With No Pat Answers, Faith Must Embrace Mystery

Zach Dawes


With No Pat Answers, Faith Must Embrace Mystery | Zach Dawes, Annie Dillard, Mystery

Waking to mystery means embarking on a journey into unknown lands where questioning is valued more than answering ... and dialogue is valued more than declaration, Dawes writes.
I recently renamed my blog. This is trivial information for anyone other than me, yet the motivation behind the change might prove meaningful.

I recently began re-reading one of my favorite books, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard.

If you have not read it, you should. But you should know that it is neither simple nor straightforward.

It is a deeply introspective, intensely observant and profoundly interwoven set of essays that often appear to be a stream-of-consciousness.

In the opening chapter, Dillard writes: "We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence."

It is this quote that led me to change my blog title to "Waking to Mystery" because I believe this is what it means for me to be a person of faith.

A waking to the wonder, the beauty, the holiness of life. A waking to the weariness, the barrenness, the hellishness of life. Becoming aware of, attentive to and comfortable with the mystery, the ambiguity in which we live and move and exist.

Being a person of faith is not, or should not be, about simple or easy answers. Nor straightforward and straight-laced ideas. Nor formulaic and fundamental doctrines.

Rather, faith is, or should be, about waking to mystery – to the obscurity, ambiguity, inscrutability, vagueness and uncertainty of life.

Waking to mystery means embarking on a journey into unknown lands where questioning is valued more than answering, humility is valued more than pride, compassion is valued more than condemnation, and dialogue is valued more than declaration.

Far too many who identify themselves as people of faith – clergy like myself very much included – have often defined faith in such narrow terms that it becomes not "evidence of dreams hoped for and rumors of dreams yet unseen" (Hebrews 11:1), but evidence of certitude said to be encapsulated in inerrant, infallible, irrefutable ideas and interpretations to be memorized, affirmed and regurgitated.

We wake, in this paradigm, not to mystery, but to clarity. We wake, not to uncertainty, but to precision. We wake, not to the ambiguity-laden call of "come, follow me," but to the proposition-laden call of "come, give intellectual assent to these ideas."

Later, Dillard writes: "In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God 'set bars and doors' and said, 'Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.'"

She then asks a hauntingly profound question: "But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?"

If our awakening has brought easy answers, simple explanations, inerrant texts, infallible proclamations, dogmatic doctrines, arrogant attitudes, hate-filled speech and exclusive claims, I do not believe we have really begun the journey on which we have been called.

We have not rowed out into the thick and mysterious darkness that beckons us.

Instead, we are playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat. We are playing games in the vessel meant to take us into the darkness, the mystery. And we do not even know it. We think we have arrived, though we have not even begun.

"Come, follow me. Journey with me into the mystery that is life, the mystery that gives life."

In response, those who remain in the boat playing games ask, with Thomas, "But how can we follow if we do not know where you are going, where you are taking us?"

Those who have been awakened to the life that gives mystery and the mystery that gives life reply, "that is precisely the point."

May we not mistake the vessel for the destination. May we wake, not to trite and trivial formulations, but to mystery, to wonder, to awe, which is to find the way to truth and to life.

Zach Dawes is the pastor and his wife, Peyton, is the associate pastor at the First Baptist Church in Mount Gilead, N.C. He blogs here.