Sunday, November 27, 2011

Missing Pages: The Concept and Meaning of Mystery

Mystery surrounds us.

With the precision technology affords us in our affairs, and the wealth of information such technology provides, it is hard to imagine how mystery could any longer be with us. By mystery, I mean that which is unexplainable in the broadest sense of the idea. There are different subjects of mystery (from the metaphysical, such as the process of God's creation), to the historical (what ultimately happened to Amelia Earhart), to the scientific, (how human cells obtain the information used to operate), to the more popularized (intelligent life on other planets/the Mayan calendar cycle).

We see mystery at every turn in our information age-driven society, from the more fantastic, such as murder mysteries, the quest for Lazarus animals and cryptozoological creatures, to the more mundane yet equally as appealing, such as abandoned houses and overgrown cemeteries. We question why our ancestors lived where they lived and how they lived; we question the course of human events; we question the laws of nature; we question the future and that which lies beyond our understanding.

In reality, mystery can be more prevalent than certainty, yet we ascribe with great vigor to the understanding that reason, logic, and empirical evidence can answer all questions. In some circumstances, reason, logic, and empirical evidence do provide answers, though the mystery can still remain. Sometimes, reason, logic, and empiricism fall far short of understanding a mystery, thereby deepening the original mystery in the process.

We, as human beings, are curious creatures. We seek to know and we seek to understand. That is why mystery appeals to us on so deep a level than we might otherwise consider. The unexplained needs explaining. There is sometimes a sense of completeness which is absent in mystery. It is as if a book has had its center chapters, or its ending completely removed.

This idea of needing completeness is matter of consolation to the human spirit. (Roger Scruton has spoken and written about this at length.) We are not at rest if we are uncertain. There will always be a part of the human heart and soul that seeks to understand mysteries, both great and small. Yet, so too will there be part of the human soul that can find consolation in mystery. We can look up at Heaven and be assured that God has taken care of everything in the mystery of creation; or we might look up to God, understand the mystery of creation, but still ask, "How was it all done?"

And when we consider mystery, we understand that our powers of deduction and induction can simply not explain everything. That doesn't mean we should cease exploring abounding mystery, and accepting mystery as such; rather, it means that our disdain for mystery should be set aside and replaced with a certain reverence for mystery in the world. Our search for answers is in many ways a search for our own meaning in existence.

Understanding and accepting that mystery exists does provide some consolation, though a particular mystery itself may prove much more vexing and frustrating. Consider the theist, seeking proof for an everpresent God; consider the detective, seeking to solve a crime; consider the investigator, in pursuit of buried gold; consider the medical researcher, seeking a cure for cancer.

Yet accepting other mysteries -perhaps, especially, the more metaphysical- can give much more consolation to the tortured human soul. How do human beings understand and process love? How do we understand and interpret beauty? What is knowledge? How does God stand outside time? We can accept these things as mysteries which may one day be explained, or may never be answerable -and they can give us some comfort because we focus on the substance instead. For example, we take great emotional delight in something that is beautiful -a sunset, a painting, the eyes of a loved one -and focus on what is beautiful, rather than what beauty is and how the concept is understood.

Again, it is not implied or suggested that the pursuit of mystery be abandoned in lieu of accepting mystery, and deliberately not seeking to explore it. Curiosity is not necessarily a dreadful thing, for seeking to understand can improve the human condition. But so too dangerous is the idea that we have all of the answers and no longer need to seek, and that mystery -and the healthy skepticism it helps to craft- is some archaic relic of the past, like an overgrown farm field beyond a rural, suburban town. The mystery -and the field- still lay waiting beyond our reach.

Coldness, callousness, indifference, and unmerited self-aggrandizement amid the confines of science and reason are more dangerous to the human condition than the unhappy consequences of refusing to at least understand the broad idea of mystery. To believe that we have mastered our world is an error of inestimable proportions. To assume we can answer every question is a grave mistake. To believe that mystery does not exist in the twenty-first century is simply wrong.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are eternally seeking something. Perhaps a rootedness, a place to call home ; perhaps love, and a family; perhaps understanding one's place in the world; perhaps a natural marvel or historical incident -it is all mystery. Recognizing that we are seeking at all is a matter of understanding and consolation which can limited or overwhelming.

Mystery, despite our methods and our technology, still surrounds us in every possible way. The seeking of consolation, the quest for understanding, and the knowledge that mystery will always be with us in some form is, taken altogether in one breath, a journey seeking to find the missing pages.

1 comment:

  1. A thoughtful and lovely piece. Anxiously awaiting the next one!