THE FIRST FUNCTION of mythology and religion, writes scholar Joseph Campbell, is the mystical function — namely, to awaken and maintain in an individual a sense of the mystery of being.
But just what is this “mystery of being?”
I think we can get at this “mystery of being” by making a basic distinction, which I’ll address in three ways:
1) It’s the distinction between two planes of consciousness, the horizontal and vertical.
Typically, we are most aware of the horizontal plane, because this is the dimension of time, the tick-tock of the clock, the everyday movement along the road of life.
Occasionally, however, we are stopped short on our horizontal road of life when, literally or figuratively, we come to the edge of cliff and are jarred by seeing the abyss below us.
Suddenly, then, we become aware of a vertical plane of being that has been beneath us all the time but without our awareness.
We may attach the word “eternal” to this vertical dimension of being — not “everlasting,” which is of the horizontal plane, but “eternal,” which refers to a dimension of reality other than time.
This is a plane of being that our time-bound mind cannot directly articulate because the “eternal” doesn’t belong to the realm of articulation.
The best we can do is to point to “it” — by analogy, in metaphor, symbol, poetry, music and art of all kinds.
2) A second way of getting at this basic distinction that delineates the “realm of mystery” is to speak about two different meanings of the word “mystery” itself, meanings that correspond to the horizontal and vertical dimensions.
Thus, at the horizontal level, “mystery” is the mystery of a puzzle: things not yet known but which could be known; puzzles not yet solved but which could be solved.
These are the kind of mysteries that science tries to unravel, and when they do, the “mystery” is dissolved. Or, again, it’s the kind of mystery you get in a “mystery novel.”
You read the mystery novel to unravel the mystery, and the unsolved mystery carries you along to the novel’s end, when finally, the mystery is solved. And again, once solved, the mystery is dissolved — no more mystery.
This is not the “realm of mystery” I’m talking about; rather, I’m talking about a second kind of “mystery,” the kind of mystery that is never solved, never could be solved and is not meant to be solved.
This is the mystery of astonishment, of awe and of wonder, and this type of mystery actually deepens with increased knowledge and with the advancement of science.
This is the mystery of being itself, the mystery of how it is that there is anything at all — the ultimate mystery before which ones bows in humility, in gratitude, in reverence and in wonder.
3) A third way of getting at this basic distinction that delineates the “realm of mystery” is to speak of two meanings of the word “miracle,” which corresponds to the two different meanings of the word “mystery.”
At the horizontal level, a “miracle” is an astonishing, surprising and perhaps shocking event that challenges our current explanatory powers and that may be thought to intervene and break in from beyond natural reality and thus carry special significance or meaning for us.
“Miracles” of this sort are disappearing from our world as our powers of explanation expand.
But this doesn’t diminish the presence and power of “miracle” at the vertical level, for at this level, our astonishment at what reality is capable of increases with our scientific knowledge and powers of explanation.
As local poet Quentin Wald puts it:
Why should there be anything
and this little light to know i …
Understanding is not to be hoped for,
there is only astonishment.
(“That I Exist,” from the farthest shore)
Albert Einstein writes that “there are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
And, I would add, one can live both; it just depends on with what dimension or plane you’re currently engaging.
But the first function of religion is to awaken one to the vertical or eternal realm, which is the realm of mystery and miracle that the mind cannot grasp but which it can experience.
By connecting with this vertical dimension of being, we find the ground that enables us to survive and thrive at the horizontal level in all kinds of weather.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]