Owning the Mystery

This is from the pen of Rev. Dr. William W. Schumacher, Dean of Theological Research and Publication at Concordia St. Louis.“Modern science demystifies the world.  We have come to regard most diseases as natural results of infection rather than as the malevolent actions of personal spirits.  Comets and meteors are generally seen as natural phenomena, not omens. We have abandoned the notion of spontaneous generation [Except when it comes to the beginning of life!] because we have studied the intricacies of the life cycles of so many living things.  Such demystification is not in conflict with the Christian faith.  On the contrary, a magical world-view can be seen as sub-Christian, since it admits rivals to God’s power, and fails to appreciate the richness of the Creator’s work” (“Science and Theology Continuing the Conversation, Concordia Journal, Winter 2010, 7).

This bothers me because this is about what Edmund Halley of comet fame concluded in the 17th century on the edge of the Enlightenment.  He wrote in the Preface of Isaac Newton’s Principia, a poem that ended with these lines:  “’Now we know/ The sharply veering ways of comets, once/ a source of dread, nor longer do we quail/ Beneath appearances of bearded stars.’” (Dorothy Rose Blumberg, Whose What?, 68)

This bothers me because Genesis 1:14 says, “Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years;” Halley’s and apparently Schumacher’s understanding squares with the NIV translation of this verse.  “And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years.”  The only sign from the skies are seasons, days, and years.

We’ve outgrown looking to the stars for ideas bigger than ourselves.  We understand and have quantified all 100 billion stars in our own galaxy and all the stars in the 1 billion galaxies in the observable universe.  We know why comets come when they do, where they come from and where they go.  We know the numbers of hair on the human head – at least the average for redheads, blondes, and brunets – and we know why each sparrow falls.

And yet why, while we no longer “quail beneath appearances of bearded stars,” do we so quickly quail at the latest news from Washington, Wall Street, or medicine?  Why is the modern era of information and technology so haunted by dread compared to pre-modern times?  Because a single fear of God drives a host of others away.  When that goes in come the demons of dread and despair.  “He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress” (Proverbs 14:26).

It is true, as others have observed, that understanding God has created and redeemed you and placed creation under your rule and dominion is what got the spirits out of creation so it might be studied.  It isn’t true that because we think we “know” where comets and diseases come from that our world is demystified.  Nor is true that believing there are still mysteries aplenty in creation make you a follower of magic.

The laws of physics and genes don’t govern the course of this world.  For the Deist they do, but not for the Christian.  Yes the rainbow can be explained as a natural phenomenon, but it remains a sign of something else according to God.  Granted God has not said what every comet, supernova, or pandemic definitively means (though I think Luther would argue they always say “Repent!), that doesn’t mean we can cease to be mystified by them.  We are to go on “owning the mystery” as opposed to “owning” it the way young people use the expression.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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