“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He (sic) to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.” — Albert Einstein
Our Soul Matters theme for the month of December is “The Gift of Mystery.” As Unitarian Universalists, we are open to the language and experience of mystery and wonder. As our UUA bylaws put it, we draw upon “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”
It’s not an accident that this appeal to direct experience appears first in our list of authoritative sources. Your own experience matters most of all. It’s not that personal experience is infallible – far from it! – but it does have a certain priority when it comes to religious truth. Before any traditional or institutional authority comes the insight gained from living, personal encounter.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his famous 1838 “Divinity School Address”:
Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.
But it is not just any old first-hand experience that our first source refers us to; it speaks of our direct encounter with “transcending mystery and wonder.”
The word, ‘mystery,’ is often misunderstood and misused. It doesn’t, for example, refer to a deliberate muddling and complication of the plain truth, something irrational and obscure, designed to confuse the credulous. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean a very, very difficult problem, which can and will eventually be ‘solved’ if only we apply enough intelligence.
Problems are objective, ‘out-there,’ set apart from ourselves in a way that allows us to analyze them, break them apart and put them back together. A mystery, by contrast, is a problem or situation in which we are inherently, existentially involved in such a way that we cannot separate ourselves and say that the problem is ‘out there.’ To objectify a mystery in this way is to do a certain kind of violence to the situation. It is to shift from an ‘I-Thou’ relationship to an ‘I-It” perspective.
We are inextricably implicated in the mystery of life; we cannot stand absolutely apart from this interdependent set of relations without destroying something essential. There is nothing necessarily ‘supernatural’ about such an understanding of mystery, but it does, I believe, draw us ever more deeply in the self-transcending direction of ‘wonder.’
Ultimately, life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.
In good faith, Rev. Bruce