“You know, Ken, nothing is simple. Every molecule, every drop of water, every blade of grass, every light ray is filled with mystery. We never unlock the secret of anything, including the atom. We only discover a secret and each unlocked door opens into new doors inviting us to unlock them.”
These comments came in a personal conversation with Dr. William Pollard, a renowned physicist and Episcopal priest who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
One of the great joys of serving as a pastor in Oak Ridge was getting to know Dr. Pollard. He was, undoubtedly, one of the smartest people I have known. Coupled with his intellectual brilliance was an extraordinary humility. While his genius could have been intimidating, his gentleness and modesty put others at ease and invited them into his world of wonder and awe.
What accounts for such humility combined with intelligence? Perhaps the secret lies in the title of two of Dr. Pollard’s books, Faith and Science: Twin Mysteries and “The Mystery of Matter.”
Dr. Pollard had a keen sense of and appreciation for mystery! He saw the complexity in the simple, the mysterious in the minuscule. He said in one of our conversations, “Science doesn’t remove mystery; it only deepens it. Every answer we discover raises new questions.” He added that dogmatism in science or religion is dangerous and idolatrous for it truncates knowledge and eliminates transcendence.
The highly respected scientist and priest saw everything, from the microscopic neutron to the constellations of galaxies, as inexhaustible mysteries and revelations of Transcendence (God). Indeed, for him, Rudolph Otto’s description of God as Mysterium Tremendum or “Tremendous Mysterious,” is foundational for science and religion.
A great calamity of fundamentalism in science or religion is rigidity which eliminates humility rooted in mystery. When truth is conceived as closure or final, dogmatism is the results. Continued discovery is curtailed. Sustained searching gives way to defending present perceptions. Truth becomes static certainty rather than a dynamic journey toward the infinite mystery.
Certainty and firm conviction have their proper place. We need the courage to affirm, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Faith involves firm commitment to enduring truth, conforming to lasting values, and adherence to noble convictions.
The problem arises when we lose the mystery inherent in truth, values, and convictions. The consequence is arrogance, closed mindedness, and smug judgmentalism. Without humility grounded in mystery, we prioritize defending dogma over being formed by it. We speak without listening, attack without understanding, and coerce instead of invite.
If mystery is at the heart of matter, how much more it is inherent in theological affirmations about God and human beings. No person or group has a monopoly on the truth on any subject whether it be human sexuality or economic policy, immigration or racial justice, the Trinity or the doctrine of the Atonement.
In a religiously and politically polarized world, we desperately need more humility springing from a sense of mystery. Arrogance rooted in dogmatic certainty splits communities, churches, and governments. And, it shuts us off from one another, blinds us to yet undiscovered insights and beauty, and reduces God to the limits of our little minds.
With humility grounded in a sense of mystery, we would do
- more listening than pontificating
- more searching than defending
- more inviting than demanding
- more loving than legislating
- more uniting than dividing
- more worshiping than exploiting!