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Three Grades of Mystery

November 25, 2013
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In my last article I described why it is that I feel it is simultaneously important to read Scripture carefully and thoroughly and also to believe that we don’t know very much at all and, as long as we remain mortal, never will.  I am quite happy with my explanation in that article but I also feel like the complexity of mysticism deserves better explanation.  In fact, the term “mysticism” is inherently problematic since all it does is lump anything that is basically about mystery together and not all mysteries are of the same sort.

There are at least three major types of mysteries in the world.  The first is the type that lends its name to a book genre, the mystery that will eventually be solved with more information.  Who stole the famous gem?  Is there life on other planets?  Is the person I’m interested in interested in me too?  The answers to all of these are quite comprehensible but currently unknown.

The other two types of mysteries will never be less mysterious.  The second type is something that is mysterious because it works in a way that defies human logic.  We have a lot of expectations about how the world is supposed to work but there is no guarantee that everything that exists must follow these rules.  A lot of really mind-bending philosophies and religions1 start out by assuming that the true nature of reality works on some other system that does not resemble human logic and is therefore fundamentally incomprehensible.

The third sort of mystery is a bit tamer than the second sort.  It is the sort of thing one could understand if one had a much bigger mind.  One can understand the details but one can never grasp the whole picture.  In fact, this is a lot like a computer program in many ways.  I can read a piece of code and determine that a particular function takes two coordinates and determines the distance between them.  I can see that this function is used by another function that finds an object that fits into one category and determines how many objects of a second category are within a certain distance of it.  I could track this sort of thing out function by function but to actually imagine what will happen when one hundred functions are running at the same time in a complicated simulation is more than I can handle.  I can, at best, track a single small fragment of simulation through to the end.

The third category is where I belief that Christian mysticism lies.  The first type of mystery is not mysterious enough – it assumes that humans are missing details and little else.  The second type assumes that humans are missing everything but God does communicate with us and so His mode of action cannot be completely alien to us.  The third type of mystery assumes that God made us in His image and so He is comprehensible to us in one sense but that He is also much better than us in all ways and so He remains incomprehensible to us in a practical sense.

My general sense of Christian mystery is this: a complex problem that you could work out if you spent a week on it multiplied by a thousand and everything shown to you for half a second.  The picture in my head is one of your mind as a bird in an aviary learning where everything is.  It’s a huge aviary and everything is changing all the time and things grow.  Just about the time you’ve figured out the cycle for the lianas hanging off the ridgepole and where all the water in the little creeks actually goes the whole roof pulls back and you see that you’ve been mapping a few square miles of cage in a world and that there are world upon worlds stretching out to the edges of space to map and you’re not even sure how you’ll get to any other world but the one your cage is on.

Some people hate this.  Some people genuinely resent the world for making them learn.  There are people who on some level feel that it is unfair that one must learn physics to send a rocket to the Moon.  Some people, like myself, love solving problems.  The idea that there are so many questions to answer that you would never run out is exhilarating.  Perhaps, of course, the way I see the mysteries of God is tinged by this.  However, this idea of vastness emphasizes what I said last time: even though God is ultimately beyond human understanding the little stuff matters.  If you wanted to understand how the heart-beat of one great whale changes the current patterns off of New Zealand you can’t make rounding errors in your calculations.  If you want to understand the vastness of God’s world you can’t be sloppy with the basics.


[1] Not that one can actually tell the difference between a really solid philosophy and a religion.

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