Why Mystery Matters


TODAY IT IS NOT UNCOMMON to find books and essays that talk about why a particular domain of knowledge matters, such as science or religion, philosophy or literature, history or mythology, music or art, theatre or dance. All of the religions,  humanities, arts and sciences may seem at times to have gone into hiatus or eclipse in our contemporary technologically enriched but intellectually impoverished world.

There are also books and articles that talk about why particular historical or contemporary persons matter. I just finished reading a book entitled “Why Trilling Matters” by Adam Kirsch who is talking about the late literary and cultural critic, Lionel Trilling. Likewise, I’ve recently enjoy reading literary biographies of Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau and William James on the premise that these gifted visionaries and writers still matter today.

However, when I talk about why “X” matters I am talking about something quite different. In his book, “The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery,” Raimon Panikkar claims that we cannot say what “God” is, except that the word is a conventional reference to designate the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the unknown, and the unseizable.” This statement is in alignment with the historical “via negativa” mystical tradition. Some version of it appears in virtually every world religion, in addition to the “via positiva” tradition that attempts to ascribe attributes to the Divine Mystery.

In Taoism it is said that “the Tao that can be named is not the Tao.” Here again we see the idea of that which surpasses all human language yet paradoxically uses language to point beyond language to that which must remain ineffable and nameless, even while we ascribe a variety of names to it. In Judaism the name of God is too holy to be named, and it is ambiguous whether the word God is used as a personal, non-personal or trans-personal noun, an active or passive verb, or a series of prepositions that include above and below, behind and before, without and within.  God turns out to be an ineffable and polysemic symbol rather a rational and  monosemic concept. It would be better to speak of GXD, remembering the Ineffable Mystery that ever stretches out beyond the limits of our finite minds and imaginations.

The idea that the Ineffable Mystery of “X” transcends both words and concepts is an affront to both the rational philosophical and empirical scientific mind who may take their revenge by calling the Ineffable Mystery of the “mystics” an illusionary fiction or a mental holiday with no theoretical or practical value.

And yet there is a long tradition in the West that runs through Socrates, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Keats and Rilke that reminds us to remember what we do not know, what may beyond our conceptual horizons, what may encounter us with ambiguity, plurality, irony and paradox, that which may require negative capability, and that which invites us to live the questions. This tradition provides healthy resistance to all forms of religious dogma and secular ideology, all belief systems that confuse “the map with the territory” and that assume like the crazed Ahab that we can capture and kill the Great White Whale that represents the Inscrutable Mystery of Being and haul it along side our ship in the tangled snare of our philosophical and scientific nets. There is something Promethean in the human spirit that wishes to be as god, the master of his fate and the caption of his soul. There is something in secular man that resists the transcendent dimension of life and that seeks to live in an exclusively immanent domain. Nevertheless, the repressed longing for wonder, mystery, transcendence and hope continues to return after it has been declared dead, taking ever new forms, not all of them religious. As long as human beings walk this earth there will continue to be those who cry out in poetic ecstasy or inarticulate agony with an inconsolable longing for the Ineffable Mystery that may yet turn its glance our way,  assuring us that amidst the absurdity, tragedy, fury and madness of our present world that “all many of things shall be well.” Who knows hidden side of the Great Mystery may be composed of, whether chaotic, order, or complexly chaordic, with determinism and free will each playing its part? The Wild Hope that there remains a Joker in the Deck, an X factor we had never imagined, continues to lure the human spirit toward the realization of new meanings and values in a radically open future.

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Philosophical Reflections and Musings on the Great Questions of Life

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