Monday, April 14, 2014

What I believe 1: Mystery ... Is

Warning: Religious content

This is the beginning of a series of posts about what I believe.  In no way do I expect any reader to believe what I do, and especially not as I do.  Rather it is the confession of one man. I hope that occasionally it might touch a spark of truth; too often I fear it will reflect my own fallacies.

I am fifty years old as I write this, I fully expect that I will change some of my views in the years I have left, but this is as good a time to do this as any. I realized that there is no real way for anyone to know what I believe outside my writing it down. I am a Christian, more specifically a moderate Baptist (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship). There are a number of preachers and scholars within my church and wider community of faith whose writings are worthy of study regarding my denomination of choice.  I grew up Southern Baptist (SBC), but we left each other quite a long time ago. I doubt I will be explaining why, but at some point I will probably provide a link into the history of why by those who explain it much better.

While my beliefs are much in line with those in the CBF, there is much latitude within it. Also what many people may think of as what a typical fifty year old Baptist living in the Deep South (Southeastern USA) would think would not accurately characterize who I am and, for that matter, who I have been.

Now to begin this series in earnest.

Mystery is:
Mystery is. Mystery has always been. Mystery will always be (as much as I can foresee at least).

One only has to look at the vast amount of  scientific knowledge that has been amassed during the course of written history to know that there is an incredible amount that was unknown and even unknowable to almost all of our ancestors that is readily available to we who live today.

Yet there are still major and even fundamental questions about the nature of our universe that mankind is still trying to answer. And those are only the questions that we know to ask in only a small subset of the fields of human study. I believe that there is so much more to reality than any of us living on this day will be able to question, much less attempt to explain or even know.

While I love learning and finding answers, to not acknowledge the limitations of human knowledge (and even more limited, what this one man can know), is to not be honest with myself. I don't have any illusions that I am honest with myself in all things, but at least in this I try to be.

Much of what I believe falls into the realm of mystery. I can't know about these things, but I can have faith in them. In this series I will try to explain why I have faith in what I do, but my insight about the difference between faith and knowledge, and between truth and facts shapes much of what I believe. It also shapes what I think and feel, and how I react to beliefs that run counter to my own.

How do I think we should respond to mystery, if it is something that is always there?
I think that there are three responses to mystery. We can ignore it; we can deny it; and we can embrace it.

Ignoring mystery is just that; ignoring it. I means to just not think about it. We ignore a lot of things, in fact it is essential that we do or we'd never get anything done. Likewise we can't think about mystery (the vast divide of that which we cannot know about) all the time, most of the time, or even much of the time. We have stuff to do, people to meet, life to live. However, to ignore mystery all the time is to never try to be honest about the nature of man. We cannot contemplate much about  human existence without acknowledging human limitation, and mystery is at the boundary between what we humans know and what we don't.
Denying mystery is may be the greatest fallacy that Christians and other religious people face. What does it even mean for Christians to deny mystery? It means to take all matters of faith and make proclamations of fact about them (or all that the person thinks are important). That there are answers to all mystery and that we have them. Often it means that anyone who believes other than a certain small group of people do, then they are wrong. They are other. They are a threat. They must be opposed or avoided or ignored, at least in matters if faith. There is no truth in them about matters of faith that differ from our own.

For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say I do not believe in this way. There are good people who do to some degree or  other. However, when I look at the atrocities that have and even now are perpetuated in the name of religion, even my own religion, I see this denying of mystery and the imposition of a narrow set of beliefs on others.

Embracing mystery may be the hardest response that we products of Western Civilization can make. We are comfortable with the truth being laid out before us. We go to school and teachers present the lessons; we take tests and answer the questions with what we are taught. For so many reasons we are more comfortable with facts than mystery. But mystery is essential to our true place in the universe.

When the first man walked upon the Earth, he did not have many answers at all. If who we are meant to be was to know everything, then that man failed. And the woman after him. Their children were no better. Even to this day, what one human can know is only a small fraction of the sum of what all people know. And the sum of what all men know is only a fraction of all that is to be known. Being "right" about everything is beyond us, being right about only a few things is all we can really hope for. If we are judged by how much we are right about things, we would all fall impossibly short.

But we can embrace mystery, and we can try to see truth when it is in front of us, and understand that our truth is not all truth. We can try to live in the light of the truth that we know and that we hope. This is what humans can do. This is what humans do at their best perhaps.

But we can only do that honestly with the knowledge that other people see other truth and may live that truth, but that truth is going to be different because they are in another place as they see the truth they do. These people are no worse than us for falling short in areas where we excel, no more than we are worse for failing were others do not.

There are certain things we can almost all honestly agree on. There are rules that need to be followed for a society to properly function. But there is so much that we will not agree upon.

So I believe that we can differ in our beliefs and still coexist and respect each other. We can look at what others believe without being threatened. If we are willing to follow truth, then seeing another's truth can help us see our own truth more clearly. We may find some of our mistakes and grow from the experience. We may disagree honestly and become more confident in the nuggets of truth we already hold dear; but in the process perhaps we will understand our fellows better.

Embracing mystery is an ideal that even the best adherents will fall short of, but the journey is indeed worthwhile.

The short version of this installment is that as certain as I can be of anything: Mystery is.

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