I. Religion as the Proper Sphere for the Notion of Mystery – II. The Theological Content of the Christian Mystery 1. The Christian Religion as the Revelation of the Mystery of God in History 2. The Proclamation of the Mystery of the Father Revealed by His Son Jesus Christ 3. The Notion of Mystery in Theological Language – III. Mystery and Knowledge – IV. References to the Notion of Mystery in the Reflections of Some Scientists 1. Scientific Contexts 2. Mystery as Openness to Transcendence – V. Mystery, the Sciences, and Magic – VI. Concluding Remarks

I. Religion as the Proper Sphere for the Notion of Mystery

The term “mystery” (Gr. mystérion; Lat. mysterium) has very different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. First and foremost, however, it belongs within a religious context because it is a term used in discourse about “the divine.” The word mystery most likely comes from the Greek verb myein (to close, to stop), which links it, in some modern languages, with terms such as “myopic” and “mute.” The idea of closure is expressed here along with, secondarily, that of a limit or boundary. Belonging to the same semantic family is the adjective “mystical” (Gr. mystikós) indicating “that which belongs to mystery.” The Latin term sacramentum is often used to translate the Greek mystérion, although sacramentum refers primarily to a ritual aspect joined with the sacred, as well as the juridical obligations which flow from it. This last aspect was evident in antiquity by the use of the term sacrament to indicate a contract, agreement, or alliance between two parties that was witnessed by the divinity itself and thereby made sacred.

In religious contexts, we often find the term mysterium associated with adjectives that attempt to describe a relationship with the divine. The most frequently found adjectives of this sort are mysterium tremendum et fascinans (mysterious, awe inspiring or majestic, and fascinating) (cf. R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 1950, or. 1917). These adjectives convey the idea of something that invokes fear and reverence but which also attracts and fascinates. Tremendum signifies both the disconcertment proper to a divine manifestation along with an ethical appeal to a practice that ought to be observed. Despite the way in which the divine is overwhelming, it presents itself in a fascinating way and as something which invokes marvel. The term “marvel,” like “miracle,” comes from the Latin mirari and indicates the extraordinary wonder associated with the entrance of the divine into the human sphere. The manifestation of the sacred, or “hierophany” (cf. Eliade, 1959, 1985), is also perceived by the senses. As the senses enter into contemplation and ecstasy, they become mute, shut, or closed.

“Mystery,” therefore, is found at the apex of a delicate tension between hiddenness and revelation, closure and openness, the desire to expand and the need for restraint. It has a dynamism, almost a trajectory, that leads from silence to communication and from the unknown to the known, although the manner in which this happens renders the message accessible only to those who approach with the proper religious disposition. It would be reductionist to consider a mystery as something utterly enigmatic, incomprehensible, and irrational. Unfortunately, this is how mystery is often defined and used in everyday speech. For instance, in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (ed. by A.S. Hornby), the primary definition given for the word “mystery” is “something of which the cause or origin is hidden or impossible to understand.” Probably as a consequence of this type of reductionist definition of mystery, scientific language and activity seem to exclude any appeal to mystery or to the mystical. For those who have this understanding of mystery, the function of science is precisely to free us from our belief in mysteries, which are seen as an obstacle to authentic knowledge, in order to bring about true understanding. Mystery so conceived seems to be intrinsically opposed to knowledge. Yet mystery, which positivism tried to definitively exclude from the discipline of science, reveals unexpected connections with the concept of knowledge (see below, III) and even seems to be reentering the scene in some areas of contemporary science, particularly in the philosophical reflections of some scientific researchers. The notions of mystery and the mystical are not absent from scientific language (see below, IV).

Returning to the topic of our human religious experience, mystery indicates the realm of the divine knowledge and will that we cannot access by our own efforts. The divinity himself must enable and authorize us, his creatures, to have access to this realm. Although we aspire to know the will of God, or the gods, the divinity is, generally speaking, a jealous custodian of his mystery. Knowledge of mystery is, in fact, a source of authority and power, and our arduous access to such knowledge ensures the requisite distance between the divine and human spheres. Greek mythology offers what is likely the clearest example of this dialectic in the myth of Prometheus, the unfortunate protagonist who fights against the gods in an attempt to give humans control over the power of fire.

Almost all religions have developed sacred practices devoted to coming to know, or to “seizing,” that which pertains to divine mystery: the discernment of revelations communicated through natural phenomena; the interpretation of visions, dreams, or ecstasies; and the inspection of the innards of certain animals (hepatoscopy), which is considered a means for invoking divine intervention in determining a judgment, etc. Historically, the knowledge and mastery of practices such as these, and the mystical understanding obtained through them, were relatively restricted, and therefore a sort of priesthood frequently came into being. The priests were a privileged class of mediators between humans and the gods and to them alone were reserved the practice and secret transmission of rites. However, once it was brought under control by the use of such techniques, the mystery obtained and possessed ceased to be a source of reverence and adoration. It became an object of manipulation and pleasure, and religion degenerated into magic.

In the plural form, “mysteries” came to refer, above all, to a collection of practices midway between religion and magic that were aimed at introducing a candidate, who had been provided with the requisite instruction, into the sphere of influence and protection of a particular god (e.g., the mysteries of Dionysius, the mysteries of Cybele, etc.). The ritual practices affirmed the cyclical cadence and reiterative capacity of mystery, which was initially linked to the changing of the seasons. In fact the agrarian context of sowing and harvesting, and of the sun and rain, represents one of the original settings for the invocation of the divinity and a starting place for the progressive structuralization of such invocations.

In terms of the possession and transmission of knowledge, the religious notion of mystery evolved historically toward the concept of “gnosis,” a term that, in more intellectually developed religions, indicated a secret doctrine that was hidden and reserved for a few. “Gnosis” is a system of knowledge reserved only to the spiritual or perfect ones (Gr. pneumatikós), and this knowledge is guarded by them in a very exclusive manner. Gnosis does not concern itself primarily with public knowledge addressed to everyone but rather with a wisdom communicated privately and administered meticulously. It transmits a salvific practice that gives men and women a series of ethical-moral criteria, a rule of life to obtain equilibrium with themselves and others, and a historic memory conveyed through the cyclical-seasonal celebration of rituals and the compilation of sacred books. But gnosis involves, in a more general sense, the secret communication of a key for interpreting the world, a key which is often received through divine revelation and is inaccessible to simple reason and whose limited transmission is assured by the use of a specific and difficult language. The mastery of the knowledge, rites, and language leads to the goal of spiritual asceticism, a goal of learning and purification which began precisely at the time of initiation.

Although they belong primarily within a religious context, certain concepts associated with mystery (or with rituals or gnosis) have similarities with the transmission of knowledge as it appears in other contexts. Regarding science, for instance, historical analysis reveals that some of the concepts or attitudes associated with mystery were present in the practice of alchemy. Above all, however, it is common language that has the greatest tendency to appropriate some of the meanings associated with mystery. In doing so, the common language creates expressions and phrases that not even science can escape from. For example, science is commonly said to use a “language of initiates,” introduce us to “the secrets of nature,” or “reveal the mystery of the origin of the universe and the mystery of life,” etc. In order to detect the use of such expressions and evaluate the meanings they imply, it is important to have a correct understanding of science and its legitimate scope.

II. The Theological Content of the Christian Mystery

1. The Christian Religion as the Revelation of the Mystery of God in History. In many respects, philosophy and the history of religion use the term mystery in a way that refers to the Judeo-Christian tradition and the meaning and language it applies to the concept of mystery. This occurs simply because mystery, after all, deals with religion. Judaism, and subsequently Christianity, speak of a realm accessible to God alone. There is a divine sphere that transcends the human sphere. The divine sphere includes priests, rites, and sacraments, along with a wisdom that can only be acquired through asceticism and purification. In this particular religious tradition, the notion of mystery has a specific characteristic: Mystery finds its principal hermeneutical role in the concept of Revelation. Built on the pillars of creation and covenant, God’s self-revelation makes the history of salvation available to humans, a history in which the God of Israel is the protagonist who gratuitously bestows the revelation of mystery. He not only reveals the mystery of His will, but He communicates to men and women the mystery of His personal Trinitarian life. Further, in the Incarnation of the Son, God comes in person to communicate Himself to humans. The Incarnate Son is the perfect revealer of the Father and the mystery of the Father’s love for the world, which is followed by the pouring out and sustaining gift of the Holy Spirit. In the logic of Christian revelation, there is no need for conjecture regarding what the divinity keeps hidden because God takes the initiative to make Himself known. In Biblical revelation, mystery no longer represents the realm wherein God hides Himself but instead represents the rich sphere in which He communicates and directs Himself toward us. Mystery ceases to be a certain withholding of knowledge and instead becomes a certain offering of knowledge.

The Old Testament did not develop a particular use of the concept of mystery (in the Old Testament the term mystery is generally equated with the simple notion of a secret) except in its apocalyptic literature where it refers to the revelation of the “last things.” However, the original dynamic of divine mystery is evident from the overall way in which the Old Testament presents the relationship between God and human beings. The specific nature of the “Mystery-Revelation” relationship only finds its completion in the New Testament, whose economy of revelation is dominated by the event of the Incarnation of the Son of God. In the synoptic gospels Jesus tells His disciples “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you” (Mt 13:11; see also Lk 8:10), and also that to them “the mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted” (Mk 4:11). Mystery has become the object of revelation to the little and simple ones, and this mystery requires not a language of initiates but rather a pure heart (cf. Mt 11:25). What God knows He communicates to men and women so they, too, can know it: “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15:15). Mystery, then, does not deal with a knowledge reserved for an elite few. On the contrary, it refers to a message destined to be conveyed freely to all people through preaching. Jesus says to His disciples: “What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Mt 10:27). The revelation of the “mystery” of Christian salvation and the invitation to receive the “sacrament” of baptism are directed to all people, without exception (cf. Eph 3:5-6; Mt 28:19-20). The content of this offering is not a “gnosis” (a system of thought for interpreting the cosmos and its laws) nor is it simply a rule of life. Rather, it is the offering of the personal life of God Himself and the invitation to enter into communion with Him (cf. Jn 1:3-4).

It is interesting to note that the attempt to associate the free dispensation of the Christian mystery with a request for money (and thus attempting to turn it into an object of power) is severely rebuked by St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles in the episode of Simon the Magician (see Acts 8:18-21). It’s also important to highlight the fact that the New Testament almost always uses the term mystery in the singular (it is singular twenty-three out of the twenty-eight times it is used), and the New Testament never speaks of “the mysteries of” Christ, an expression that was used habitually in Gnostic or pagan literature to refer to a cult of a god. The word mystery appears in almost all the letters of the Pauline corpus, including ten times in the letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians.

Also, regarding mystery’s relation to the cycle of the seasons and to history, the Christian mystery is original in comparison to pagan mysteries. Although some extra-Biblical religious traditions came to consider the cyclical phenomenon of nature to be a font of divine revelation, this idea did not introduce any novelty into the course of history due to the closed conception of an eternal return which deprived history of any significant innovation. Concerning Biblical Revelation, even after the beginning of the proclamation of the Christian message, manifestations of cosmic sacrality persisted. Consider, for example, the annual Jewish and Christian feasts, or even the assumption of pagan feasts (such as Sol Invictus being subsumed by Christmas) which came to be utilized within a completely new framework. This logic was a framework of memory and memorial: It was the ritualization of that which had happened once and for all. The cyclical aspect of natural religion is re-presented in order to ritualize the salvific, powerful action of God who burst into history. This is evident in the sacredness of the Sabbath, which re-presents the creative work of God, or that of Sunday (Dominicus, meaning that which belongs to the Lord, or the Lord’s Day), which memorializes the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday (for more details, see Dies Domini, 8-30). History becomes mystery and sacrament because it is able to reveal and re-present but also because it is able to efficaciously anticipate that which has not yet been fully completed.

2. The Proclamation of the Mystery of the Father Revealed by His Son Jesus Christ. In the letters of St. Paul we find the proclamation of the mystery par excellence. It is a mystery that belongs to the Father and is revealed to us by the Son. The most solemn exposition of the content and logic of this mystery is offered to us in St. Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, particularly in their two Christological hymns (see Eph 1:3-23; Col 1:13-20).

In these letters, Paul speaks of “the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past,” but a mystery that has now “been manifested to his holy ones” (Col 1:26), “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets” (Eph 3:5), and to Paul himself (cf. Eph 3:3). He also speaks of “the plan of the mystery hidden from ages past in God who created all things” (Eph 3:9; cf. Rm 16:25-26). It is a salvific and freely-given mystery, the revelation and realization of which moves us to bless God and give Him thanks (cf. Eph 1:3; Col 1:12). The mystery in question possesses a certain “trajectory,” from hiddenness to revelation, from silence to public proclamation, from that which is occurring “right now” (cf. Rm 16:26; Col 1:26; Eph 3:5-10) but also including that which, in the fullness of time, was realized with the Incarnation of the Son of God. Even if the Pauline language initially seems to be a type of gnosis, in reality it deals with a message of universal significance, the revelation of which became St. Paul’s ministry among the pagans (cf. Eph 3:8-9; Col 1:26-27).

The core of this message can be summarized with the words of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians emphasizing that the mystery of the will of the Father consists in His plan “to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10b). This affirmation solemnly closes the prologue of the letter and presents itself as the final goal of all revelation, at the center of which is the proclamation of the saving event of Christ. In Christ the fullness and completion of this mystery, plan, and knowledge is given. It deals with the mystery “of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him, as a plan for the fullness of times” (Eph 1:9b-10a). It contains a certain eschatological tension between the “now” of revelation and the “future fullness” of its definitive fulfillment, between the “already” and the “not yet.” The revelation of the saving mystery of the Father in Christ develops according to three guiding categories: predestination, recapitulation, and reconciliation. Their subject is always Christ with effects on both the cosmic-anthropological and ecclesiological-social levels. If in the text to the Ephesians the revelation of the mystery moves principally along the predestination-recapitulation axis, in the text to the Colossians the axis is more that of recapitulation-reconciliation, understanding recapitulation in the sense of a consistency and foundation given by Christ to the cosmos.

Thus the principal contents can be schematically summarized. Christ has a role in the creation-predestination of men and women (cf. Eph 1:4-5, 11; Col 1:16-17), the redemption of humankind realized through His blood (cf. Eph 1:7; Col 1:13-14), and the new creation—the recapitulation and re-pacification—that His redemption brings about (cf. Eph 1:10; Col 1:20). It is a global design which makes all peoples a single people in Christ (cf. Eph 2:16-18; Col 3:9-11) and makes the Church a single body (Eph 1:22-23; Col 1:18). The significance of the mystery of salvation that St. Paul announces is absolutely universal because all have been created and elected as sons in the Son and called to be conformed to His image (cf. Eph 2:10; Col 1:28; Rm 8:29), and all must come to understand the greatness and sublimity of this call (cf. Eph 1:18-19; Eph 3:17-19; Col 1:9-10; Col 2:2).

But there is something more. This mystery of salvation is not only revealed and fulfilled by means of Christ, but Christ Himself, in His person, is this mystery. The knowledge of the mystery of God, in fact, is the knowledge of Christ, and the mystery of God is the mystery of Christ (cf. Col 2:2; Eph 3:4). Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3) is the “form” of this knowledge and its content. The hermeneutical principle of this knowledge, as set forth in chapters one and two of the First Letter to the Corinthians, is the economy of the cross: The mystery of Christ is His paschal mystery. The cross has a wisdom that is Christ Himself (cf. 1Cor 1:24-30). The knowledge of Christ, and of Him crucified, is sufficient to possess all the knowledge of the saving mystery of the Father (cf. 1Cor 2:2). The logic of the cross is a gratuitous logic and a self-giving superior to any human logic (cf. 1Cor 1:18-25). It is truly a mystery, the comprehension of which requires the grace of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1Cor 2:10-16), that is, the grace of Him who gives to believers, and reproduces in those who welcome Him, “the mind of Christ” (1Cor 2:16). Once welcomed in faith, this mystery becomes the supreme source of knowledge. Theology, which is born from the very possibility of such knowledge, is therefore “God's wisdom, mysterious and hidden” (1Cor 2:7).

3. The Notion of Mystery in Theological Language. Although in the New Testament the revelation of divine mystery centers on the predestination and mission of the Son of God in the world, in theology at large the term mystery has a broader (though still Biblical) meaning. In this broader meaning, mystery refers principally to that which belongs to, and originates in, God. In this sense, mystery refers in the first place to the revelation of the Triune God (the Trinitarian mystery) and to the work of redemption (the Paschal mystery). The Church, her Liturgy, and her Sacraments belong to the realm of this mystery. Mystery in this sense refers to realities that are in continuity with the “mystery of Christ” and that re-present this mystery over the course of history to every epoch, people, and culture.

The term “mystery” has come to be widely used in Roman Catholic theological and ecclesial language, especially since the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution Lumen Gentium speaks repeatedly about “the mystery of the Church” (cf. nn. 1, 5, 8, 11, etc.). In Gaudium et Spes the term “mystery” appears more than twenty times with various applications: the mystery of the Church (cf. nn. 2, 40); the mystery of Christ the Incarnate Word (n. 22); Christ’s paschal mystery (n. 38); and the mystery of the love of God for men and women (nn. 45, 52, 93), which is actually the mystery of the Father (nn. 22, 93). But the document also speaks of the mystery of man (nn. 10, 22) and the mystery of death (n. 18).

A profound analogy exists among all the mysteries of Christianity due to their common source in the Trinitarian life of God and the divine plan for a creation and salvation centered on Christ. (Although, in the strict sense, the Trinitarian life of God and the divine plan are, properly speaking, the only true theological mystery.) The sacrament of the Eucharist is illuminated by the mystery of the Incarnation just as the sacrament of Baptism is illuminated by the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The life of grace and the sanctification of the Christian, realized through the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit in the world, is illuminated by the mystery of the relations that unite the Son and Spirit to the Father in the immanent life of the Trinity. Theology has used different means to place the various mysteries in relation to one another. The Patristic period developed its analogy using a principally spiritual and catechetical approach whereas medieval theology mostly emphasized the epistemological dimension, although it also included the creative contribution of the mystical. In the modern age, idealism and rationalism both offered their own theological synthesis which lead, however, to the Christian mystery being absorbed into the logic of historical development (Hegel, Schleiermacher) or absorbed by deductive rules that aimed to demonstrate the rational coherence of what we have received from Revelation (Gunther, Frohschammer). In our times, theology has reevaluated the aesthetic dimension of the inter-relatedness of the Christian mysteries, first with M.J. Scheeben (The Mysteries of Christianity, 1865) and later, above all, with Hans Urs von Balthasar (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, 1961-1969).

The presence of mysteries that are known thanks to a historic Revelation of God is what makes theology a science in itself, distinct from philosophy. Theology has to do with truths that not only could we never deduce from reason alone, but that, even after they have come to be known through faith, we could never form an adequate representation of them through our mental concepts. The Christian religion affirms that only in eternal life will the creature, elevated to communion with God, be able to comprehend the content and significance of the mysteries proper to faith. In the contemplation of God, we will be able to understand without, however, encompassing Him (Lat. comprehendere), that is, without being able to circumscribe Him with our finite intellects. For St. Thomas Aquinas the progressive states of our knowledge of God are illuminated by a lumen rationis (through reason capable of ascending to the Absolute through knowledge of nature and of the world), by a lumen gratiae (through the theological virtue of faith), and by a lumen gloriae (through a gift infused in the saints in glory so they can participate in the vision of God).

III. Mystery and Knowledge

In theological language, as we have seen, the notion of mystery brings to mind that of knowledge. Mystery does not refer to ignorance, uncertainty, or the suspension of judgment. To be precise, as noted previously, common language frequently associates mystery with the idea of incomprehensibility or irrationality and considers it a sort of “loophole” for avoiding a direct confrontation with reason. In reality, the exercise of reason is necessary for the comprehension of mystery so that theology can explain and articulate the contents of Revelation. The central mysteries of the faith—such as the unity and trinity of God, the Incarnation, and the death and Resurrection of Christ—represent for theology the presuppositions or principles for comprehending correctly the relationship between God and human beings, and, in a certain sense, for comprehending the entire reality of the world. Analogous to what other disciplines do with principles that they do not deduce from within their own methods, theology receives its principles from Biblical Revelation. At the same time, however, theology deals with principles that are not intelligible via “reason alone” because they become comprehensible through the light of wisdom, a wisdom of the cross and of the Spirit (cf. 1Cor 2:10-16) given as a gift from God, rather than deduced by us.

However, theology—the mysterious wisdom of God (cf. 1Cor 2:6-7)—is a very peculiar and, in some sense, unique discipline. We cannot speak about, study, or teach the mystery of God without being personally involved. A certain “familiarity with the mystery” is required. The personal nature of God implies that whatever regards Him cannot be known by us without a personal relationship and gift of self. Differing from other disciplines that use the word God (the history of religions, philosophy, literature, etc.), theology cannot refer to its subject matter in any way that is not personal, binding, and involved. Moreover, the personal, living nature of God means that knowledge of Him comes through personal encounter, dialogue, contemplation, and prayer. Mystery cannot be known if it is not at the same time lived. Mystery’s transcendence and inexhaustibility require us to approach it, not as something to interpret and possess, but as something by which to be interpreted and possessed. This calls for a disposition of humility and openness. Not without reason, in his essay Theology and Sanctity, Hans Urs von Balthasar affirmed that theology, before being done at one’s desk in the library, must be done on one’s knees (cf. Word and Redemption [New York: Herder and Herder, 1965] pp. 49-86).

The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church has affirmed many times that, in order to know the mysteries of the faith, it is necessary to embrace principles that reason cannot lay claim to, and that the divine mysteries remain inaccessible to simple philosophical rationality (cf. DH 2851-2857, 3015-3016, 3041; Fides et Ratio, 9, 13). The Church, however, has repeatedly confirmed (in numerous contexts) that the gratuitous “principle of Revelation” is a principle of knowledge. The divine mysteries are not deducible by reason alone because the nature of their Author is non-deducible: “they cannot be known if not revealed from on High” (DH 3015). St. Thomas Aquinas, taking up in theology what St. Anselm of Canterbury had begun in philosophy, held, for the same reason, that it is fitting for there to exist truths that can only be received, rather than discovered or deduced by reason alone. In this way, we approach God as Someone who truly exceeds whatever we can think of Him and, therefore, the image we have of Him more closely reflects His true nature. Reason, then, is trained to be humble but not humiliated (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I, ch. 5). The created nature of the human person (and the difference between the lumen fidei proper to the earthly state and the lumen gloriae proper to the beatific vision) is such that knowledge of the mysteries of God is grasped by reason in an analogous and limited way. This is summed up by the First Vatican Council’s Constitution Dei Filius in its chapter dedicated to the relationship between faith and reason: “Indeed reason illustrated by faith, when it zealously, piously, and soberly seeks, attains with the help of God some understanding of the mysteries, and that a most profitable one, not only from the analogy of those things which it knows naturally, but also from the connection of the mysteries among themselves and with the last end of man; nevertheless, it is never capable of perceiving those mysteries in the way it does truths which constitute its own proper object. For, divine mysteries by their nature exceed the created intellect so much that, even when handed down by revelation and accepted by faith, they nevertheless remain covered by the veil of faith itself, and wrapped in a certain mist, as it were, as long as in this mortal life, ‘we are absent from the Lord: for we walk by faith and not by sight’ (2Cor 5:6-7)” (DH 3016).

Concerning mystery’s relationship with knowledge and reason, when speaking of the “light and darkness” contained in mystery, Scripture often employs the ideas of superabundance as well as something that is beyond what is common and usual. Mystery contains new and unheard of things, but it also paradoxically (Gr. para dóxa, which means against all opinions and information) contains unexpected things, unexpected because they exceed what we can foresee. Faith, the human response to God’s revelation, is both a presupposition and a principle of such knowledge: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). From a theological point of view, mystery is characterized by richness and superabundance and by the fact that, rather than degrading reason, mystery simply exceeds reason. It could be said that this implies a great abundance of knowledge rather than limiting or inhibiting knowledge, but it is a knowledge so profound that it requires the human mind allow itself to be elevated by the gift of the Spirit in order to draw near to the mystery and contemplate it.

Regarding the way in which the Christian mystery can be known, we again encounter the idea of a finite, closed realm, which seems similar to that found in the primitive meaning of mystery. There is a different dynamic, however, behind the Christian encounter with a closed, limited realm versus the encounter of natural religions. In the Christian mystery, the limit comes from standing before an excess of light whose intensity the human mind cannot handle. We cannot see anything when it is dark, but we also cannot see anything when we stare at the sun. We might keep our mouths shut because there is nothing to say, or we might keep them shut because no words exist with which to express the abundant wealth of what we would like to say. From the Incarnation to the Unity and Trinity of God, and from the death of God on the cross to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the mysteries of the Christian faith always have this latter characteristic. Thanks to faith, which is God’s gift to us and in return is our gift to God, we can access the mystery: We are able to contemplate a plan and a logic that “surpasses any human understanding.” We are given that which we would never be able to obtain on our own. If we can do this, it is because God has revealed the mystery, and has revealed Himself, to us. We rediscover here the inherent dynamic of mystery, that of a limit which allows itself to be overcome by a new, gratuitous disclosure. The “limit” is to acknowledge ourselves as creatures: It is to recognize that the answers for many of the questions we have remain, for reason alone, supra rationem (above reason) not contra rationem (against reason). The disclosure that mystery brings could be illustrated by the metaphor of an ocean. The ocean of knowledge can only be navigated when one accepts, through the gift of faith, the logic and plan God has for man and the world (cf. Fides et Ratio, 23).

IV. References to the Notion of Mystery in the Reflections of Some Scientists

In the language of scientists, the term “mystery” is generally used, as it is in ordinary language, to signify something unknown and attractive that arouses the interest of an inquiring mind. There are numerous sources of amazement for science such as the mystery of life, the conscious self-reflection of the human person, and the mystery of the existence of the universe, including its origin and its intelligibility. Traces of this fascination can be found in the titles of not a few books dedicated to reflection on nature and science: Knowledge and Wonder (by V.F. Weisskopf, 1963); The Human Mystery (by J. Eccles, 1979); The Ghost in the Atom: A Discussion of the Mysteries of Quantum Physics (by P. Davies, 1986); The Miracle of Existence (by H. Margenau, 1984); The Mystery of Consciousness (by J. Searle, 1997). Some years ago, the proceedings of an interdisciplinary conference titled its three chapters “Philosophers and the Mystery of the Universe,” “The Mystery of the Universe as Seen by Theologians,” and “The Mystery of the Universe as Seen by Scientists” (cf. Coyne, Giorello, and Sindoni, 1997). There are contexts, however, in which the term “mystery” is used with a more profound significance in which scientists sometimes make analogous references to the notion of God. In the following reflections a few of these contexts will be mentioned in order to evaluate what the reference to mystery in the activity of scientists might mean from a philosophical or religious point of view.

1. Scientific Contexts. A certain appeal to mystery occurs when we speak of the wonder of a scientist faced with the intelligibility and stability of the laws of nature whose existence, together with our capacity to successfully decode them, come to be considered “a kind of mystery.” One of the most noteworthy examples of this is found in a letter from Albert Einstein to Maurice Solovine: “You find it surprising that I think of the comprehensibility of the world (insofar as we are entitled to speak of comprehensibility) as a miracle (Wunder) or an eternal mystery (ewiges Geheimnis). But surely, a priori, one should expect the world to be chaotic, not to be grasped by thought in any way. One might (indeed one should) expect that the world evidences itself as lawful only so far as we grasp it in an orderly fashion. This would be a sort of order like the alphabetical order of words. On the other hand, the kind of order created, for example, by Newton’s gravitational theory is of a very different character. Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by man, the success of such a procedure supposes in the objective world a high degree of order, which we are in no way entitled to expect a priori. Therein lies the miracle which becomes more and more evident as our knowledge develops. And here is the weak point of positivists and professional atheists, who feel happy because they think that they have preempted not only the world of the divine (entgöttert) but also of the miraculous (entwundert)” (A. Einstein, “Letter to M. Solovine,” March 30, 1952, Eng. tr. quoted by S. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978], pp. 192-193). This refers to a conviction that the founder of the Theory of Relativity had already expressed on other occasions when he said that “the eternal mystery of the world is its incomprehensibility” or that “the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible” (cf. “Physik und Realität,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute, 221 [1936], n. 3).

At times science seems to bump into the mystery of existence, or more precisely, into the mystery of “being,” offering, not infrequently, an unconsciously metaphysical perspective. A contemporary cosmologist asserts, “Science places human beings, with their desire to know, before the mystery of being ever more profoundly, the more profoundly it roots itself in the real. The role of science in the process of knowledge is that of penetrating and manifesting the mystery of being. How can humans, with all the peculiarities that characterize them, rise to mystery? Evidently not with science (which, on the contrary, places us before the mystery), but rather with philosophical and religious meditation to which science offers a profound basis for reflection and support. Certainly, mystery lies beyond scientific rationality, but science maintains all of its dialectical function in a process of knowing that, in order to be complete, requires the involvement of the entire human personality” (A. Masani, “Origine dell’universo: il mistero della vita,” Kos 7, n. 75 (1991), p.15). The mystery of which we speak is not nullified by the knowledge of laws and equations that describe physical realities, no matter how comprehensive and complete they may be. The problem remains of who or what brought the universe, along with its properties, into being, and this problem points to the perception of a causality that transcends empirical analysis and is manifested in what have become classic questions: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother for existing?” (S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes [Toronto: Bantam Book, 1995], p. 192). For science, the origin of the universe remains a mystery, more precisely, a disturbing mystery (cf. E. Wigner, in Cosmos, Bios, and Theos, p.131).

This mystery of being, as glimpsed in the arena of physics, is probably related to the perception of the “mystical” (that which “pertains to mystery”) in the area of logic, as Ludwig Wittgenstein records in one of the propositions of his Tractatus. After having sought a language able to formalize and explain all that happens in the world of facts, thereby rendering the world knowable and universally communicable, he concludes that there is something which always eludes him, something that cannot be formalized: This “something” is the existence of the world itself. It is not so much the “how” of the world, but the fact that it indeed is: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists” (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 6.44). And, also, “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical” (Ibid., 6.522). Some years later, Popper echoed this in his Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery (1982), adding that how the world is—the fact that it has a structure, or that its most distant regions are all subject to the same structural laws—seems to be, on the level of principle, inexplicable and therefore mystical.

Another area of amazement for scientists is the singularity and emergence of life, which is also considered a mystery, and particularly astounding is the emergence of the “principle of unity” that characterizes every living being and renders it subject to a specific teleology. It is true that scientific analysis can successfully describe many functions of living beings in terms of chemical-physical processes, or can interpret the emergence of complexity by beginning with simpler, information-poor systems which can lead to a higher level of self-organization thanks to the action of non-linear processes (cf. Prigogine and Stengers, Order Out of Chaos [London: Bantam, 1984]). Nor can autoreplication be considered, in the strict sense, something mysterious because, to a certain degree, it is a property of the structure of non-living macromolecules. What continues to arouse marvel among scientists is the capacity that a living creature has to give unity to all its functions, that is to say, the original presence of a true and proper individual subject. “Although a biologist, I must confess that I do not understand how life came about. Of course, it depends on the definition of life. To me, autoreplication of a macromolecule does not yet represent life. Even a viral particle itself is not a life organism, it only can participate in life processes when it succeeds in becoming part of a living host cell. Therefore, I consider that life only starts at the level of a functional cell. The most primitive cells may require at least several hundred different specific biological macromolecules. How such already quite complex structures may have come together, remains a mystery to me” (W. Arber, in Cosmos, Bios, Theos, p.142).

2. Mystery as Openness to Transcendence. But the real mystery is the presence of the human person in the universe. As suggested by the Anthropic Principle, the questions regarding the origin of the cosmos, the comprehensibility of nature, or the emergence of life point, in reality, toward the mystery of human intelligence and cognizance. The question arises as to why there should be a link between two realities that are so apparently different as are cosmic evolution, dominated by inert matter and necessary laws, and human life, capable of ascending to the heights of self-reflection and liberty: “We, who are children of the universe—animated stardust—can nevertheless reflect on the nature of that same universe, even to the extent of glimpsing the rules on which it runs. How we have become linked into this cosmic dimension is a mystery. Yet the linkage cannot be denied” (P. Davies, 1992, p. 232). If we can speak of the world as a mystery it is perhaps mysterious, above all, because the human being, itself an unresolved enigma, is an integral part of the universe that we are trying to understand. Human life constitutes, therefore, the principal instance in which the natural world “opens up” to realities that evade the formalism and empirical analysis of the sciences but do not evade the inquiry of the scientist. For philosophy a similar “opening up” can be characterized as transcendence, and it is a qualitatively greater opening up than that associated with the complexity, or even unpredictability, of physical phenomena.

The realm from which the considerations briefly sketched here emerge remains that of science, but the appeal to mystery recalls elements that belong to the realm of religion: The attitude of the scientist does not end with amazement. Rather, he or she recognizes in this wonder an opening to the possible manifestation of something that transcends science. Somewhat analogous to what happens before the religious phenomenology of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the scientist, in his or her activity, experiences reverence: “In every true investigator of nature,” Einstein wrote, “there is a kind of religious reverence” (quoted by Cantore, 1977, p. 119). If the mystery of the world engenders a similar sentiment, it is not just because it provokes marvel and wonder. “Reverence” is felt toward something recognized as being “worthy of respect,” toward something, or better yet, toward Someone, who can move us to praise or adoration. Reverence is a category proper to both sound philosophy and religion. Reverence, moreover, does not necessarily spring from an astonishment at the extraordinary or unexpected. In the strict sense, the laws or the phenomena of nature are not worthy of reverence in themselves. Reverence springs, instead, from the amazement at the fact that behind such laws there is a cause, an original and non-accessible source, to which the initiative of self-revelation uniquely belongs. The ultimate object of true reverence is not, therefore, nature, but that to which nature refers. One who views the world with a “spirit of geometry” does not necessarily lose reverence, insofar as this spirit of geometry remains capable of pointing toward something else beyond it. Only someone who stubbornly confines oneself within phenomena is no longer able to view the world with esprit de finesse.

Let us try to summarize. When scientists reflect on their research activity, they perceive that the world is a mystery: The being and existence of the universe, its coherence, and the intelligent life within it are all often considered to be “mysteries.” The experience through which scientists perceive this “mystery” is, in a certain sense, an experience of amazement, wonder, and reverence (see, Cantore, Scientific Man, 1977), but also an experience of “revelation.” Nature seems to be showing itself and revealing itself: Scientists simply bump into it. Finally, what appeals to mystery or the mystical cannot be fully expressed in formal language, defined, or circumscribed. Rather, it represents a kind of foundation which upholds the world of facts (i.e., the world that we express by a formal and exact language). As in theology, so also in science the concept of mystery cannot be identified with the ideas of ignorance, limitation, or closure, although mystery includes some reference to these ideas. Mystery represents a disclosure that passes through the experience of limitation and supersedes it, not through empirical scientific knowledge, but rather through a knowledge that transcends the scientific order: this type of knowledge is substantially aesthetic, contemplative, and mystical. The way in which scientists sometimes speak of mystery seems to indicate an opening up of questions within science which point toward something that transcends the discipline of science without, however, transcending scientists.

V. Mystery, the Sciences, and Magic

Compared with religion, magic stands as its degradation. Magic is born out of an attempt to manipulate mystery in order to make it available for immediate needs and thus meet our human yearnings for well-being and security. Magic instrumentalizes human beings’ natural openness to mystery, thereby emptying mystery of its authentically transcendental dimension. The presence of magical practices in the culture and customs of a people does not necessarily correspond to some particular stage of their gradual historical development. Magic is not confined to a pre-scientific age. Recourse to magic accompanies different epochs of human history and is also present in social contexts, such as our contemporary one, dominated by scientific rationality (cf. Introvigne, 1992). It represents the weakening and corruption of an authentic openness to mystery and opposes both an authentic human religiosity and a philosophically or scientifically meaningful search for truth.

From a historical point of view, the relationship between magic and the sciences is rather complex, especially prior to the advent of the scientific method. Some disciplines like mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, crystallography, or medicine have in their historical genesis some link to practices that border on esotericism, magic, or occultism. The relationships between astrology and astronomy and between alchemy and chemistry could merit discussions of their own. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the discovery of natural phenomena has often preceded their complete theoretical interpretation, as has happened in the case of chemical reactions or magnetism, and this has in certain instances favored extra-scientific practices in the context of scientific experimentation. It is interesting to note that those historical epochs during which the methodical observation of nature, and even experimentation, took great leaps forward, (the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance) were also those in which magic and esotericism witnessed their greatest literary output. Moreover, due to its characteristic of controlling and dominating nature, magic has historically had more elements of comparison with the applied sciences and technology than with fundamental science.

Due to its aim to provide definitive explanations for, and interpretations of, natural phenomena, contemporary science maintains a strongly critical view of magic and occultism and also towards mystery, when mystery is reductively understood as a way of controlling nature by actions whose causes are kept secret. However, even today we cannot avoid qualifying certain physical or physiological phenomena that do not have an apparent explanation within the framework of the laws of nature and of their known modes of action as “paranormal.” The difference between the notion of the paranormal and the notion of mystery is clear from what we have discussed in the previous sections (see above, III and IV). Unfortunately, when the mass media speaks of the paranormal or of mysteries (broadly speaking), it often calls upon science to enter the discussion, but in doing so the media often conveys an ambiguous image of science. On the one hand, the mass media presents scientific endeavors as a means of clarification and a source of progress in relation to all that is obscure or mysterious. On the other hand, the media highlights a sort of “magical” dimension of science, with the intention of making scientific results more fascinating to the public. This results, not infrequently, in a distorted image of science and scientists. First, because science is considered interesting only inasmuch as it may have extraordinary, unusual, or even paradoxical theories or discoveries. Second, because scientists are presented as odd and eccentric, almost sacred, figures, capable of revealing, in an elaborate and artificially accessible language, the deepest secrets of nature, of man as a whole, and of how to reach true happiness and well-being. This false image of science ignores the reality that genuine science usually encounters mystery in its everyday work rather than in extraordinary events. The scientist lives with this mysterious encounter much more often in the context of quiet obscurity than in that of drammatic success, and in openness to systematic verification rather than in the pretense of divulging ever new results.

In a society in which not only superficiality and the collapse of cultural formation, but also an excessive concern with well-being and success at any cost, provide ample room for irrationality, superstition, and magic, real scientific enterprise and authentic religiosity together recall the value of both the role of right reason and the importance of a correct anthropology. In order to open themselves to mystery and to know how to grasp its intimate, transcendent dimension, the sciences and religion must maintain their striving toward the truth without accepting its counterfeits or conceding that the human person might find in such surrogates his or her definitive fulfillment. Magic, in removing the Absolute or in pretending to be Absolute itself, claims to have a complete knowledge and capacity for control and dominance of the whole of reality. It takes advantage of the fact that not everything is familiar and understandable, and thus magic maintains that only it can explain and control what is mysterious and unknown. Unlike magic, science does not start from the idea of understanding or governing the whole of reality, but rather from the modest position of induction and analysis. If religion speaks of the whole of reality, it does so because it receives a freely-given revelation, something not open to being refashioned because it belongs to the Absolute alone. In the sciences, as in religion, mystery is a “form” of transcendence, that is, an access to the manifestations of the “divine” in nature and in history. Magic, on the contrary, is nothing other than a form of immanence, expressed by a ritual closed in on itself, that precludes the possibility of making itself a “form” of the true Absolute and instead remains only a form of false absolutes, and in the end, a form of itself.

VI. Concluding Remarks

The concept of mystery is, without a doubt, a concept subject to analogy. It belongs, properly speaking, within the context of religion and therefore treats the relationship between us and the Absolute, but mystery also includes the aspect of genuine knowledge. The religious dimension manifests itself in mystery’s appeal to transcendence while the cognitive dimension is evident in mystery’s link with the concept of revelation (understood here in its broadest, rather than strictly theological, sense). Theology, philosophy, and the sciences, each in its own way, all enter the discourse about mystery. It is precisely the analogous character of the term mystery that suggests some concluding remarks: The world, the human person, and God are all “a mystery,” but they are so in different ways.

In the strict sense, only God—His being, His life, and His salvific will—are a Mystery. Here the transcendence of mystery is dictated both by the infinite distance that separates the personal life of God (situated beyond creation and history because He is totally Other than us) and by the personal, and therefore free and unfathomable, character of His will and His loving plan for creation. In the human person, “mystery” is the mystery of grace, of our participation in the life of God and our divine election as sons in the Son. Moreover, each human being is a mystery because we find ourselves open to something or someone else: On our own we feel “unfinished.” No one has better brought to light the enigmatic, paradoxical nature of human beings than Blaise Pascal who described us as suspended between the finite and infinite, anxious for immortality and destined to die, at home and a stranger in the cosmos to which we belong, desiring to do good and perversely inclined toward evil. The French thinker summed up this condition saying that “man infinitely transcends man.” We are a mystery inasmuch as we recognize our infinite self-transcendence. The answers we look for and, above all, the goal towards which our self-transcendence tends, both lie beyond us. Finally, if the world is a mystery, it is so in the sense that it does not contain in itself the ultimate answer to its being, to the laws that govern its existence, to its coherence and becoming. It is a mystery because it points, like a great arrow, to something that transcends it. When science speaks, in a more or less direct way, of the concept of mystery, it is acknowledging the existence of such an “arrow” and acknowledging science’s openness to a higher knowledge beyond it.

On one of the final pages of the encyclical Fides et Ratio, there is a singular appeal that points us once again to Mystery, this time with a capital “M.” It is directed to “scientists, whose research offers an ever greater knowledge of the universe as a whole and of the incredibly rich array of its component parts, animate and inanimate, with their complex atomic and molecular structures. So far has science come, especially in this century, that its achievements never cease to amaze us [...]. Scientists are well aware that the search for truth, even when it concerns a finite reality of the world or of man, is never-ending, but always points beyond to something higher than the immediate object of study, to the questions which give access to Mystery” (n. 106). It does not seem inaccurate to maintain that the reflection of scientists regarding their scientific experience and regarding their ever more profound inquiry manifests characteristics that draw them close to a religious type of experience, which every true cognitive experience of philosophical depth is: Marvel and wonder, the perception of mystery, access to a type of comprehensive knowledge, and intuition are not experienced via a discursive and rational method but rather through an aesthetic way in which the world and nature are presented in a sort of natural revelation. In both scientific-philosophical and religious experience, limitation and boundary are not the final words of mystery, but rather a provisional moment. Mystery’s complete dynamic is one of openness and knowledge. This is particularly significant in Christianity where, unlike other religious traditions, both God’s initiative in revealing His mystery and the particular character that the mystery assumes as the historical realization of a plan of creation and salvation centered on Christ, guarantee that mystery possesses an ultimate and definitive meaning. Our aspiration to know this meaning is not left ambiguous or frustrated.

Documents of the Catholic Church related to the subject: 

Philosophical and theological aspects: G. BORNKAMM, “Mysterion” in TDNT, vol. IV, 1968, pp. 802-828; L. BOUYER, Cosmos: The World and the Glory of God (Petersham, MA: St. Bede's Publications, 1988); J. DANIELOU, Mythes païens, mystère chrétien (Paris: A. Fayard, 1966); M. ELIADE, A History of Religious Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978-1985), 3 vols.; M. ELIADE, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harcourt, 1959); M. INTROVIGNE (ed.), Il ritorno della magia: Una sfida per la società e per la Chiesa (Milano: Effedieffe, 1992); M.J. LE GUILLOU, Le mystère du Père. Foi des apôtres, gnoses actuelles (Paris: A. Fayard, 1973); J. H. NEWMAN, “Mysteries of Nature and Grace,” in Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (London: Christian Classics, 1966), pp. 260-283; R. OTTO, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950); R. PENNA, “Mistero,” in NDTB, 1988, pp. 984-993; M.J. SCHEEBEN, The Mysteries of Christianity (London: Herder, 1865); H.U. VON BALTHASAR, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1991), 5 vols.

Other works: E. CANTORE, Scientific Man: The Humanistic Significance of Science (New York: ISH Publications, 1977); G. COYNE, G. GIORELLO, E. SINDONI (eds.), La favola dell'universo (Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 1997); P. DAVIES, The Ghost in the Atom: A Discussion on the Mysteries of Quantum Physics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); P. DAVIES, The Mind of God (London: Simon & Schuster, 1992); J. ECCLES, The Human Mystery (New York: Springer, 1979); J. ECCLES, D. ROBINSON, The Wonder of Being Human (London: Macmillan Free Press, 1984); H.C. KEE, Medicine, Miracles and Magic in the New Testament Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); G. LLOYD, Magic, Reason, and Experience: Studies in the Origin and Development of Greek Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); H. MARGENAU, R. VARGHESE (eds.), Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origin of the Universe, Life and Homo Sapiens (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1992); H. MARGENAU, The Miracle of Existence (Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press, 1984); J.R. SEARLE, The Mystery of Consciousness (London: Granta, 1997); V. WEISSKOPF, Knowledge and Wonder: The Natural World as Man Knows It (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979).