What Pope Benedict XVI & G.K. Chesterton Understood (But Science Misses) About Mystery

What Pope Benedict XVI & G.K. Chesterton Understood (But Science Misses) About Mystery June 8, 2016


G.K. Chesterton

I’ve been thinking.

Does Science like Mystery? I mean, really and truly embrace it. Because if you think about it, the entire reason for Science’s existence is to answer questions, solve riddles…demystify. So what happens when Science can’t answer certain questions? How does Science grapple with enduring Mystery?

I know, I know. You’re going to say, “Science is neutral.”

Fair enough.

But Scientists aren’t. And the growing body of adherents to Scientism, where Science is transformed from tool to ideology, certainly aren’t neutral.

So, how do they handle Mystery?

Well, it motivates some to find answers. That is a good thing. But for others, Mystery is threatening, embarrassing, something to be conquered or swept under the rug. Because to admit to Mystery means that there are pieces missing in the puzzle. And an incomplete puzzle means that one must operate with assumptions, guesswork and (dare I say it?) faith.

But this shouldn’t surprise anyone – even the most hard-bitten disciple of Science. Our everyday lives are suffused with Mystery. Will that car approaching the opposing red light stop or run through and T-bone me? Can this bridge support the weight of my car and the rest of these cars? Will the forecast predicting a 70% chance of rain mean it will, indeed, rain or not? In spite of this woman’s extensive research invested on dating sites, will this chosen person be her true love? Will this specific chemotherapy cure this particular man’s cancer? Often, we believe we have certainty, when the best we can often live with is probability. And the difference between probability and certainty, is Mystery.

Think of the mathematical notion of an asymptote. An asymptote is a line (let us call it Truth, or what is) which another line tries to approximate, but quite simply never can (let us call that second line failing to reach the asymptote our perception of the Truth, or what we think is). There will always be a gap between what is the Truth and what we think is the Truth. And that gap is uncertainty, or Mystery. And whether it is in Science or Religion, in order to cope with that gap – to not be utterly paralyzed by uncertainty – we must have Faith.

But again, some are uncomfortable with this notion of Faith even thought they unconsciously rely on it innumerable times every day. They even lash out against it. Faith, feh…Illogical! Fanatical! Simple-minded!

But, in fact, it is common sense.

There will always be Mystery and the need to live life in the midst of uncertainty. The end of Mystery, the end of uncertainty means the end of Science. And it appears that Science is not going anywhere anytime soon.

So why can’t people embrace this uncertainty? Why not welcome Mystery?

Because we are proud. And a little scared. Mystery makes us feel vulnerable and dependent. And we want control – to be the masters of our own destiny, captains of our own ship. Mystery unnerves and gets in the way of that goal.


But we disregard Mystery and insist that we may achieve omniscience at our own peril.

G.K. Chesterton wisely observed that a Poet or Mystic welcomes Mystery while a strident Logician seeks to utterly conquer it.

“The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion… To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits…”

“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.”

And Pope Benedict XVI added this,

“Indeed, although a mystery, God is not absurd. If, in contemplating the mystery, reason sees only darkness, this is not because the mystery contains no light, rather because it contains too much. Just as when we turn our eyes directly to the sun, we see only shadow – who would say that the sun is not bright? Faith allows us to look at the ‘sun’ that is God, because it welcomes His revelation in history…”

“At the same time, God, with His grace, illuminates reason and opens up new horizons, immeasurable and infinite. Therefore, faith is a continuous stimulus to seek, never to cease or acquiesce in the inexhaustible search for truth and reality.”

Mystery, be assured, will always be with us. There will always be probability in the place of cocksure certainty. The steady asymptotic line of what is will not, in this life, be completely reached by what we think is.

We can wondrously put our heads into the heavens or split our skull impossibly putting the heavens into our heads.

Mystery. We can embrace it. Or fight it.

Chesterton knew the right answer. Pope Benedict XVI knew it too.

Do we?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Browse Our Archives