My Covenant With Mystery : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture In accepting that there are things we will never know and accepting that we may never know the ultimate source or organizing force of all there is, Ursula Goodenough, says she finds peace.

My Covenant With Mystery

Looking out over the sea of clouds as the sun rises over Maui. ewen and donabel/via Flickr hide caption

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ewen and donabel/via Flickr

Marcelo has taken us twice this week to the matter of ultimacy, first asking whether science can explain creation and then whether it can explain the nature of ultimate reality.

As it happens, the same topic has being floating on an Institute On Religion In An Age Of Science listserv this week.  The matter at hand was the relevancy of theism given what we know – and don’t know – about the nature of the universe. One contributor wrote:

While theism per se may seem irrelevant from several perspectives, the impulse underlying it is not. The concept of a personal God is one way of envisioning the ultimate source or organizing force of all that is. Many feel this image has flaws. But unless an alternative is adopted in its place, the absence leaves a Big Question, and gaping holes in understanding/belief are uncomfortable. I agree that understanding or appreciating Reality does not require Theistic causality. But, until a naturalist perspective can offer some type of image of the ultimate that can both be grasped and feel right, it will remain lacking in something essential.

The ability to grasp the mathematically-sophisticated, scientific cosmology on offer is in fact available only to the few. The rest of us, as Paul Davies
has pointed out
, take these matters on faith, placing trust in our respect for the scientists who make the effort to put the mathematics into English.

But what about an image of the ultimate that “feels right?"  Here we encounter the matter of choosing one’s concept of ultimacy on the basis of how it makes one feel.

There would seem to be two response-poles here. For some, the scale, the enormity, the explosiveness of the universe feels exciting and invigorating; for others, its apparent meaninglessness and indifference to human existence is depressing and terrifying.

As I’ve developed elsewhere, I started out this journey in the ranks of the depressed and terrified, and was only able to come to terms with the ultimacy parameter when I embraced what I came to call a Covenant with Mystery.

A covenant is a pact, a promise. Its best-known usage is biblical, describing the core understanding between Abraham and God wherein God would protect the Israelites if they obeyed his commandments. To speak of a covenant with mystery is obviously more complicated, if not flat-out oxymoronic. How is a covenant reached with that which is not known?

The idea, as well as the challenge, is to become comfortable with not-knowing, comfortable with having no answer to the question of why there is anything at all rather than nothing. The minute mystery is named, materialized, given some type of imagery, accorded properties or analogies, then it’s not mystery any longer. The covenant, then, is to agree to the proposition that mystery be shrouded in its own absence of category.

But “covenant” includes the concept of a deal: the Israelites obeyed commandments in exchange for protection. If I anchor my notions of ultimacy in mystery, then what could mystery possibly give back in exchange?

Well, basically, peace of mind. As I hear the struggles of those seeking a way to talk about, or deal with, their impulse to envision “the ultimate source or organizing force of all there is,” I wiggle my toes in the relief that comes from no longer needing to join this quest.

My covenant with mystery anchors my being.

And then, returning to the question of what the naturalistic perspective might have to offer if it takes a bye on images of ultimacy, I would say that it offers abundant, breath-taking images of the sacred on planetary/life/human scales. Once one lets go of the imperative to have the ultimate figured out, the proximate can far more readily, and far more satisfactorily, take center stage.