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The Bible and Mystery

The Bible and Mystery

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Published by Steve B. Salonga

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Published by: Steve B. Salonga on Sep 13, 2010
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09/13/2010

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T
HE
G
OOD
B
OOK
:
 Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind 
 
by Peter J. Gomes
 ©
1996
C H A P T E R 1 6T H E B I B L E A N D M Y S T E R YMYSTERY is not an argument for the existence of God; mystery is anexperience of the existence of God. Very much like suffering and joy, mysterycan often be that place in which we come to know better who God is, andwho we are. The Bible is valuable to us because it is the record of those forwhom mystery and meaning are not antithetical but a life's work in thegrowing knowledge of self and of God. It is my impression that this biblicalambition for humankind is perhaps more urgent and vital now than at anyprevious point in history.Before we make the case for mystery as one of those thin places in whichthe human and the divine encounter one another, we must in some sensedemystify mystery. I am not trying to be clever. Mystery has a badreputation in religious language as an all-pervading, argument-proof cop-out when something cannot be explained; when there is a problem to whichthere appears to be no answer, the temptation is to call the entire thing amystery. To the impious, or just to the garden variety secularist, such adevice is merely clothing naked ignorance in the fig leaf of mystery, and tothe pious and the generally reverent, mystery is not the opposite of knowledge but the opposite of pride or of hubris. Mystery in this sense is thefrontier between what we know and can explain and what we experienceand cannot explain. Mystery can be seen in the American sense of a frontier,a place or space that remains to be settled or conquered. Mystery here ismerely unfinished or unaddressed business, which in the fullness of timeand with the inevitable improvements in skills and technologies will besolved. As might be easily said, a mystery is merely an unsolved problem,and unsolved problems do not provoke awe or devotion but merely irritation,intrigue, and persistence.Some years ago I took up Princeton theologian Diogenes Allen's littlebook on temptation for my Lenten reading, and through it I learned a lotabout temptation, but surprisingly and unexpectedly, I learned more about
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T
HE
G
OOD
B
OOK
:
 Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind 
 
by Peter J. Gomes
 ©
1996
mystery; and what I learned there has helped me ever since in theappreciation of mystery. Speaking of the greatest mystery of the humanexperience, the relationship between good and evil or, as Saint Paul says,the conundrum we experience when we want to do good but persist in doingevil and seemingly cannot separate good intentions from bad effects, Allensays, “Mysteries to be known must be entered into.” He then goes on: “Forwe do not solve mysteries; we enter into them. The deeper we enter intothem, the more illumination we get. Still greater depths are revealed to usthe further we go.”It is not so with problems. “When a problem is solved, it is over and donewith. We go on to other problems.... But a mystery once recognized issomething we are never finished with. It is never exhausted. Instead, wereturn to it again and again and it unfolds new levels to us. ... We live in auniverse permeated by a divine reality whose hem we touch when weencounter mysteries.”
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Such a useful distinction between a problem and a mystery set me off ona consideration of one of my favorite forms of literary diversion, the mysterynovel; and I began to take some liberties with Allen's characterization andto apply them to the genre by which so many of us have been so wellentertained for so long. When I think, for example, of the Queen of Mystery,Dame Agatha Christie, I am reminded that invariably she sets up the police,the professionals in the murder business, as problem solvers. Somebody isdead, somebody has killed him, and the problem is to find out who asquickly as possible. This problem must be solved so that one can get on tothe other problems awaiting solutions; thus Agatha Christie's policemen areusually in a hurry, eager to follow obvious leads, anxious to jump toconclusions because of the very reasonable desire to conclude. Thus, herpolicemen are made to look impatient, superficial, even careless in theirpursuit-not of the truth but of proof toward a solution. The problem-orientedpolice are what we might call tidy-minded.Miss Christie's stable of amateur detectives, on the other hand, MissMarple and the annoyingly fastidious Hercule Poirot, look upon theirmurders not as problems to be solved but as phenomena to be entered into.They seem to understand, as Allen does and the police in general do not,
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T
HE
G
OOD
B
OOK
:
 Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind 
 
by Peter J. Gomes
 ©
1996
that “we do not solve mysteries; we enter into them,and they alsounderstand that “the deeper we enter into them, the more illumination weget. Still greater depths are revealed to us the further we go.” Thus MissChristie's detectives are neither distracted by the apparent nor impatientwith the apparently obscure. They are usually not in a hurry, and unlike theharried police, they have time to pursue in a fashion that appears to beleisurely but is actually thorough, unraveling the whole skein of relationships, motives, personalities, and the like. True, both the detectivesand the police share one objective: the solution of the crime. In that sensethey are each problem-oriented, but as with so many things in life, it is notthe end that counts so much as the perspective. An essential ingredient in that perspective is imagination, acharacteristic the police are frequently described as lacking in themystery/detective story genre, and it is to the greatest of all detectives,Sherlock Holmes, that we must turn for the definitive word on the use of imagination in mystery. In “Silver Blaze,the Sir Arthur Conan Doylemystery story in which the dog did not bark in the night, Holmes and Dr.Watson have an encounter with a very competent, aggressive, andselfsatisfied young policeman named Gregory. Taking the clues and evidencefully into account, Gregory comes to a conclusion as to the circumstancesand culprit, and rules out the inexplicable in favor of a solution. Holmes,however, as we know, is always fascinated more by the inexplicable than byexplanations, particularly by those drawn from clues that often stifle theimagination. Basing his investigation upon what isn't there, the absence of the explainable, Holmes goes on to solve the mystery and to get his man –or, in this case, his horse. In characteristically modest triumph, he explainsto Dr. Watson: “See the value of imagination. It is the one quality whichGregory lacks. We imagined what might have happened, acted upon thatsupposition, and find ourselves justified. Let us proceed.”Through the sympathetic but informed eyes of Dr. Watson, the man of science and of rational sympathies, we are led over and over again to marvelat the triumphs of instinct, intuition, intelligence, and the passion forimagination with which the amateur sleuth enters into his mysteries, andthereby manages, in fulfillment of the expectation of the genre, to solve not afew problems.
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