And What About Mystery?

Van Gogh IrisI want to return to that amazing article I quoted from a few days ago by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. I was characterizing Gopnik as one of the new-atheists of our day, secularist to the core, philosophically materialist in his assumptions, condescending in tone toward believers. Believers form a crowd that is rapidly dwindling, Gopnik believes, and that surely is a good thing for him. One must only conclude, the writer wants us to believe, this is not an easy time to be a believer.

Mystery is one of the things that seems to drive Gopnik nuts. To make a claim for mystery, he suggests, is the tact taken by most believers because all other rational explanations of the transcendent have failed. This is a copout, he concludes, a kind of cowardly cover for believers for not really knowing what’s going on. The real stuff of life is found exclusively in the realm of the physical. To evoke mystery is a form of escape. It is foolish.

Here is what Gopnik has to say about mystery:

But the keynote of their [believers’] self-description typically involves a celebration of mystery and complexity, too refined for the materialist mind to accept. Self-Makers [secularists] often do an injustice to the uncertainty of Super-Naturalists [believers], who, if anything, tend to fetishize the mystery of faith as a special spiritual province that nonbelievers are too fatuous to grasp, and advertise their doubt and their need for faith quite as much as their dogma. . . .

There is a huge divide here, then, between the hardcore physical evidence of the materialist, beyond which no one should go, and the believer who ultimately bows before the mystery of the wonder of God and his world. The materialists don’t buy mystery. Believers are regularly swept up in wonder. This is where we part company.

A few months ago I quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, from his book God in Search of Man, that “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement . . . get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. . . . To be spiritual is to be amazed.” Now that is mystery. And this is precisely the sort of approach to life that Gopnik derides.

I was reminded of this Heschel quote on Saturday morning when I received a wonderful email from one of my teachers, my friend, Professor Rick Steele, from whom I have learned so much over the years. Rick was commenting on the delight, the utter joy, of being swept up in mystery. The problem is we too often try to explain or justify mystery with the language of the materialist. Can’t do it. That language is totally inadequate to the task. Because secular language fails, the Gopnik’s of the world assume that mystery must be a bogus escape into nothing.

What Heschel and my friend Rick affirm, on the other hand, is that ultimately we just bow down before the wonder of it all with nothing more to say. We are simply amazed. To say the least I line up in the camp of those amazed, on the side of mystery. I’ve been praying that I might be able to live my life more with Heschel’s daily amazement.

I ran into a marvelous poem by the great Denise Levertov that speaks to the notion of being swept up by mystery. It is called “Primary Wonder”:

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

This is beautiful. Yes, indeed, we frantically scurry about trying to solve the myriad problems of our days. Ultimately these are all raucous “diversions” when we “forget the mystery.” And then, “once more the quiet mystery is present to me.” Ah, it is a gift. It is grace. It is the sudden discovery, once again, that there is anything at all, anything like joy, the world, memory, everything. Where did these things come from? Can we explain them away through the tools of the materialist?

As we seek the answers to just these kinds of questions, we hit the mystery of it all. Yes, indeed, we bow down and say about everything: “O Lord, / Creator, Hallowed One, You still, / hour by hour sustain it.” This is amazing.

What utter mystery! Not to be explained, ultimately, through limiting materialist language, but oh my, this is everything.