Appreciation of the Mystery

As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep terrifying darkness enveloped him. 

When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces. It was on that occasion that the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River the Euphrates.”

Genesis 15: 12, 17-18

Throughout human history, religion has far too often been a source of division, violence, repression, and exclusion. From the so-called religious wars of Europe, to the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East as well as Christian-Muslim conflicts from the Crusades to those in our current day in Sudan, Egypt and throughout the world, from the Protestant-Catholic struggles since the Reformation and up to the “troubles” that so long plagued Northern Ireland, from the seemingly intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict between two related peoples who claim a divinely appointed right to the same land, to the misogyny and homophobia that seems to be an inextricable part of orthodox belief, religion seems to exacerbate and become a focus for the xenophobic and prejudicial tendencies of our human nature. Those of us of a certain age remember John Lennon imagining  a time when “there would be nothing to kill and die for, and no religion too.”

Regina Schwartz, in her book The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, examines the question of whether or not there is something inherently violent at the core of monotheism. If there is but one God, before whom there are to be no other gods, what does that mean for relations with those who worship a different god? These days we are reading from Genesis about the call of Abraham, the “Father of Monotheism.” The Abraham of Genesis, however, is one who journeys toward God not with dogmatic certainly but rather, as St. Paul constantly reminds us, in faith. He is called to leave his homeland, all that is familiar to him, and to set out without really knowing his destination and in trust of one who is, for the most part, unknown to him. Abraham is constantly questioning this God who has called him and promised him countless descendants. He is old and without children, so how will this come to be? God’s answer to him is that it will come to be through faith, a faith which can only come about in “a deep and terrifying darkness.”

God can only come to us through the experience of incomprehensibility, in a “deep and terrifying darkness.” There is a sureness in faith, but it is not cognitive certainty, much less intellectual arrogance. To realize the covenant that God is making with him, Abram must first leave everything he has and is sure of behind. It is only in “a deep and terrifying darkness” that, as Nicholas of Cusa writes, “the precise truth shines forth incomprehensibly in the darkness of our ignorance.” It is not “religion” in the abstract that is the source and fuel of violence and exclusion but rather our idolatry of our own certitude.

In Exodus, we see the Israelites, as they grow increasingly frightened and panicked in the desert, return to the certainly of their idol worship by building the golden calf. Faith does not come easy to us, for it requires that we be brought to a place of “terrifying darkness” in which all that is left to us, all we can do, is to choose to trust or not.

Many years ago, the mother of a friend of mine was dying. Her daughter-in-law called me and asked me to go to see her because she was apparently greatly agitated and afraid. The daughter-in-law, a convinced religious adherent, said to me: “You know, if you don’t know where the bus is going, you’re not going to be able to get on it.” The faith of Abraham, however, is precisely that. He gets on the bus whose destination is unknown to him; he puts his life in the hands of a driver he does not really understand but is coming to trust, appreciate, and even love. Faith, in the biblical sense, is about our relationship to mystery, and ultimately to the Mystery.

Adrian van Kaam speaks of two fundamental options in relationship to the Mystery:  appreciative abandonment to the Mystery, or depreciative abandonment by the Mystery. The option we make is largely influenced by our experience of the dark. There is an old joke that led to the designation of the “streetlight effect.” The joke relates how a drunk is looking for his keys under a streetlight, and a police officer who comes by begins to help him search. After a while the police officer asks him if he’s sure he lost the keys in this place, and the man tells him that he didn’t but rather lost them at some distance away. The policeman asks him why, then, is he searching here? He answers that he is searching in this place because here the light is better.

This “streetlight effect” says that we seek life and truth only in those places, in ourselves and the world, that we already know, where “the light is better.” To live in faith, on the other hand, is “to go to places we would rather not go.” It is a stance of appreciative abandonment to what is dark and unknown, and even terrifying, to us. We develop this capacity for faith, for appreciative abandonment, by moving against our tendencies to depreciative abandonment.

We know so little of who we actually are, for example, because we judge and depreciate what is strange and difficult in ourselves. We know who we want to be and how we want to be seen, so we focus on and cultivate those parts of ourselves that are under the streetlight. When more terrifying aspects of ourselves assert themselves, in dreams and fantasies, in unexpected reactions and feelings, we deny or dissociate from them. We appreciate what we know and are comfortable with, and we depreciate what is mystery to us. Living and walking in faith is to grow in our capacity to appreciate as a gift of the Mystery that in ourselves which is mystery to us.

As within ourselves, so with others and the world. We tend to appreciate what is familiar and comfortable to us and to depreciate what is of mystery to us. Perhaps the power of the religious beliefs of others to evoke resistance and violence in us is due to its challenge to our vision of life. The difference in the other evokes in us the terror related to how much is truly darkness for us. What if what I’ve always “believed” to be my destination is incomplete and in ways mistaken? Then, I am on the bus and don’t know where it’s going. If I cannot appreciate the journey, without total clarity of the destination, then I can only depreciate those who see a different one.

We grow from depreciation to appreciation by learning to trust the Mystery, which is always darkness to us. We acquire this transformation of disposition only through practice. If we constrain our life to scurrying around under the streetlight, we shall never experience that, in what seems like darkness to us, we are not only not abandoned but are actually held and beheld in love. We cannot know love until we recognize being loved in those places in us which we have most depreciated, and that love is, as Ruusbroec says, “a love common to all.” Once we realize and appreciatively abandon ourselves (as we have taken ourselves to be) to the Mystery, we shall then have a capacity to appreciate all of what is most foreign and mysterious to us in the world. The “light” of the others’ beliefs and perspectives will expand our own horizon and understanding of that Mystery which is beyond all we could ever know, or even imagine.

All these points, which should now be very clear, lead us to conclude that the precise truth shines forth incomprehensibly in the darkness of our ignorance. This is the learned ignorance for which we have been searching, and, as we explained, by means of it alone we can draw near the maximum and triune God of infinite goodness, according to the degree of our learning of ignorance, so that with all our strength we may always praise God for showing Godself to us as incomprehensible, who is over all things, blessed forever.

Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, I, 89

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