choices have real effect” is tantamount to saying that God is opposed to human systems of criminal law. Yet – and this is my ancillary point – we (at least, most of us) do not perceive our essential moral agency as having been compromised thereby. In fact, if anything I would venture to say that most of us, the vast majority, feel more free PRECISELY BECAUSE THERE ARE MECHANISMS IN PLACE TO **** LIMIT **** FREEDOM. “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” is not the name of a Bulgarian law firm. It is an accurate description of how life would be, absent these procedures, and institutions. Your argument would imply that God disagrees. Well … God is welcome to His opinion. Me, I prefer the Kent, WA, police department. In one of my “anti-theodical” columns, I alluded to a story Jean-Paul Sartre tells in “Being and Nothingness” of 2 people, a man and a woman, having dinner in a restaurant. As they dine, the man drops his hand underneath the tablecloth and begins to fondle the woman’s thigh. But the woman, instead of objecting, continues to dine, continues to believe that the man’s intentions are entirely platonic, entirely innocent, despite feeling the man’s hand creeping up her leg. On one level, she knows that the man is intent on seduction. But on another level, she manages to convince herself that she does NOT know what she, in fact, knows. Sartre refers to this cognitive state as “mauvaise foi”: “bad faith”. In almost all instances of theodicy – I argue this in a column somewhere – the very act of doing theodicy at some point or other necessitates an act of bad faith. I.e., at some point or other, sooner or later, in the theodical enterprise, we have to do what that woman did: convince ourselves that we do NOT know what, as a matter of fact, we DO know. We know – all of us know -- that, in order to live in an orderly, coherent society, in order to not go to work for that Bulgarian law firm, instrumentalities have to be in place – police, DAs / ADAs, laws, courts, prisons, etc. – whose purpose is none other than TO RESTRICT HUMAN MORAL FREEDOM because not all freely chosen actions deserve to be implemented outside one’s imagination. “Civilization is bought at the price of inhibitions” – Sigmund Freud But – the kicker – in order to defend the moral bona fides of God, WE HAVE TO PRETEND *** NOT *** TO KNOW THIS. The irony? Faith in God’s respect for human freedom requires, at least implicitly, a prior act of BAD faith (“mauvaise foi”). This paradox only becomes manifest, however, when one leaves the rarefied antiseptic precincts of pure moral theology and brings moral theology into dialogue with actual, boots-on-the-ground, down-in-the-trenches, grubby, bloody, snotty human reality. Once attempt to bring those 2 together, and the result is the discursive equivalent of allowing 2 kilograms of matter to touch 2 kilograms of anti-matter. That was the motivation behind my column on the Sandy Hook shootings. If you are a moral theologian who emphasizes God’s unconditional regard for human moral agency, you will, notwithstanding, be rooting for the police to arrive first and take down Adam Lanza … despite the fact that God, in His infinite wisdom, judged that He could not abridge Lanza’s freedom, even if the cost of not doing so was a couple dozen kids’ bodies. So you find yourself cheering for both football teams at once – God and God’s regard for human choice – and the cops with their sworn duty to enforce the law and to save lives. What I am concerned to do every time I write on theodical issues, be it the child pedophilia crisis or Sandy Hook or Parkland, FL, is precisely this: to bring the antiseptic matter of pure moral theology into deliberate contact with the anti-matter of human reality. Same thing Jewish writers and theologians in the tradition of Blumenthal, Berkovits, Wiesel, Braiterman, et al., do when they write of the Holocaust.
  2. Lionhear.ted said on March 30, 2018
    Leaving the Bible aside for now and focusing on the philosophical discussion, I find it fascinating how much we agree on, and yet there are great differences. You and I both heartily agree that, "NOT ALL MORAL CHOICES DESERVE TO BE IMPLEMENTED," yet there are very different backgrounds to each of our claims to that same statement. On your part, you heavily emphasize the external act, and what may be done by other forces outside the actor to alter or prevent the act from taking place as he intends. Therefore, God, in not intervening, but indeed empowering the evil as well as the good to act is hopelessly corrupt and compromised. On my part, I look at contingent reality and seek its source in something non-contingent with the fewest possible assumptions. Making only one, and calling it God and narrowing down what God must be like by analogy with what we see in real life (for since it exists, but is contingent, it must reflect something of what causes it to be, or there is no reference point to base logic on at all). With this understanding, our laws that we rightly make and enforce are based upon our understanding of what things are and how they work together as a world, which in turn exists and exists the way it does, acting reasonably and consistently according to natural laws, not of it's own accord (again, because of its contingency, it could be or not but, so what causes it to be? nothing cannot cause anything), but because it exists and continues to exist only how God creates it to. Why then do we see evil? Your view necessitates that God must have created it and therefore intended it and would seek to make use of my view to prove it (God is all-knowing, all things come from God and nowhere else). Furthermore, even if you granted my point that God did not intend evil, but allowed us to bring it upon ourselves, you would stop short of what I would say and accuse God of not stopping us from doing so, since even an ordinary policeman could and would uphold the law, and this seems to bankrupt God. But allow my point and me a moment to continue. Freedom, as I have said, comes from somewhere, God must be free or He could not give us freedom. "Not all moral acts deserve to be implemented," on that we have already agreed. But what makes them moral? Unless there be some ultimate reference, what basis do we have to say any act has an ultimate moral standing of any extreme or degree? If there is nothing beyond zero, there is nothing to compare to, so we can't say that we make morality ourselves simply by comparing things, what are those things from? As said before, because they change, they must depend on something which does not, and there is no reason to assume any more than one necessary thing, Being itself. If a policeman then uphold the laws made by Man, God must keep the laws made by God. God is beholden to the law. But what is the law? Not to be redundant, but again, our laws are based on natural laws which in turn depend upon God (Being-Itself)'s holding the creatures embodying and acting according to them in being. Our laws are based ultimately in God's laws. But does God have to keep the law? What law is He beholden to? Just as we cannot be anything other than human, God cannot be anything other than God, and as laws only really exist in the beings and actions they apply to/govern, so the law God, as Being Itself, is beholden to is His own self, which again, he cannot help but be. What does this have to do with us and how it is that we can prevent crimes but it seems God can't? God intervening in His creation, acting beyond the order He set it in and according to which it runs is the very definition of a miracle. God, being free, can do this and sometimes does. But for our own good, so that we can know that the universe exists as an ordered whole, He usually doesn't. Moreover, since one of the natural laws of the universe is that we should exist with freedom, God, in order to be true to Himself, cannot remove it, though He can act freely in other ways, though as I have already pointed out, constantly working miracles would leave us hopelessly childish. Lastly, though God knows what we will do with the freedom He gives us, for good and for bad, this is not the same as Him choosing to do it, which I think you would agree with. But neither is it negligent of Him, which you don't agree with, because otherwise, He would not be free: forced to preemptively punish a creature He intended to create by not creating it. This seems ridiculous unless you understand both that no creatures at all have to exist, and that they are not divided into good and bad by their creator's choice, but by their own free choice. Just like God can't both create and not create, you can't have it both ways, calling God a puppet master and accusing Him of criminal negligence. He doesn't give give freedom disingenuously, nor does He not care what we do with it. Bringing the Bible back in as a record of God's interaction with Man, God creates and gives rules of conduct to help man to behave in a way which leads to his flourishing. God gets nothing out of it, but creates man to know and do good, to share in the same Good that God does, which is God Himself. Coming down to earth as we know it, we see the consequences of choices of ours and other humans to not act in ways which lead to our flourishing. This doesn't mean that the policeman is impossible though or that God has to be one. You can't apply Kant's universal moral perogative to God, but something like it does apply because God is universal. We rightly use our freedom to protect and serve each other, but God would remove that from us if He simply did so for us all the time: if everything was a miracle, if God fixed everything so that we could never accomplish evil, we could not know that actions have consequences at all and therefore that there are any which should not be done, things would just happen and would always work out whether we did good or evil, a gun blowing up in a would-be murderer's face wouldn't save anyone, he would still have committed evil and no one would know it. Even death would be meaningless, just another thing that happened regardless of what we did, and everything would then truly be occasionalism, god would keep us alive however long he arbritrarily wanted to and our actions would have no perceivable effect because the effect would be unpredictable. As it is, God always forgive (those who are sorry), Man sometimes forgives, but nature never forgives. The only reason we suffer from nature a la tsunami is that by committing evil, we've placed ourselves on its level of government, we've chosen to operate according to the lower level rather than be obedient to our own nature's purpose, and so we are subject to the laws of that level, we suffer and die like animals though we are made for more, because we and our predecessors have chosen to.
    1. Lionhear.ted said on March 30, 2018
      To live according to what our own natural powers are capable of achieving rather than God's goodness, which gifts us beyond their limits.
    2. jrcowles said on April 2, 2018
      My wife and I are in the process of getting ready to leave on vacation for a couple of weeks to see friends in NY and DC. Plus, we are about to celebrate my wife’s impending retirement after 30 years on the staff of the Seattle Public Library. So, while I will send a more seamlessly continuous response later to your most-welcome reaction, I will have to content myself for now with a kind of staccato, point-by-point answer. >>> “Not all moral acts deserve to be implemented,” on that we have already agreed. But what makes them moral? Unless there be some ultimate reference, what basis do we have to say any act has an ultimate moral standing of any extreme or degree? Fair question … I advocate for an “anthropic” ethic, i.e., an ethic which assesses the moral worth of actions according to promoting or inhibiting human flourishing. In turn, I define “human flourishing” as whether or not the activity in question advances or inhibits ethical discourse and reflection. See the following “Skeptic’s Collection” column reprinted in a United Methodist blog / web page: There is obviously a lot to unpack here, but this is the place to start. >>> Lastly, though God knows what we will do with the freedom He gives us, for good and for bad, this is not the same as Him choosing to do it, which I think you would agree with. I might agree if it were possible for God to be forced to do something under duress, e.g., the bank president who divulges the safe combination as his wife and children are held hostage. Otherwise, not. There is no pragmatic difference between “actively” doing something, e.g., a corrupt bank employee, and allowing it to be done when one has the power to stop it, e.g., the corrupt bank employee looking the other way while one of the robbers cracks the vault. There is a difference, of course, but it is a difference which makes no difference. Given that, with God, duress is not an option, whatever difference there is between doing vs. allowing is purely linguistic. >>> Lastly, though God knows what we will do with the freedom He gives us, for good and for bad, this is not the same as Him choosing to do it, which I think you would agree with. [See above.] But neither is it negligent of Him, which you don’t agree with, because otherwise, He would not be free. A policeman who notices a rape in progress, but who declines to stop it despite having the power to do so is negligent, and if the cop had stopped it, I would not for that reason see the cop’s freedom as being diminished. The cop is free to intervene and stop the rape, or to not do so. The latter we would probably regard, and a review board would probably regard, as dereliction. Exculpation, especially in the case of the cop, would require some tall talking. >>> forced to preemptively punish a creature He intended to create by not creating it. I gotta admit, this has me stumped. In what sense is it preemptive punishment to interdict the performance of an evil act? If a bystander knocks a gun out of an assailant’s hand and prevents the shooting of a 7-11 clerk, is it reasonable to regard that as punishment, preemptive or otherwise? And in what sense would doing so amount to an act of un-creation? >>> calling God a puppet master and accusing Him of criminal negligence This seems rather overstated. Cops are required to prevent crime if they see one about to be committed. I don’t think that constitutes being a “puppet master”. Or if it does, it is so only within the context of criminal acts that no society can tolerate. And civilian / professional review boards who discover instances where cops were derelict in doing so sometimes do prefer charges of criminal negligence. Why is that not appropriate? If my daughter put arsenic instead of sugar into a batch of lemonade but I prevent her from serving it and I being a puppet master? On the other hand if I know there is arsenic in the lemonade and allow it to be served anyway am I not criminally negligent? Furthermore preventing my daughter from serving the poison lemonade could not reasonably be characterized as punishment preemptive or otherwise. >>> [O]ne of the natural laws of the universe is that we should exist with freedom, Since when? Natural law actually negates freedom. Try stepping off the roof of a building and exercising your freedom to not fall down. Besides – never mind theology – human laws exist in order to circumscribe and limit the very freedom natural law allegedly mandates. >>> God creates and gives rules of conduct to help man to behave in a way which leads to his flourishing. In what sense do things like commanding the Amalekite genocide contribute to human flourishing? Or Jephthah sacrificing his daughter to keep a promise to God?
  3. jrcowles said on April 2, 2018
    I had my reply demarcated into nice, discrete paragraphs -- demarcated by triple carats, >>> -- but the omniscient blog formatter removed the paragraph breaks. Sorry! JC

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