I came across this essay recently and I thought I would engage it a bit. The writer seems, to me anyway, to be making the same mistake that many former evangelicals/fundamentalists do once they walk away from those traditions/mindsets, which is she simply trades it for a secular/atheistic fundamentalism. An underlying sensibility or theme running through all fundamentalism is the need for certainty. She may have stepped out of religious fundamentalism, but the need for certainty is still so clear in her thoughts here. I think that is the main take-away for me, but I will just move through this and respond as a progressive, the very person she is addressing.
“I appreciate that progressive Christians don’t use this “God is a mystery” statement to shoehorn people into accepting a specific set of doctrine, I really do. Perhaps the problem is that when I hear this “God is a mystery our brains cannot grasp” rhetoric coming from progressive Christians, I think of myself and my own journey, and the way this rhetoric made me feel boxed in.”
Well, I’m sorry this reminds you of when the statement was used to silence you and how it made you feel, but you just pointed out that this is not how progressives use that statement, so?
“Because, I think, holding together the many contradictions I experienced became too difficult.”
This is question-begging. Whether or not they are contradictions is a disputed matter. Plus, allowing for mystery is often what unravels apparent contradictions. She over-looks how the very thing she doesn’t quite get, may have been the very answer to those so-called contradictions.
“The progressive Christian’s embrace of mystery stands in stark contrast to the atheist’s decision to jettison mystery. Some of us look at the contradictions, and it becomes too much. We’d rather solve the mystery than embrace it.”
The first sentence just made me laugh. The atheist embraces mystery as much as anyone. The atheist hasn’t proved God doesn’t exit. He believes that by faith. The atheist has hardly figured out the many mysteries of life, of the universe. There is no contrast here whatsoever, let alone a ‘stark’ one. Further, she reveals she has just traded for another ideology that seeks certainty when she says she would rather ‘solve’ the mystery than embrace it. She’s missing quite a bit here. No progressive Christian says we should not try and solve every natural mystery we can through the use of science and all the powers at our disposal. But we also recognize that when it comes to meaning, purpose, love, beauty, poetry, literature, music, drama, and life in general that such are beyond the reach of science or some physical measuring logic. In these other areas, the most important areas in our lives by the way, there will remain much that is mysterious and that is okay.
“I just didn’t find the call to “embrace the mystery” as comforting as others seem to, perhaps because for me it began to seem as though this rhetoric had the same goal as that of the rhetoric I heard growing up—to get me to believe something that does not make sense to me, just because.”
Well, you just told us you know that progressives are using the statement in a different way than fundamentalists. Do you believe that or not? I guess not. I can tell you that no progressive I am aware of wants anyone to embrace the mystery ‘just because.’ Either one does or he doesn’t—or he is somewhere in-between. I’m not sure we care if you embrace it or not. We simply are willing to forgo certainty and embrace the fact we don’t know everything. More people should try it. The last time I checked, no wars broke out when someone said ‘I don’t know–that is a mystery to me’.
“Progressive Christianity didn’t make sense anymore either. I didn’t go straight from evangelical to atheist, I actually explored Catholicism first.”
Just because one goes to a Catholic church doesn’t mean they left fundamentalism behind. There are some very conservative Catholic priests who also inhabit a type of fundamentalism. It’s possible then the writer has never really given a progressive Christian community a chance or even understood it well.
“What bothered me was that my experience didn’t line up. I had trusted God on some things I thought he was telling me, and those things turned out to be flat wrong. And no, I hadn’t simply “misunderstood.” I was no longer sure that I was able to listen to God and hear what he was saying to me, because I couldn’t tell his voice apart from my own internal monologue. Suddenly the “mystery” became painful. Was God playing a cruel joke on me? In the midst of this, all those times I had let go and embraced “mystery”—whether as a conservative or as a progressive—began coming back to haunt me. “It’s a mystery our brains cannot understand” began to feel coercive. It hurt. And so I let go…”
This was the most telling part of the whole essay. Let me get this straight, you now know this God never existed but you hadn’t simply ‘misunderstood’? How is that possible? If this God you were praying to didn’t exist, then you most certainly misunderstood whatever it was you think you were being told—you misunderstood your own voice then. And what in the world does that have to do with the ‘mystery’? That you found this mystery ‘coercive’ and that it hurt goes back to your fundamentalism, not a progressive understanding. The writer seems to be saying, “Because God didn’t do what I wanted, I no longer believe and I’m upset it’s all a mystery.” Well, God is not a slot machine or vending machine. God isn’t a genie in a bottle, existing to fulfill our wishes. I’m sorry your view of God was shaped by such a cheap and ignorant tradition. But please don’t blame that on progressives or even God.
“…I unleashed my brain on all of the things I’d told myself were “a mystery,” and rejected the idea that the problem was that I just couldn’t understand them.”
This is what fundamentalists told you, remember, not progressives. Progressives would say that sometimes understanding something, truly understanding it, is to recognize and embrace the mystery of that thing. This is how we can truly understand it. Don’t mistake understanding something with being certain about it or understanding it like you understand a math equation. That is not how you know your spouse or significant other, right? You can ‘unleash’ your brain as much as you want on why a child dies in a tornado or why two people fall in love, you will still come up short.
“I trusted myself, and my ability to think and reason, and I ran wild on the newly open theological terrain before me like a small child in a meadow.” It’s not that I had all of the answers, it’s that I was finally able to go looking for them without turning myself back at the gate.
This is something progressives encourage, so the point?
“In the end, “your human brain can’t understand the mystery that is God” became a cage—regardless of who was saying it—and it was only when I managed to say “no, I don’t believe that” that I was able to fly from the cage.”
Again, this is something fundamentalists told you, not progressives. I think what bothers both religious fundamentalists and secular/atheist fundamentalists is the progressive’s embrace of uncertainty and mystery. The fundamentalist has a need to be certain, to avoid risk, and to know he/she has the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ answer to everything. They need to be able to judge others as to their ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ and to put people in camps, those who are inside and those who are outside.
I’m afraid all the writer did was fly from one cage into another. Good luck with that. One day I hope she can leave the cage altogether.