Captivating Mystery

A link on the net announced, ‘Atheist Stephen Fry delivers incredible answer when asked what he would say if he met God!’ The report goes on to say that Fry delivered a ‘stunning rebuke’. I know grandmothers who would be laughing at this. Steven Fry’s outrage is nothing new and is directed at a God who doesn’t exist—not even for Christians. It’s actually directed at something else.

I can’t believe that the interviewer would see Fry’s answer as a shock or a ‘stunning rebuke’. Whatever worldview they held, anyone who has lived for a while on this planet will have had days or even years of their life where they said things like that to (or about) whatever Higher Power they understood to be responsible for the pain. As the psalmist says …

‘I’m a black hole in oblivion.
You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit,
Sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.
I’m battered senseless by your rage,
Relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
You turned my friends against me,
Made me horrible to them.
I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out,
Blinded by tears of pain and frustration.’1

Fry’s answer would actually make a good start to one of those ‘psalms of disorientation’ as Walter Brueggemann calls them. This ‘shaking of the fist at God’ has its place in all spiritual journeys but to stay there is dangerous. Josef Stalin, for example, died shaking his fist at God. Only a wealthy and comfortable society like ours, which has made lifestyle preference it’s golden cow, would have the nerve to make suffering and pain the single defining issue when it comes to the way it thinks about itself and everyone else. National health is defined primarily in terms of money, a sense of wellbeing, education and economy—and we pat ourselves on the back if it’s going well. ‘The darkness, that “deep dread” crap ain’t gonna get us,’ we might as well be singing.

But what if—especially in situations like ours—the ‘darkness’ is actually the only way ahead? What if Steven Fry’s definition of God has ironically been handed to him warped and broken by the church? A churched world that’s living in denial, that likes to imagine God to be a nice little guy who’s doing his best to make everything nice for us, as in the Secular Enlightenment crowd. But what if things are much more complicated than that?

Brueggemann points out that Christendom is implicated in this denial when he says, ‘It is my judgement that this action of the church is less a defiance guided by faith and founded on the good news, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate bible users, given the large number of psalms that are psalms of lament, protest and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the bible itself does.’2

I would suggest that Fry’s rage is actually more to do with our human frustration and terror at what has been called the ‘deep darkness’. Also known as the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: a dreadful, beautiful and captivating mystery you would spend your life running away from and also chasing after. It’s where one of the earliest words used in primitive language (‘taboo’) comes from.

Brueggemann says that instead of just getting angry at this mysterious darkness, we need to recognise that the it holds a clue to the puzzle. He suggests that the problem with us is that it’s not just that we are afraid of evil, we are afraid of all that is mysterious, awe-inspiring or numinous. And that our society (and even at times our so-called ‘Christianity’) has a vested interest in the elimination of wonder and “abiding astonishment,” because ‘In our modern experience but probably also in every affluent culture it is believed that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and eliminate the darkness … The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise. It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life. Indeed, Israel seems to know that new life is rooted nowhere else.’3

When you look at who we are: the first ever society in history to completely excise a Higher Power from our way of life and our meaning and purpose, it’s no wonder we are filling up with angry people who—suspecting that their secular dream is over—are venting their spleen (without seeing any irony) at God. ‘How dare God allow this mess!’ we say. But the fact is, we made our bed, now we must lie in it until we are ready to listen: not to the church, not to that bloody-minded preacher who ruined our family, but to that dreadful and captivating mystery.

Walter Brueggemann speaks to this when he says, ‘It is worth considering a “sociology of wonder,” and asking who is open to abiding astonishment,” and who might be compelled to overcome, banish, or deny such astonishment? I submit that “abiding astonishment,” the celebration of enduring miracle, tends not to occur among those who manage writing, who control the state, who create and transmit proper “facts,” who monopolise control, and who explain by cause and effect. The experience and articulation of wonder tends to occur in the midst of oral expression, in simpler social units, among those who yearn for and receive miracle, who live by gift since they have little else by which to live, and who are sustained only by slippage (mystery) and gaps in the dominant system of power. The elimination of wonder from historical reconstruction is (therefore) a drastic decision to read historical memory in the presence and service of one sociological interest, at the great expense of a contrasting social interest.’4

1 Psalm 88:8,9 RSV
2 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.26 Augsburg Fortress 2002
3 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002

4 Brueggemann W. Abiding Astonishment p. 42 1991 John Knox