Friday, April 06, 2007

Problems and Mysteries

Rabbit Marc Gellman responds to the debate between Rick Warren and Sam Harris on the existence of God:
The problem with these debates is that they do not understand the nature of the question being asked. The French existentialist Gabriel Marcel in his book "The Mystery of Being" helpfully distinguished between two types of questions: problems and mysteries. Problems are questions about things outside of us that we lay siege to. When we answer them correctly they go away forever. Once chemists thought that a mysterious substance called phlogiston caused combustion. Then in the 1770s Antoine Lavoisier conclusively proved that oxygen causes combustion, and nobody thought about phlogiston again. This is because the question of what causes combustion is a problem, not a mystery.

Mysteries are not questions we constitute (those are problems). Mysteries are, according to Marcel, questions within which we ourselves are constituted. Mysteries are not problems that have not yet been answered. "What is the cure for cancer?" is an unanswered problem, not a mystery, but the question of whether God is real or whether goodness is rewarded or whether there is a purpose to human existence or why do fools fall in love or who put the bop in the bop sh-bop sh-bop—these are all mysteries and they will not go away and they will always be important and they will always define us by the way we answer them with our lives and our hopes.

So both Pastor Warren and atheist Harris have erroneously come to believe that the question of whether God is real is just some problem that can be answered—like how far is it from New York to Cleveland? God cannot be proved with evidence that is outside of us. Said another way, the mystery of God is resolved by the answer we give to it with our life...

As for my evangelical friend Rick Warren, I continue to pray that his faith becomes not less strong but less exclusivist. Perhaps I am, in fact, saved by the atoning death of Jesus, and perhaps I need to say that in order to be saved. I don't believe so, but I do not feel degraded or belittled by Rick's belief that I need to do so. What I believe, the way I respond to the mystery of God as I have learned it through Judaism, is that God did not give all the truth to just one faith. What I believe is that, "The righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come." This means that I expect to see Rick and Sam there, but instead of continuing their debate, I expect them to be laughing and saying to each other, "Why didn't we listen to Gellman?"

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