Is the presumptuous mapping of all material reality a boon to humankind, or will it prove a curse? Might an acknowledgment of mystery as a steady and enduring feature of our condition be key to our mental and moral health, and our sense of our own freedom?
This essay was co-authored with Donald A. Yerxa.*
One of Plato’s greatest dialogues describes Socrates’ encounter with the young prodigy Theaetetus, who would become one of the most influential mathematicians of the ancient world. As Plato recounts the story, Theaetetus became so captivated by Socrates’ dialectical puzzles that he confessed himself “dizzy” with “wondering” whether these mysteries and puzzles could ever be unraveled. To which Socrates responded with undisguised joy: “This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”
Aristotle readily agreed; it was “wonder” that led the first philosophers to engage in their characteristic activity. And Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Aristotle, explained that philosophers “were moved to philosophize as a result of wonder” and that they are “concerned with wonders.”
In our own day, the connection between the sense of wonder and the drive to know has been powerfully challenged. Max Weber famously declared in the early twentieth century that the rationalizing spirit of modern life—one of the greatest of the West’s intellectual achievements—led to the “disenchantment of the world,” a cold and forbidding view of our world devoid of even the slightest touches of human spontaneity or the least shadows of provocative mystery. Does philosophy end in a disenchanted world, in which there are no mysteries left to gaze at in wonder?
How we got to this doleful point is beyond the scope of this essay. But it is enough to point out that we do not seem to be content to stay there. A growing number of scholars, such as Morris Berman, James K.A. Smith, Robert Orsi, Joshua Landy, Michael Saler, Ervin László, Robert Pogue Harrison, Gregory Bateson, Alister McGrath, and many others, have pushed back and either questioned the idea that we moderns are fully disenchanted or have gestured toward the need for a re-enchantment of the world. To hope that one can usher enchantment back into the world by an act of will or a process of rational argument may seem like a paradoxical endeavor. But instead of thinking of this as a hopelessly self-contradictory act, or a childish impulse, we are more inclined to view it positively, as pointing toward a real and profound human need. There is a need for wonder, enchantment, and mystery—not merely as instruments to produce the flickering romantic allure of a candlelit room, but as something essential to our human flourishing.
The Need for Limits
The claim that wonder, enchantment, and mystery are essential to human flourishing should not be surprising. Scientific progress has always been sustained by a dialectical tension between what is known and what is unknown, and between things that may be questioned and things that must be presumed. This is what physicist Freeman Dyson meant when he said that “science is not a collection of truths” but rather “a continuing exploration of mysteries.” It is also what physicist Marcelo Gleiser meant when he observed that while “we strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, … we must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” In this regard, Dyson and Dr. Gleiser are not outliers in the scientific community. Many scientists—from Newton to Einstein to Steven Weinberg—have acknowledged the essential role of mystery and wonder in the advancement of science.
To speak more intimately, mystery, enchantment, and wonder figure in our psychological and spiritual well-being. It is harder than ever to contend that the Enlightenment project of conquering nature with the tools of instrumental rationality has been productive of ever-greater human happiness, given the abundant evidence to the contrary in the moral life of the modern West. Is the presumptuous mapping of all material reality a boon to humankind, or will it prove a curse? Might an acknowledgment of mystery as a steady and enduring feature of our condition—a cornerstone of our existence, even—be key to our mental and moral health, and our sense of our own freedom?
To acknowledge mystery is to have a keen day-to-day existential sense that we must live our lives delimited by epistemic and moral horizons beyond whose boundaries we lack the capacity or authority to go. The West’s literary tradition is replete with cautionary tales, from the Tower of Babel to the fall of Icarus to Faust’s bargain, warning us that a recognition of the limits of human understanding is essential to our health. Such a recognition serves as a ballast and balm for our souls as well as a safeguard against the chaotic promptings we might otherwise be prone to obey, to our own regret.
This insight can be taken even further. The evidence suggests that we humans are made for mystery, to live and move and have our being in it, every bit as much as we are made for knowledge and work and love. We need the presence of mystery as a constituent element in our lives if we are to flourish, in the same way that the coherence and beauty of a landscape requires the presence of a horizon—whether as a defining line across the field of vision or as a dark and even forbidding boundary that gives sharper definition to the illuminated world. Or, perhaps, we need the presence of mystery in the same way that our use of language needs the refreshment and release that comes with the practice of silence.
Two Kinds of Mystery
But how do we begin to make the case for mystery in a skeptical world, a world that is seemingly suspicious of every silence and every secrecy, every boundary or line of definition, every claim of inherent human limitation?
Silence and secrecy do seem to be at the heart of the matter; mystery involves a return to that which lies beyond human understanding, that which not only it is forbidden to express but which is in its nature inexpressible.
We still see this meaning of mystery exemplified in religious rite and dogma. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer speaks, in the post-Eucharistic prayer, of mystery in that sense: of being fed with “holy mysteries” that make the communicants’ “very members incorporate in the mystical body” of believers in Christ. The “mystical” elements of the Christian faith are precisely those which defy the analytical powers of ordinary reason: the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements, and His being-present in the corporation of the gathered faithful. We can never fully understand these things or relate them to any set of anterior natural causes, because they represent the symbolic expression of realities that transcend the scope of any category we could use to analyze them.
But often when we speak of mystery, we have in mind another sense of the term, as in detective stories and mystery novels, where the word refers to a problem or puzzle that must be solved, a hidden truth that must be found.
So we can distinguish at least two kinds of mystery: the ones you can solve and the ones you can’t. Or maybe a better verb is “resolve,” in the sense of analytically reducing a seemingly unknown thing to a combination of known things. A mystery in the one sense is a puzzle to be worked out, the necessary prior condition for a heroic discovery of the truth, a reaffirmation of the triumph of human intelligence and ingenuity over the recalcitrance of nature or the chaos of events—or the skullduggery of clever criminals. A mystery in the other sense, however, is like a prime number, which cannot be resolved into any combination of factors, but remains fully, inexorably, and unchangeably itself.
Mystery in this former sense serves to show forth the problem-solving genius of the human intellect. It becomes a parable in the service of the Enlightenment project. All mystery in this sense is only seeming mystery, a diaphanous veil that the intellect delights in removing. It is like the mystery of the skilled magician who seems to his audience to have decapitated his lovely assistant, but proves in the end to have done no such thing, and is eventually able to bring her back on stage, beautiful and smiling, unmarred and unmussed, to applause and smiles from the crowd. Were it the case that our eye is always quicker than his hand, there would be no mystery at all about the magician’s seeming miracles. In this sense, what we call “mystery” is merely ignorance wrapped in wonderment, a magic act (or the work of gods or God) that has not yet been decoded or explained as something entirely normal and natural—that is, the world before it became disenchanted for us. Hence our delight.
A visitor from the 1800s who was innocent of Wi-Fi and cellular technology could walk into a present-day Starbucks or airport terminal and imagine that he was walking into a demon-possessed landscape, filled with people who could calmly conjure messages out of the void and return them without any audible means of doing so. We find the thought amusing because we know better. Similarly, when we speak of the mysteries of the cosmos, the truths yet to be discovered about distant suns and arid planets, about asteroids and gamma rays and sunspots and black holes, we speak of mystery chiefly in that same sense. These are things we do not know, but that we could know and someday will know. They are mysteries that we haven’t yet solved, but that we can and will solve. We will know better.
And so our lack of knowledge, far from discouraging us, spurs us on to ever more determined and audacious voyages of discovery. We thirst for knowledge, and it is in our nature to seek it without ceasing. Mystery in this sense is merely the chiaroscuro that life casts upon what is unknown, providing a spur to that search for knowledge—a tantalizing invitation to lift the veil or dispel the darkness. It is not something to be accepted, or rested in, let alone celebrated or worshiped.
And yet there remains a residual connection between the two senses of mystery, which we can call the numinous sense and the detective sense. They are distinct, but they can be hard to separate. Part of our pleasure in seeing a well-done magic act is precisely in knowing that the gap between appearance and reality is susceptible to being made so great by someone of sufficient craftiness. We love the suspension of disbelief that leads to a recovery of a sense of wonder—that allows us to entertain, however briefly and flirtatiously, the notion that perhaps we still live in a world of enchantment and miracles.
We love it so much that we teach it to our children, encourage the deepening of their imagination, and cherish the childlike sensibility in writers such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling. These authors love and value ancient myths and fancy-filled children’s stories, and rightly find in the best of them much enduring and enlivening wisdom about the human condition. Every Christmas we greet the coming of Santa Claus and re-watch Miracle on 34th Street—a movie whose overriding theme is the inadequacy of a disenchanted world.
But, at least when it comes to the magic act, or the Sherlock Holmes mystery, we remain confident that the mystery can be solved, and we would be very unhappy if it turned out that it couldn’t. In fact, we would feel cheated. And we certainly would not feel a metaphysical challenge in that failure. No one would be induced to change his religion by a failed magic act.
This suggests that we have a split-mindedness in our approach to mystery. We seem to accept modern science’s disenchantment of the world, and yet we also rebel against it. We do so not only when it comes to the rearing of our children, but also in our imaginative fare, the media and expressive arts with which we fill our minds. While we moderns and postmoderns may have decided that the numinous should not predominate in the way we understand the world, we seem flatly unwilling to accept its complete disappearance. The great Dante scholar Charles Singleton once declared, enigmatically, that “the fiction of the Comedy is that it is not a fiction.” Whatever else Singleton may have meant by this koan-like saying, he surely meant to convey that the emotional and intellectual power of Dante’s work is so great that it presents itself as something too compelling to be disbelieved, something one cannot help but credit as a description of a world that actually exists.
Mystery, the Final Frontier
So where do we now stand with the disenchantment of the world? Is disenchantment a state in which human beings can actually live and prosper? Or will the recovery and vindication of enchantment, mystery, and wonder prove an inextinguishable human necessity, addressing as it does one of the key existential requirements of human beings: the need for mystery, the need to feel oneself located in a cosmos in which there are many corners of strange contingency, which the web of cause and effect, of action and consequence, does not reach?
It may be fruitful at this point to contemplate an analogy for the role of mystery in our world, even if it is not a perfect comparison. Consider the role that the idea of “the frontier” plays in American history and thought.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay on this subject has long been one of the touchstones of American historiography. To summarize briefly, Turner argued that the single most important factor in fostering American democracy—and along with it the many distinctive traits one associates with it, such as freedom and individualism—was the existence of a frontier on the country’s Western boundary. Turner’s essay was far less poetic than the theme it invoked, using examples drawn from natural and social science to make the point. For Turner, American development could be explained by the existence of this untamed land just beyond the reach of civilization. Life on the frontier means life on a verge, perched between civilization and nature, between the known and the unknown.
Historians have fought over the validity of the Turner thesis for many years. But let’s set that question aside, because the enduring value of the thesis has much more to do with the needs of our souls than with the task of historical explanation. Consider Tocqueville’s eloquent words in this regard:
Man did not give himself the taste for the infinite and the love of what is immortal. These sublime instincts are not born of a caprice of his will; they have their immovable foundations in his nature; they exist despite his efforts. He can hinder or deform them, but not destroy them. The soul has needs that must be satisfied; and whatever care one takes to distract it from itself, it soon becomes bored, restive, and agitated.
For all its pseudo-scientific pretensions, the frontier thesis spoke—and still speaks—to needs of the human soul. It speaks to the reality of our human restlessness in the face of finitude or closure, which we often experience as a kind of imprisonment and constraint upon the human spirit. We are drawn to prefer the infinite, the mysteries of the open road. We experience the same claustrophobic feeling when we contemplate “the end of history,” as in Francis Fukuyama’s description of the universal imposition of the bourgeois liberal welfare state and its secular “immanent frame.” According to such an account, all reality has been comprehensively mapped and all risk has been minimized—a world of closure and finitude, with no remaining corner or enclaves of enchantment and transcendence.
So whether or not Turner’s analysis was empirically accurate, what he gave America and the world was an enduring expression of the American story, the narrative account of a whole people shedding the trappings of inherited civilization—with all its stale conventions and oppressions of memory and lineage—and stepping into the liberating bark canoe of the frontier. This primitive conveyance could, in turn, glide us into a fresh and vibrant future, ever self-renewing, reconciling nature and culture in the singular ongoing act of exploration and discovery and settlement, a circle that repeats and repeats. But that image was operative only so long as there was a frontier; hence the gloominess at the conclusion of Turner’s essay. What could take the frontier’s place once it was closed?
Comparing our need for mystery to Turner’s frontier thesis seems helpful because Turner described a particular way of being in the world, addressing, whether he meant to or not, the need Tocqueville described—the need in the soul of free peoples to seek the infinite, to boldly go where no man has gone before, and to be remade not only by what one finds, but also by the experience of exploration, of searching and finding.
Mystery is our mental frontier; wonder and enchantment are its resident spirits. We need “frontiers of knowledge” and frontiers of exploration for the health of our civilization and the flourishing of our individual lives. And the loss of a sense of mystery in life would, like the loss of a sense of frontier, change who and what we are and drain the energy and purposefulness from our exertions. This is why the numinous story turns out to be a necessary basis for the detective story. And it is also why acceptance of the numinous implies that there is—and must be—a frontier that is permanent and never domesticated, a mystery that is never penetrated, a riddle that is never solved or resolved, a myth that can never be debunked or unmasked. This is the fuller meaning of “mystery” reemerging once again, as it must.
1. Why do so many scientists consider re-enchantment a “science stopper” and the invocation of mystery akin to committing intellectual suicide?
2. How do we make a convincing case for “acknowledging mystery” in our skeptical intellectual world?
3. What impact would re-thinking the role of mystery make in our individual lives and in our society as a whole?
* Donald A. Yerxa is Professor of History Emeritus at Eastern Nazarene College and past editor of Historically Speaking and Fides et Historia. He is the author, co-author, and editor of twelve books, including most recently Religion and Innovation: Antagonists or Partners? (Bloomsbury, 2016).
This essay was originally published by Big Questions Online.
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