I’ve been reading Peter Stanford’s new book “The Extra Mile”-a 21st century pilgrimage” (Continuum, London, 2010). In it he sets out to visit various sacred sites in the UK, and to experience various rituals and ceremonies at those sites, in a bid “to take the spiritual temperature of an age often described as secular and sceptical.”
And as he stacks up the miles and the experiences he discovers that our spiritual health is good. The range of experiences covers the Christian to Pagan spectrum and everything in between, from serious ritual to a party-type celebration, and makes for an entertaining as well as an informative read.
One of the things that most stood out for me, from across the traditions represented, was that there is still an insatiable hunger for mystery. The rationalism of the Enlightenment, the preaching of the fundamentalist atheists and the systematic theology of the academics have all failed to extinguish that deep longing for, and experience of, things that just defy all the analysing, categorising, mythologizing and ridicule. There are some things we experience that are as real as any part of our world but lack any explanation that our logic, tempered by years of incredulous scientific method, can offer.
Now, mystery is a dangerous thing; the mystic within a particular faith tradition has always been set apart on the edge, viewed with suspicion by the establishment; those who cherish mystery from outside the tradition quickly achieve the label ‘heretic’.
But for those within or without, to doubt, to question, to admit our finite limits is surely an admission of humility, and to be welcomed. Even Jesus seems to have frequently refused to explain and dogmatise…the parables are told so that those who have ears will hear, he offers not belief in a set of doctrines but a relationship with a person who claimed to be God. This was risky. The church spent years setting it ‘right’ until today belief in a set of rules seems to most observers to be what it’s all about, rather that a somewhat ill-defined but thoroughly life-giving relationship.
The question that immediately presents itself to me, a card-carrying follower of Jesus for many years, is how can we bring the sense of mystery, of not having it all taped, back into our faith. Jesus said he’d come to show us what God was like, so our faith is a ‘revealed faith’. People must be more than a little put off when we ‘ridicule’ their searching instead of encouraging it or when we treat them as if their spiritual experiences are of no consequence compared to our higher revelation. I’m glad I discovered Jesus, but that gives me no right to patronise and belittle other seekers. I’d like to think they might find what I’ve found, but there’s no guarantee.
As I already suggested,Jesus description of the heavenly Father was far from ‘exact’. It kind of suggested that once the introduction to God was made, you could spend a lifetime paddling in the shallows and never get to the bottom of the mystery, that you could enjoy the journey of life without having a definitive description of the destination. In short, I suppose, ‘knowing’ God was just the beginning of something much bigger and more eternal.
And I’m not conceited enough to think I’ve arrived, that I’ve got the whole package yet. There’s still more of the mystery of God to be revealed and discovered.