Tuesday, April 03, 2018

O Magnum Mysterium

Mystery is a standard category in Christian theology, although different theological traditions have different theories regarding the relationship between faith and reason. 

Typically, what's mysterious and what's understandable are treated as opposites. Insofar as something is mysterious, it's incomprehensible–and insofar as it's incomprehensible, it's mysterious. And there are examples where that dichotomy applies. On that view, what's mysterious defies human reason. 

However, sometimes mystery and comprehensibility are reciprocally connected. Sometimes the same thing can simultaneously be both more and less mysterious. Let's start with a mundane example. Suppose I'm hiking on a scenic trail. I never did that trail before. I don't know what to expect, beyond it's scenic reputation. At the outset the journey is mysterious.

As I hike along the trail, I don't know what lies beyond the next bend or over the next hill. Once I get over the next hill and see it from the other side, it ceases to be mysterious in that regard. What lies behind is known, while what lies ahead is unknown. 

However, resolving each mystery creates new mystery. When I started out, I had no notion of what lay along the trail. No inkling how many hills I had to scale. 

Suppose the trail has ten hills. Thus far I had to climb three hills. So I now know the trail has at least three hills, and I now know what's on the other side. From that vantage point I see a fourth hill. But I couldn't see the second hill until I got over the first hill, I couldn't see the third hill until I got over the second hill, and so forth. 

Suppose I approach the fourth hill. What lies over the fourth hill is a new mystery, because I didn't know before I got to that point that there even was a fourth hill. S the known creates the background for the unknown. What I now know creates the context for a new mystery. It's because of where I am, in relation to what lies ahead and behind, that each discovery resolves one mystery while it opens up new vistas of mystery. More unexplored terrain. 

Or suppose I began my hike at the other end of the trail, moving in reverse direction. In that event, mysteries unfold in a different order. And the view is different.

Or take reading a novel. Initially, you may have no idea what to expect. The more you read, the more you understand, in terms of plot and characters up to that point in the story, but the less you understand because you don't know where it's heading. That sparks curiosity about what happens next. There are no surprises in terms of what you already read, but that's the setup for new surprises when you turn the page. So mystery and perception play off of each other in a dialectical arrangement. 

If something is a discrete, finite object of knowledge, then it may be possible to exhaust everything that can be known about it, since there's only so much to be known. In that case, understanding nullifies mystery. The better I understand, the less mysterious the topic. 

But in many cases, answers to old questions raise new questions. There are some questions we don't think to ask because, at that stage of inquiry, we don't know enough to ask them. Questions imply ignorance, but by the same token, they require some background knowledge. You have to know something to know what to ask.When you learn something, that may resolve an old mystery, but it may also raise new questions that weren't possible before you knew more about the subject. 

In addition, even if something is a finite object of knowledge, yet in a world where everything is directly or indirectly interrelated, even finite topics may be inexhaustible when you begin to consider how they fan out into other topics. In the study of nature, understanding one thing is a never-ending journey, because each thing is interwoven with other things in a vast tapestry that's continuously woven.  

Then you have domains like pure mathematics, which are infinite in all directions. If you have mathematical aptitude, as you study problems in math, you may solve them, but progressive understanding eliminates some mysteries by advancing you into ever deeper stages of mystery. You have to know enough to appreciate new problems in math. 

To the extent that we grasp God's nature and ways, our understanding opens doors into new corridors of mystery. There's less mystery insofar as we know more than when we began, but there's more mystery insofar as our comprehension at any given stage makes us aware of things that are perplexing in relation to what we now know. As we gain understanding, that changes the frame of reference, which, in turn, exposes us to new puzzles and brain teasers. That process gets going in this life but carries over into the next life. And everlasting safari of exploration into the undiscovered country of God's fathomless nature and imagination. 

No comments:

Post a Comment