Mystery — Otto & Marcel
The celebrated phrase of Rudolf Otto speaks about the divine who is a “wholly other” from us. This is a mystery which is tremendous and fascinating. Or it is a mystery that repels and attracts. It repels by its tremendous nature, or by its awe, wholly other nature etc. Divine is infinitely superior to us and there is an infinite distance between divine and me. But Otto considers divine as fascinating, and thus attracting us. Though Otto was a scholar in comparative religion, his Christian influences are quite evident in these two characteristics (tremendous and fascinating) of the divine mystery. But it is true in many other religious understandings too, though I am not speaking about them here.
A celebrated philosopher called Gabriel Marcel distinguishes between problem and mystery. A problem is a situation where l am not personally involved. A problem becomes a mystery when I am personally involved in that situation. I can solve a mathematical problem and my friend might arrive at the same solution if both of us know sufficient mathematics. But when I pose a question like what is happiness? Or What is the meaning of life? They are questions for whom personal experiences of the response-giver is invariably linked to the response. So, the basic idea here in mystery is that person is intimately linked to that mystery. I can’t take a completely detached from approach as I discuss such questions.
Otto and Marcel have two understandings of the word mystery, connected to two situations. In Otto, mystery is tremendous and fascinating (repel and attract); in Marcel, mystery is intimately linked to the person. In Otto, there is an infinite distance between mystery and I; in Marcel, mystery can’t be considered devoid of me. The aspect of transcendence is emphasized in Otto, and we can attribute closer connection to immanence in Marcel. It is true that the concept of fascinating in Otto’s definition do involve a certain sense of intimacy. I think a Christian understanding of God as almighty, loving, and Emmanuel (God amongst us) is captured better by the term mystery, if we can include Marcel’s understanding to that of Otto.
Even in close relationships (may be less evident in others), the other person can be taken as a mystery… s/he is different from me, s/he attracts me (not the sexual attraction in all cases), s/he is intimately linked to me. There is a certain harmony between these three dimensions. When one dimension is forgotten at the cost of the other, relationships can break. Just to cite one example, when the ‘intimately linked’ dimension is given excessive importance at the cost of overlooking the aspect of our difference, I will be denying that the other is a person and the relationship will be broken.
PS. I thank Johnson Puthenpurackal for speaking about these two dimensions of mystery in his book, ‘Human Existence as Homecoming’ which helped me to extend a little his thinking.