Opening Minds to Mystery

Illustration by Jason Raish

Why do people go to church?

I mean, besides the fact that no human being can resist doing something for the simple reason that it’s always been done. Are there genuine social or intellectual or spiritual reasons for going to church?

Yes. Underneath all the nonsense and pomposity, there are good reasons: community, meaning, connection with the past. But I would like to suggest that, ultimately, people go to church because of mystery. This is not mystery in the sense of Whodunit?, or “What makes a rainbow so pretty?”; instead, this is the very mystery of existence itself; it is the bare fact of us showing up, without even having been asked, on this loneliest of planets in this strangest of universes. All people who attend church—conservative, liberal, whatever—do so, at least in part, because of mystery. They may never use that word, but there it is nonetheless.

This is not to say that all are motivated by mystery in exactly the same way. Some people attend church in order to receive answers to the hard questions life throws at them, to shield them from the dark realities of modern life, to seek reliable absolutes by which to measure the world. That is, those in this group attend church in order to escape mystery. Because mystery means not knowing, and people must know.

This is a broad generalization, to be sure, but many, many people are powerfully motivated by the fear of the utter mystery of life. It is, after all, the great unknown. And to not know is to give up control, to be shut out in the dark, to drift, to face the abyss with no armor. Flight is an utterly human response to mystery.

But sometimes the need for control, absolutes, and knowledge careens out of control. To wit: Those who desire to have creationism taught in our nation’s public schools. They know, because the Bible says so; and after all, isn’t it good to know the truth, and isn’t it good to share it, even if that means stacking school boards and inciting legal battles?

But some churchgoers do not attend every Sunday in search of answers. These people understand the church not as a provider of answers but as a poser of questions. That is, for these Christians the task of the church is not to clear away mystery, but to deepen it; to teach its congregation how to bear mystery—and “the truth”—lightly. The unknowns of life may be terrifying, but this group knows that facing them squarely can be fantastically liberating.

My earliest experiences that could be called “religious” were delivered to me by the hands of science. When I was in third or fourth grade my dad showed me a geologic timeline in a Time-Life book on natural history. My eyes followed its epochs, periods, eras, and eons down the page until they converged on the dark Hadean eon, marking Earth’s very assembly 4.5 billion years ago.

I was stupefied. With its boxes and numbers and colors and fine print, the timeline seemed to me a thing of great elegance. The words—Ordovician, Silurian, Jurassic, Eocene—were themselves rare discoveries, whatever they signified. Yet standing at the edge of that precipice was, for me, secretly scary. It was profoundly disorienting. It made me feel utterly empty, like I was an absolute nothing. Like I was a ghost.

But it also made me feel giddy, joyful, and free. I could not take my eyes from it. Night after night, I took the Time-Life book to bed with me, and I read it until I could read no more.

This quiet but transformative introduction to deep time started me off on a terrific three-year-long obsession with dinosaurs and evolution and geology and astronomy. Other encounters with nature had similar effects on me: They made me feel empty, terrified, and utterly happy and free; and I wound up being a physicist and astronomer. And the irony is, it was science and the natural world—and not the church—that introduced me to mystery.

Mine is not an isolated case. Over time I have come to know many others with similar experiences. Many of these are scientists who, like me, entered the scientific world out of their love of nature. Yet unlike me, most of them were, and still are, agnostics or atheists. They know the wonder, they know the profound amazement, they know the jaw-dropping disbelief that comes with even a modestly scientific view of the world. Whatever their theological position, they know something about what we religious sorts call mystery.

Rather sentimental people often argue that the more science one knows, the less mysterious and wondrous nature becomes. But this is simply not so. The insistence that the wonder of nature is reduced by scientific knowledge is no different than the insistence that scripture can only be understood literally; both are fixated on appearances and are based in the fear of the unknown.

At the initial stages, historical criticism may seem to needlessly desiccate the Bible. But over time the effect of study is a radical deepening of the text. Careful and sustained attention releases a kind of wonder from the pages of scripture; this has been attested to by many over the centuries. But this level of appreciation does not come from a literal reading; it comes by digging deeply and patiently in order to find the meaning that is found beneath and between the words on the page.

The “book of nature,” as the natural world is sometimes called, is no different.

A version of this essay first appeared in the online journal Religion Dispatches in February 2011 and is reprinted with permission. Paul Wallace 11MDiv is a freelance writer who teaches physics at Agnes Scott College. He also blogs at the Huffington Post.

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