Stumbling toward the 20th century, trying to sort out electricity and magnetism and the forces that bind the universe, Victorian scientists in frock coats proposed something called the ether as an absolute value for measuring invisible waves in space. Mysterious forces must have a medium in which to operate; therefore, the ether must exist.
The theory proved totally wrong, of course, but that's the point: It was pursued to a conclusion of yes or no. That's one thing to do with a mystery: Solve it.
Last month the conservative blogosphere quivered with indignation over an interview given by NASA chief Charles Bolden to the Muslim news service Al-Jazeera, in which Bolden claimed that one of the tasks assigned to him by President Obama was to make the Muslim world "feel good" about its historic contributions to science and engineering. Even though the administration soon disavowed Bolden's comments, the uproar heaved up some interesting questions, such as: Given impressive scientific work by Muslims, why didn't they progress beyond the Middle Ages?
In fact, many ancient and non-Western cultures have scored great achievements in science but failed to build on them. For many reasons-social, political, and philosophical-but also theological. A society's path is determined by its light.
Unique among religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition sets forth a God who is both transcendent and immanent; who can't be found, but demands to be sought. "I am your very great reward"; "Seek Me and live"; "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!"; "Oh, the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" God is personal but also propositional; beyond our knowledge, and yet we can know (Ephesians 3:19). Human life is not a test of worthiness or a vale of suffering we must somehow rise above. It's a quest, and creation is a mystery-both in the wonder-full sense and in the Agatha Christie sense: a marvelous work, and a problem with a solution.
The "mystery religions" so popular in the ancient world (and today-see Scientology) were another matter. Those cultic "secrets" were made up and passed along to anyone willing to pay the price, and the goal was not knowledge so much as power, or the illusion of it. But God's mysteries are available to anyone who seeks, and once revealed they answer questions that were perhaps not even asked. Consider "the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints . . . Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:26-27). Few even suspected Him until He appeared, just as no one suspected relativity until the need for it arose. "I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me" (Isaiah 65:1).
In an interview with Jon Stewart about her new book, Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson said that science need not be at odds with religion, because they have much in common: Both push the limits of understanding. It's fair to assume she meant Western science, and the Christian religion. Other faiths and cultures, however impressive their accomplishments, set limits on understanding.
Generally speaking: Hinduism locked itself into cycles. Chinese reverence for tradition stalled progress. Greek natural philosophy was hindered by contempt for matter, and Roman technology by contempt for man. Islam has no mystery because everything is explained. Buddhism has no explanations because everything is mysterious.
Reverential curiosity was the spark and the fuel of Western science. "It is the glory of God to conceal things; but the glory of kings is to search things out" (Proverbs 25:2). Sometimes there's a prize for the one who solves the problem, sometimes a fortune to be made from practical applications, but mostly we want to know. The intellectual palate is awakened: Why do objects fall? Why does light split into colors? What is that mysterious background noise in space?
But progress can always be reversed. The beginning of human achievement was to look up in wonder. Then, look up and wonder. When we stop looking up, achievement will end.
Email Janie B. Cheaney