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Everyday Mystery

How our personal responses to mystery can shape us

"It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you." (John O'Donohue)

Most dictionaries define “mystery” as having to do with the “unknown,” the “unknowable,” or the “uncertain.” As a psychologist of religion and spirituality, I am interested in individuals’ responses to mystery, and how mystery may be an impetus for life transformation.

Having said this, there remains a great deal of confusion surrounding the meaning of the term “mystery.” Indeed, there actually may be different kinds of mystery, depending on one’s use of the term.

Perhaps more than anyone, Albert Einstein reflected on mystery in the universe. For instance, Einstein noted:

"Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable."

Others have written about mysteries of being human. As an example, C. S. Lewis wrote considerably about the connection between an interior kind of mystery and a sense of longing for Something More that individuals often experience. Lewis once remarked:

“Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.”

Psychologists of religion and spirituality also have occasionally studied personal “mystical experiences.” In his book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” the venerable psychologist, William James, identified four major characteristics of such experiences, including: (1) ineffability (i.e., the sense that one has had an experience that cannot be adequately captured with words), (2) a noetic quality (i.e., belief that one has had an experience that is real and profound), (3) transiency (i.e., an experience lasting a relatively short amount of time), and (4) passivity (i.e., the sense that one’s personal control has been temporarily suspended while something external takes over). Many of these characteristics are exemplified in the following quotation, from James himself:

“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite. . . I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. . . I could not have any more doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.”

In some ways, psychological science suggests that mystery is an inseparable aspect of human experience. That is, no matter how we try, and no matter our confidence, there seem to be psychological barriers to comprehending reality. For example, perceptual mistakes, cognitive biases, and memory distortions pervade our attempts to understand.

It is clear that people respond to mystery in different ways. Some of these differences may reflect a developmental process. Laird Edman, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern College in Iowa, has discussed a stage-based model of “epistemological development” consistent with this. At the lowest level in this model, individuals view knowledge as certain and absolute. Part of the motivation for this likely is that it is difficult to acknowledge uncertainty. At a middle level, people recognize that uncertainty is part of the knowing process. However, conclusions often are not reached because it seems that “all truth is relative.” At this level, part of the problem may be difficulty in committing to something when uncertainty is evident.

A different kind of response to mystery is curiosity, the desire to learn for its own sake. Indeed, in his excellent book devoted to education, “The Courage to Teach,” Parker Palmer notes how, for millennia, individuals have been drawn to contemplate and discuss the mysterious, “great things” of life (often around fires). This instinct toward curiosity is the basis for all true education and, as Einstein famously implied, may be the “cradle for all true art and true science” and “true religiousness.”

Returning to Edman’s theory, at the highest level of epistemological development, individuals recognize that uncertainty is a necessary component of knowledge. Still, based on the best evidence and reasoning possible, people at this level reach tentative conclusions. As a result, they are capable of understanding and respecting others’ views, while at the same time holding on to what they believe, even if somewhat lightly. The psychologists David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves provide an outstanding example of this kind of thinking. It provides a fitting closing for how individuals might respond effectively to many of the mysteries of everyday life:

“. . . the intellectually honest words belief, faith, and hope acknowledge uncertainty. . . One need not await 100 percent certainty before risking a thoughtful leap across the chasm of uncertainty. One can choose to marry in the hope of a happy life. One can elect a career, believing it will prove satisfying. One can fly across the ocean, having faith in the pilot and the plane. To know that we are prone to error does not negate our capacity to glimpse truth, nor does it rationalize living as a fence straddler. Sometimes, said the novelist Albert Camus, life calls us to make a 100 percent commitment to something about which we are 51 percent sure.”

Andy Tix teaches at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. Andy blogs more regularly about mystery and awe at his personal site exclusively devoted to the topic. Consider following that site for more articles like this.

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