From Hans Jenny. The Soil Resource (1980, Reprinted 2012)
Rainwater falls randomly from the sky into a tree where the rain becomes organized into drip patterns defined by the shape of the leaves, branches, and bark of the tree until, dripping into the soil, the water becomes randomly organized once again. Wendell Berry, in a letter to Wes Jackson (reprinted in Home Economics, 3-5), critiques this description from a scientific book on soil by arguing that randomness is not “a verifiable condition,” but is “a limit of perception.” He asserts that “random” is a misleading word that assumes there is no possible pattern in what is observed; the more proper term is “mystery.” “Random” assumes that there is not possible pattern; “mystery” assumes we just can’t see it.
While Berry emphasizes practicality, he associates mystery with religion and there is danger in letting mystery come trailing that umbilical cord. The earliest uses are theological and often were associated with secret religious rites. The most common and comprehensive theological use of “mystery” today is probably based on this Oxford English Dictionary definition: “A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving.” Defined this way, “mystery” becomes as much of a dead end as “random,” shutting down further exploration with certainty. If we posit a god capable of creating unsolvable mysteries, in a sense the mysteries disappear into God, who embodies the solutions. Why do we die? God does not die. Why are there evil people? God is perfect and entirely good. Why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? It will all work out because God is perfectly just. God resolves all mysteries, but if we take God out of the picture, what remains are the mysteries for which there are no facile answers.
The most expansive non-theological use of the term “mystery” is related to the OED definition, “A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma.” Despite the use of the word “inexplicable” in the definition, a Google search on “solve a mystery” or “solve the mystery” yields 8.6 M hits, so that for many of us a mystery is something to be solved; it is open-ended, and in that sense calling something a mystery in the non-theological sense is a beginning.
The popular genre of the murder mystery turns on the axis of logical analysis. A satisfying ending generally involves explaining motivations and events with proof that establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, though such stories also allow for the operation of “justice” outside the law. Such an extra-legal conclusion would be unsatisfying, would become a crime in need of solution.
I have argued earlier that not all conflicting dualities can be resolved and that perhaps our best understanding is to accept both and see the world in 3-D. Maybe the better way to describe our response should be to say we can’t ignore dualities. They suggest enigmas, mysteries, in need of deeper exploration, though I suspect that we will discover deeper mysteries that allow us to understand our state more clearly; it will likely be mysteries all the way down.
Science should be done surrounded by mystery. Religion and science could both use more respect for mystery. Perhaps if religions treated God as more mysterious and thought twice before claiming to know what God wants and to speak in God’s behalf, the world might be a more peaceful place.