I had dinner this week with some friends and somehow we stumbled across the topic of mystery. Specifically, we spoke about mystery in faith and how that fits into our church lives today. This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately. We seem to live in a culture that promotes cut and dried theology, and, indeed, everything. I was watching a TED talk on vulnerability the other day (by Brené Brown, highly recommended) and noticed that even she talked about the insecurity that leaves us weak and trembling, unable to listen to the opinions of others lest we be carried away and forget what we know, what is certain.
What is it about mystery that makes us so uncomfortable?
I will never forget the outrage that came from many people regarding the ending of the movie Inception. People seemed to behave in three main ways. Either they liked the ending, thinking that it was artistic and allowed room for interpretation and conversation, they came up with the version of the ending which they thought would be the most pleasing to them, or they simply stewed about the open ending which had not, in their mind, resolved the movie. The former group was in the minority.
When we use the word mystery in reference to art, we are usually referring to something along the lines of Nancy Drew or Agatha Christie. These are stories which have something to solve, to put right, to bring justice to. They may be wonderful pieces of literature, logic and art, they may be entertaining, instructive and beautiful, but they are not mysteries. Mysteries cannot be solved, explained, or compartmentalized. They cannot be known fully or understood fully, at least by our human consciousnesses. This, I have known in myself and observed in others, drives us nuts.
The Bible is full of mysteries, look at the story in the Old Testament of the sun standing still for hours. How did this happen? It’s a mystery. People have been trying for literal ages to explain (often away) this mysterious occurrence. Either they want to be able to explain it or it didn’t happen, because if we can’t understand it, it is terrifying. Imagine a mystery story that presented a crime, or mystery and then did not solve it. It simply was unknowable, unfigureoutable, it wasn’t put right. The bad guys got away with the money, the good guys didn’t know where to look and the dish (or some other unidentifiable household item) ran away with the spoon to who knows where. We would close the book with no sense of satisfaction, but rather of alarm. Perhaps the thieves were still on the loose. Perhaps our bank is next.
How does this fit in with the mysteries of faith? Think for a moment about a hotly debated “mystery” of the faith. You shouldn’t have to think too hard. I choose the Trinity. God is three in one. This, to my mind makes no sense. I do not understand how it could be. However, the Bible says that it is so, we have seen hints of this in history: Jesus came to earth, died, was buried and rose again on the third day, just as He said He would. We have seen hints in our own lives: we have felt the leading of the Holy Spirit, felt the presence of God in our lives. We have read about the Trinity, been taught about it, heard the famous metaphors (it’s like water which is sometimes liquid, sometimes ice and sometimes gas) but it is still a mystery. This is my question, is it okay with us that something is true even if we can’t wrap our head around it? If not, we don’t have faith, we have a construct in our own minds, understood by us, manipulated by us. There is no room for faith if there is nothing to be taken on faith.