Mystery and Naming

Living in an awareness of mystery is a little bit scary.  And it’s a lot-of-bits humbling.  We don’t like to be scared.  Or humbled.  Mystery is tough because it first requires us to admit that there are things that we have no control over.  And this is hard enough as it is.  But with mystery, this is only the first step.  After we make this admission, that we have no control over mystery, we then have to make this second, even more difficult admission: there are things we don’t understand.

So we have these reactions to mystery.  We run away from it.  We cover it up.

Not good things to do.  We need mystery.  But sometimes we think we need our sense of control more.

There are countless ways that we fool ourselves into thinking we have control over things we don’t.  Psychological issues such as compulsions and eating disorders are largely comprised over an attempt to use the behavior as a way to control the uncontrollable.  A major aspect of addiction is the delusion that it is all under control.  Type “A” personalities attempt to micromanage every tiny little aspect of their lives in an attempt to extend this to places their control simply won’t go.  Many people sabotage their relationships because they want out before the other person—who they can’t control—hurts them first.

One of the ways we attempt to exert control is by naming.  We have this delusion that once we’ve made up some combination of vowel and consonant sounds and applied it to something, now we understand it, now we control it.

My eldest son started complaining of a head ache about a year ago.  It did not go away.  We lept into the rabbit hole of modern American medical care.  The doctor lead to a neurologist.  The neurologist lead to seeing an opthomalogist.

He began to lose the sight in one of his eyes.  He suffered dizziness and naseua.  In the beg inning, he spent an hour or two in his dark room at a time.  As time went on, it went up.  Three hours, four hours, half the day.  His world—and by extension, our world—began to shrink.  Even when he felt good enough in the moment to want to leave the house, or to get out of bed, there was the fear that one of these episodes could come in, debilitating him.

These sorts of things have a Sherlock-Holmes kind-of feel when you are watching them on House or cable-chanel reality shows.  When it is your own flesh and blood, it’s quite a different thing.  It was terrible and horrifying.

Along the way there were tentative diagnosis.  The doctors gave names to the things that were plaguing my son.  In some cases, these names were useless because the names they applied were simply wrong.  They assumed at one point that it was migraines.  They prescribed migraine medicine.  The medicine did not work.

In other cases the names were so vague and non-specific they did not actually lead to anything that helped.  The names, in effect, were a synonym for “This is a mystery that we do not understand.”

We do this all the time, in so many aspects of our life: apply a sound to a thing, give it a name.  We think this action gives us control over it.

This idea goes back to ancient times.  Entire mystical systems were designed around the idea that things had a special, secret name and that learning this name gave the magician power over the thing.

A careful reading of the bible shows some vestiges of this belief.  For example, a demon says to Jesus in Mark 1: 24“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

On the surface, this looks like a pretty weird quotation.  It starts defiant, “What do you want with us?”  The demon follows this up by demonstrating that he knows Jesus’ name.  The question, “Have you come to Destroy us?” indicates that the demon has some sense of Jesus’ intentions and power.

But the final sentence “I know who you are—the Holy One of God.”  It almost reminds me of those old Superman comics, where Lex Luthor pulls the kryptonite out of the led box and waves it at his nemesis.  It appears that the demon thinks that knowing who Jesus really is is some great weakness.

The demon in  Mark 5 has some similar things to say: “He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!”

It’s worth wondering: Why does the demon seem to think he’s in a position to bargain with Jesus?  What is the point of his demand that Jesus promise not to torture him?  This all suggests that the demon believes he has some form of bargaining chip.

But watch what happens next,

9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.”

I wonder if the demon smiled, on the inside, when Jesus asked his name.  There is a note of sarcasm involved in the demon’s response.  A legion was a Roman military grouping.  In giving the answer he did, the demon was accomplishing several things.  It was claiming that there were several presences within the boy.  It was also establishing it’s hostility toward who Jesus was, and where he came from, as well as it’s military might.  In today’s terms, it’d be a bit like an American saying to some one “What is your name?” and the person replying “I’m not just one person, I’m a whole brigade of Al Qada fighters.”

Perhaps most importantly, when the demon answered “My name is Legion.” It must have felt like it was keeping Jesus power away.  It was avoiding telling Jesus it’s name.  The creature had already established it new Jesus’ name.  One can only wonder at the demon’s surprise when Jesus cast the demon out of the boy and into the pigs.

We make the mistake of that demon all the time.  We are confronted with a mystery and we believe we have power over it because we have a name for it.  But naming a thing and understanding a thing, they are not the same.  Knowing what to call something does not mean that we have power over it.

And this is a great thing.  We are foolish, petty and selfish.  If we had power over all the things we wanted to, I shutter to think where we might be.  When I look at the mess we have made of things—with our limited power—I am so very thankful for the fact that there is mystery, that there are forces so much greater than us.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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