Mystery and Absolutism

An old adage states, “Life is not a problem to be solved; it is a mystery to be lived.”

Absolutism is a philosophical stance that contends there is an absolute truth.  Every religion and most governments lay claim to certain absolute truths; we profess them in our creeds, our catechisms, and our laws.  They exist to direct us along noble paths.  Most of us get our moral formation by such absolute standards that help us judge what’s good and evil.  They guide us in making wise choices and help us solve the problems of life that we encounter.

Sometimes, however, this philosophy gets directed in ways that influence ideologies and indoctrinate us in bad behaviors.  The underbelly of absolutism is found in its too-often pernicious influence and sometimes violent enforcement of beliefs by individuals or communities.  The Catholic Church has been guilty at times in history, e.g. the Crusades and Inquisition, as have other religions and governments; perhaps most notable in modern times are Muslim extremist groups and national political parties.  Though in some ways impressed by those who embrace absolute truths and, hence, have an answer for everything, I am also baffled by their surety and concerned that they aren’t interested in existing within a mystery greater than they can know.

I have a priest friend who, in preaching, often startles people with some interesting insight about scripture or faith—startling because it arises not from the standard content of absolutes but from the wellsprings of mystery.  He will explain how he got to that insight and say: “You don’t have to believe me or agree with me—and it is possible that I am wrong—but this is what I have come to believe and this is why.”  He is comfortable dwelling in the mystery.

There are many mysteries and then, of course, there is the ultimate mystery of God.  Each year, at this time, the Catholic Church celebrates grandiose mysteries, i.e., the power of the Holy Spirit, the existence of a triune God, the miracle of Christ living in us through the gift of His body and blood.  On three consecutive Sundays as spring ends, we commemorate the Pentecost, Holy Trinity, and Corpus Christi feasts.

Australian author Morris West, in his novel, Lazarus, a story about a pope who emerges from a heart surgery with a change of heart about many matters of faith, including absolutism, writes: “You’ve asked me how I can conceive of God, and I have to admit to you that I cannot.  In fact, I don’t even really try.  Instead, I simply contemplate the immensity of the mystery.  At the same time, I am aware that I, myself, am part of that mystery.  My faith, therefore, is an acceptance of my own unknowing.”  Jesus, who we believe to be “The Truth,” calls us into the same mystery.  He challenged Pharisees, lawyers, and religious leaders of His time who claimed absolutes.  There is only one absolute.  It is Mystery.