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 delusion 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.

2 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…

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