Starved for Mystery

There’s something that itches at me occasionally. Something perhaps emotional, spiritual, and certainly soulful. It is the desire to dwell deeply in The Mystery.

I think we all have this. Deep in the subterranean parts of our inner self is a desire—or perhaps even a hunger—for the sacred unknowing. We feel it when we look up at a starry night sky, or perhaps when we stare at the shadowed ceiling above our beds. We feel it when we ask the question, “Is this all there is?”

Unfortunately, hundreds of years of modernism—and the protestant church’s response to it—has had the effect of making us starved for mystery. Science tells us that everything that is, is knowable. And a natural consequence of that line of thinking is that God does not exist. In response, the church countered with centuries of apologetics, which offers as counterpoint the carefully curated rationale behind the Christian faith. While necessary and essential and good, this was not necessarily the full story. Instead of arguing for the fact that most everything is actually unknowable, the church often responds with the answer.

Perhaps it is because we are uneasy with blanks on the page. Or we feel comfort in closing the gap of that leap of faith we all must take at some point. But as a result of hundreds of years of biblical scholarship and systematic theology, we may have elevated knowledge of the Word over living in the Word. In many of our protestant faith traditions, the communion table has taken a back seat to the pulpit. And the sermon has unwittingly become the undaunted forum for explaining away the mysteries of our faith.

But consider this for a moment: The majority of everything in the universe is actually unknowable. We are limited beings, after all. Our human intellects are finite and fallible and have limited comprehension. We’re like little toddlers playing in a sandbox, not able to understand that they’re sitting on a slowly drifting continent, floating on a blue ball, orbiting within an orderly solar system, a minuscule part of an immense galaxy that is part of magnificently huge and ever-expanding universe. Human adults are only a few years of maturity beyond that of a toddler. It stands to reason that the vast majority of stuff in our limitless universe is beyond our understanding.

Think about it this way. We learn arithmetic in elementary school, algebra in middle school, trigonometry in high school, calculus in college. And there are levels of mathematics beyond that as well. But there are probably thousands of levels of mathematics beyond that, and we simply don’t have the intellects to develop and understand them. We don’t know it, because we cannot know it. And we don’t know what we don’t know.

Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. Isn’t this a blog on faith and the arts?

Have you ever been moved by a painting, or a sonnet, or music film score? If you had, I believe it is because there is truth in that painting or poem or song that resonates with something within you that seeks truth. It doesn’t necessarily make any rational sense to be moved by it. But we feel it, understand it, know it to be true.

Here’s my point. When we express or interact with the arts, we speak a non-rational language. (Understand that “Non-rational” is quite different in meaning than “irrational“.) Things like dance and poetry and music have the capacity to express truth that is emotive, non-linear, unfathomable, and at times profound. As such, the arts have the capacity to declare truth that may appear contrary to—or even reach beyond—human reason. Beauty is an example of non-rational truth. So is love. Because these things are not expressed through reason, but they can have profound truth. Which brings us back to mystery.

There is something behind our thirst for mystery. I think it is ultimately a holy beckoning to our souls. Human beings innately yearn for an encounter with the Holy, the Infinite, the Revered, the Sacred Unknowable. Without the language of beauty and the arts to help us, without sacred space that allows us to meet God on His terms and not ours, without the humility that comes from realizing that God is beyond our understanding, we lack the vocabulary to speak deeply into the mystery.

So we, as artists, must learn to embrace mystery. Be at ease with things that are unknown. Know that you carry the capacity to share the mystery with others. And expect regular encounters with it in our art and faith journey.

[Banner Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash.]