Mysteries Are Meant to Be Worshipped

A friend recently argued that mysteries are meant to be solved, not worshiped,

Fritz Kropfreiter Protozoans move along gradients, the most pervasive of which is food. The rational, self-aware mind also moves along a gradient (call it truth, understanding, knowledge or meaning) not with some metaphysical goal in mind but simply to chase the (currently) unattainable why. Mysteries are not meant to be worshiped but solved.

I have to disagree (on a basis other than the fact that this is way too “meta” for me).

No, it’s specifically not that I think that worship of anything is a good idea, nor do I think the mumbo-jumbo that passes for 21st Century spiritualism is any better. I am talking about why we create “mythos”, as opposed to simply seeing what we don’t understand as something we don’t understand. Yes, I think this was what was on Fritz’s mind, but the fly in the ointment is our initial perspective, our frame of reference. We create a “limbic universe”, and then fashion tools (mythos) to address it.

Karen Armstrong, in The Case for God, spends a good deal of time arguing mythos (here is a precis), and dozens of bloggers wrestle with the concept on a regular basis (here is just one example). But no matter which way one looks at the “battle” over mythos, it is, at its core, a duel over the fictive, an argument over whether we can effectively populate the universe with ghosts of our own emotional and juvenile angst.

Understanding the delusional nature of mythos does not mean that one seeks to undermine every ecstatic experience, every transcendental moment; it only means that one understands that the source of that moment is not part and parcel of some arcane knowledge-infused alien. Indeed, the “wow factor” increases dramatically when we cease and desist from writing ourselves into some magical yarn from which the universe is woven. We don’t need 20th Century revivals of medieval; mystery plays to grasp our place in the world (at least some few of us don’t, the rest, well I suppose the rest go to church).

So, mystery, the invented fluid in which Homo sapiens comes to understand the numinous, is specifically fashioned to be the focus of ritual.  It is the life-blood of every religious action, from the killing of the bull, to the taking of communion.


Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

8 comments on “Mysteries Are Meant to Be Worshipped

  1. Quite so. And for me the mysterium tremendum is fascinating – not to dispel it but to appreciate it. I’m sure you’ve read, in German (Das Heilige) or English (The Idea of the Holy) Rudolf’s indispensible book on the psychological need we have for mystery. In my own “The Circle of Life” I use that wonderfully precise Lakota term, wakan, to talk about that which is entirely not-human. To demystify the mystery is to humanize it, and hence it ain’t the mystery any longer — like putting wild creatures in cages. Science fiction often strives to depict the utterly and totally alien, i.e., the wakan, the not-human. But it inevitably fails. The weirdest Bug-Eyed Monster of science fiction is but humanity with an exaggeration here and a diminuition there. Even the most successful alien depictions (Lem’s “Solaris” and Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” leap to mind) fail. It’s an asymptotic gap that we cannot bridge. Hence, in spirituality, revelation, such as the prophets experienced, is the not-human, the wakan, coming to us, since we unaided cannot bridge that gap.

  2. That should be Rudolf Otto’s…

  3. Mary Thygesen says:

    I once asked “Why” and was summarily dismissed with: “Why is a question 2 year olds ask.” Naturally, I learned to stay quiet and let the adults talk. “Mysteries are meant to be solved”…I would guess that asking how mysteries ‘work’is not the same as asking why although I imagine there’s some overlap. I’m not sure why Marc assumes that something else was meant by such a unambiguous statement.
    People are mysteries. Approaching people like puzzles, tinkering with their pieces is, I think, more about controlling rather than understanding/communion. I often see the ‘worship’ of rational thought as the highest ideal, the best tool in the box, as little more than a destructive exercise in denial.

  4. Marc Grober says:

    Maybe I am not clear on what you mean, Mary, but I was not assuming that something else was meant by the statement, “mysteries are meant to be solved”. I think I clearly note that I disagree (i. e. I take the statement at face value and am arguing that it is false). The legerdemain, as it were, is in the fact that the unknown is not a “mystery”, and the unknown is simply unknown, and is not meant for anything. Homo sapiens manufactures mystery, and in some instances it might be enigmatic and intriguing, but when we lose sight of the fact that it is a fiction, we become delusional. Nor is arguing that Mysteries are meant to be worshipped tantamount to suggestion that they SHOULD be worshiped; it is simply acknowledging that mysteries are essentially created for that purpose. Yes, there are many who believe the delusional life is the best life, and most of those I would hazard to guess are fundamentalist religionists who end up murdering one another. Go figure.

  5. Mary Thygesen says:

    I understand what you were saying and that you disagree.

    I don’t understand then, why you assume he meant something other than mystery when that’s what he said. “Yes, I think this [the unknown is simply unknown] is what was on Fritz’s mind.”
    I suppose I should have said that people are unknowable rather than mysteries and I still maintain that we’re not problems to be solved.
    Fundamentalist religionists’ behavior is perfectly rational…to them. I guess I’m saying that rational thought is no guarantee of peace and harmony. I regularly read and hear pleas for rational, self-awareness as though it would be a cure-all for ‘bad behavior’ and usher in some kind of utopia.
    That got people all excited during the Enlightenment too. Nice idea. Lots of rational mass murder and rational war has happened since.

  6. Mary Thygesen says:

    Or, more simply, as you’ve more or less said before, the limbic brain, the reptilian brain, are still so powerful that our rational brains don’t stand much of a chance even if they did function perfectly. I don’t remember how I phrased it but we inherit myth like we inherit genes. It’s the water we swim in.
    I think claiming that we can leap out of that water to see “truth” or “meaning” is as metaphysical and delusional as any religious belief which its proponents dismiss.

  7. Marc Grober says:

    Fritz suggests that the unknown is a mystery to be solved. I disagree. Fritz subscribes to a very Classical German Philosophy of History; there is an “evolutionary” goal that man is to achieve. I lean more towards Homo sapiens being a petulant and fatuous mammal as likely to destroy the Earth as to help a senior citizen cross the road.

    I point out that we really don’t need mythos; that does not guarantee our rationality without it. Ascribing events to invisible aliens, however, promotes all manner of delusional behavior. Deploring the latter does not mean eliminating one of the bases for that behavior will render us all practically perfect.

  8. Mary Thygesen says:

    Yes, ascribing events to invisible aliens promotes delusional behavior.
    Subscribing to the belief that there’s an evolutionary goal is also, as far as I can see, just that, a belief and one that lacks supporting evidence.
    I agree that nothing guarantees rational behavior, nor is rational behavior a guarantee that with it, we’ll evolve into some new improved species that’s more likely to help senior citizens cross roads.
    I simply thought you were suggesting Fritz was dismissing mythos whereas I perceived his assertion was doing quite the opposite.

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