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Monday, 29 February 2016

Paying Attention: Mystery

Here is the third of addresses from 'Paying Attention', the Silent Retreat at the Retreat House, Pleshey, organised for the communities of St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Stephen Walbrook. We explored ways of paying attention to people, creation, events, emotions, absence and mystery. Earlier, at St Martin's, I had also spoken about paying attention in terms of the Arts.

Paying Attention: Mystery

The singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn sings, “You can't tell me there is no mystery / It's everywhere I turn.”

Andrew Davison has helpfully explained why this is so:

“It is fairly obvious that theology concerns topics beyond our full comprehension. This is illustrated in science by the way our basic picture has to change for time to time: Newton eclipsed Aristotle; quantum mechanics eclipsed Newton. Such shifts are no disaster, unless your only standard for intellectual success is completeness: having things cut and dried, sorted out. Scientific revolutions show us that the world is always beyond our grasp.

Knowledge is always partial because, frankly, the world is rather strange. Human knowledge goes only so far; behind it there is mystery. The development of science over the centuries confirms that mystery rather than denying it. The fact that science is forced to shift, again and again, demonstrates that human knowledge is constitutively incomplete.

I would give the name “faith” to this mixture of knowledge and mystery; we understand in part, as St Paul memorably put it.

Science grasps something of the truth about the world, but it is partial, and it develops. Religion and theology grasp something of the truth about the world and about God — although I would rather say that they touch God than that they grasp him. That is also partial knowledge, and it develops. As Aristotle said, one can take great joy in even a little knowledge of the highest things …

Finally, science knows only in part, just as theology knows only in part. We never fully know what we are talking about; but we can talk about it. Saying that you know in part is not a weakness; it is reason at its strongest and most mature. There is to everything a mysterious depth that eludes us.”

St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13. 9 – 12: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

In thinking about the way scripture speaks to us about God, Stephen Fowl notes that, “When it comes to almost any topic in Christian theology, but particularly to God, we will not get off to a good start if we expect the scriptures to demonstrate a unified, cut-and-dried doctrine of God.

Viewing scripture as a receptacle of doctrines will frustrate us, because on the one hand scripture’s accounts of God are rich and variegated, but on the other these accounts are not systematically organised.”

It is more theologically fruitful, he suggests, to see that scripture recognises this diversity and theologising about how we can organise and account for this variety.

In their book ‘The Abundant Community’, John McKnight and Peter Block suggest:

“A competent community creates space for what is unknowable about life. This is another major distinction from systems. In system life, living with mystery is considered poor planning. Systems are organized around the desire for certainty, science, and measurability. Planning, goals, blueprints are a defense against mystery. Institutions are about eliminating mystery. They are concerned with risk reduction or risk management. Taking uncertainty out of the future …

“Mystery is the answer to the unknown. In actualising its abundance, a community welcomes mystery, for that is a catalyst for creativity. Mystery gives us freedom from the burden of answers. Answers are just a restatement of the past …

Mystery is to the unknown as grief is to sorrow. What do you do when you do not know what is going to happen to you? You name it a mystery. It lets you go. It is a name for things we cannot fully know or control …

“The reason we need art in all its forms is to grasp the mystery in our lives, to recognize the mysteries around us. To get away from the pre-ordained structured way of seeing things. That is why you can listen to a song over and over. You know exactly what is coming, and it still holds an element of wonder. Which may be the primary function of art and why it is so essential to sustaining community.”

One gift that poetry, in particular, has to offer to us “is not an affirmation, but a negation of the power of any formulation.” Malcolm Guite writes that:

“Because poets push language to the limit, they are especially aware that language has its limits. Often a poet’s greatest art is to bring us to the brink of language, and gesture wordlessly beyond it.

This is especially T. S. Eliot’s art in his greatest achievement, Four Quartets. The fifth section of each quartet constantly returns to his theme of words that “strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden . . . Decay with imprecision” (“Burnt Norton”).

Even the radiant spiritual poetry of these quartets has, as it were watermarked into every page, Eliot’s explicit confession of the limitations of language: “only . . . Hints followed by guesses” (“The Dry Salvages”).

All of that is summed up in two lines from “East Coker”:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

If we are to pay attention to the mystery of God, there are ultimately only three responses we can make. The first is to keep exploring. Eliot writes in ‘Little Gidding,’ “We shall not cease from exploration,” and that is right because if we stop searching, if we stop questioning, then we get stuck and stagnate. We only have to look at nature to see the way in which all growth involves change; the caterpillar and butterfly being one of the most dramatic examples. Our own bodies are constantly changing throughout our lives with many of our cells being replaced as we progress through life. Growth involves constant change and if we apply this same principle to our thought life, our emotional life and our spiritual life then, as Eliot wrote, we must not cease from exploration.

The second is to express our sense of awe and wonder by kneeling in worship. Once again, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ describes this well:

“If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel …”

The answer to our questions is a person, not a fact, and the person who is the answer to our questions turns out to be God himself. Because God is infinite, he cannot be fully known or understood by human beings. With God, there is always more for us to know and understand. Knowing God in this way is exploration; like diving into the ocean and always being able to dive down deeper

The third response is to give gifts. Christina Rossetti expressed the gift we should give in her carol, ‘In the bleak midwinter’:

“What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”

I began by quoting Bruce Cockburn and I’d like to end doing so again. Death is the ultimate mystery for us and here Cockburn pictures it as entering into mystery:

"There you go
Swimming deeper into mystery
Here I remain
Only seeing where you used to be
Stared at the ceiling
'Til my ears filled up with tears
Never got to know you
Suddenly you're out of here

Gone from mystery into mystery
Gone from daylight into night
Another step deeper into darkness
Closer to the light"


Bruce Cockburn - Mystery.

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