Mystery and The Acceptability of Not Knowing


Lisa, a friend at a distance (which is not the same as a distant friend), recently sent me this quotation from Richard Rohr: “Wisdom happily lives with mystery, doubt and ‘unknowing,’ and in such living, ironically resolves that very mystery to some degree.”

I’m not well acquainted with the quite famous Friar Rohr. The Internet declares he is either a source of great wisdom for the Christian or another New Agey “spirituality” guru from “Many Paths Up the Mountain Land.” I’ll simply say that I find this particular assertion true and useful. (Not least because it agrees with what I already believe. Always pleasant to hear an echo of one’s own thoughts, don’t you find?)

I believe there is both capital and lowercase Mystery/mystery in reality and in our everyday lives. Lower-case mysteries are simply a lack of knowledge—perhaps temporary—and can be solved by education, study, and experiment. Capital “m” Mystery includes questions about the more profound and unresolvable aspects of reality that elude resolution and that smile at our confidence in our education, study, and experiment. (Including about things about which we don’t even know enough to ask questions.)

Both kinds of M/mystery are as much a part of R/reality as are gravity or black holes.

Both kinds of M/mystery are as much a part of R/reality as are gravity or black holes. The dogmatism of those who say physical reality exhausts Reality bespeaks a pinched, inadequately reasoned approach to truth, in my view, and the dogmatism of those who claim to know with certainty and precision the nature of God and Spiritual reality (I defend capitalizing both) betrays a similarly exaggerated confidence in their own powers of discernment. As the poet says, “God will never be plain.”

The fact of M/mystery does not leave us adrift. We have been given enough to be right with Reality. We are encouraged to know more than we currently know, in all realms. The inherent limits on our knowledge should not discourage or paralyze us, but they should keep us in a persistent state of humility and quest.

And, as Rohr says, allowing that M/mystery is part of the nature of R/reality helps one better understand and come to terms with that R/reality. Acknowledging Mystery as an aspect ofR/reality–as most great thinkers and artists and spiritually aware people have–is itself an evidence of a greater understanding of the nature of that R/reality, a step toward making it less unknown, that is, less mysterious.