At the heart of the universe are three staggering paradoxes, and one of them, however absurd and inconceivable, must be true:
- either the universe made itself; or
- it has always existed; or
- some self-made or eternal telos is behind it
Theists and agnostics might look at this unpleasant set of options and call it the great ontological mystery—the Mystery of Being (as in Tillich’s question, “Why is there something when there might have been nothing?”). Atheists, on the other hand, look at these options and see, not some spooky Scooby Doo-like mystery that resists rationality, but merely a very complicated problem that might well yield to science someday. Needless to say, they reject the possibility of telos as a serious explanation for the universe—for it only sets the problem back a step. Instead, atheists focus on whether the material universe is self-created from nothing or eternally self-existent.
So what is the universe? Is it a profoundly paradoxical ontological mystery—or just a seemingly paradoxical, very complicated, and perplexing problem that scientists might, indeed, solve one day? As Dorothy asked of the Wizard of Oz, so we ask of the universe: Who (or what) is behind the cosmic curtain? Telos or gears?
Unfortunately, we have no curtain (yet) to pull back and settle the final score, but we can place our bets and talk about the Mystery of Being. And aside from speaking the language of the physical sciences, we can talk about it (or to it) in philosophical, poetic, and theological languages as well. One way, for example, that religiously inclined liberals tend to want to talk about it (and to it) is via the language of apophatic or negative theology.
“Spontaneous Buddha nature”, Karen Armstrong’s “God”, the Hindu “Atman”, Carl Sagan’s “awe before the cosmos”, the film “Baraka”, Derrida’s “differance”, the Catholic “via negativa”, Shelley’s “Intellectual Beauty”, and Nietzsche’s “overgoing” are all (in my view) tropes for the paradoxes and perplexities at the heart of Being, and our human attempts to address and intuit those paradoxes and perplexities.
Atheists may have no interest in addressing them (waving at them, saying ‘hi’ to them, smiling at them, praying to them, sending them a love letter, thinking about them, arguing into the silence at them like Thomas Hardy did, burning a candle to them, reading a book on negative theology, meditating, doing yoga etc.). But I think that these gestures are at the heart of a sane religious response to the universe—the kind of responses that, even if you reject religion and do not participate in it, you might encourage as substitutes for fundamentalism (as opposed to deriding these form of religious longing as incoherent).
Negative theology is not incoherent. To be incoherent one would have to first know that the paradoxes at the heart of Being are only apparent, not real. And how can you know that? At the heart of Being there may not be a tidy materialist syllogism. The universe might well be stranger than that. And, as Hamlet said, “As a stranger, give it welcome.”
And if you don’t want to give it welcome, then don’t give it welcome. But, even if you’re an atheist, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you must also be obtuse and cynical about why people would feel a longing to speak to or feel the ontological mystery as a presence.
I think that this is the great divide, with theists and agnostics on one side, and atheists on the other. Are we in an ontological mystery or just a very complicated problem?
I wonder, for example, if it’s coherent for an agnostic to engage in some forms of religious practice. Here are two examples:
- I don’t think it’s incoherent for an agnostic to light a morning candle to the ontological mystery and sit in silent meditation before it, imagining the Mystery of Being as a felt “presence.” I do think it would be rather silly for an atheist to do so because he or she regards the universe as merely a very complicated problem—not a mystery in any mystical sense.
- I also don’t think it’s incoherent for an agnostic to offer prayers to such a Mystery of Being—to speak to it—as to the unknown god of the Book of Acts—not in faith, but in doubt—in wonder at the paradoxes at the heart of existence, and perhaps even the paradoxical Mind behind it.
But perhaps you disagree. Maybe you wouldn’t call this agnosticism, but deism. Could an agnostic, for example, participate unironically in the Balinese Monkey Chant (as a trope for the ontological mystery)?:
Here are some Westerners doing the Balinese Monkey Chant at the 2007 Burning Man. Setting aside the perhaps cheesy cultural appropriation for the moment, is this something no sane atheist or agnostic should ever participate in? Is it too religious a response to the universe? What would Richard Dawkins do—or an agnostic like Robert Wright?: