Too big the mystery

“He looked out at the Pacific Ocean on night watch and saw that religions were too small to capture the mystery.”

It’s one sentence in the account of a man’s life.

Although too brief admittedly to do it justice, what it attempts is to capture how the late subject, during World War II, abandoned the faith of his youth — and of his father who was a pastor — and instead came to embrace a here-and-now-focused humanitarianism.

Part of some information a family sent to me this week about a man I was writing about, you could tell they felt this was a brave and commendable thing on his part.

But I couldn’t help thinking otherwise. It’s a sad sentence, really.

Because, however much this man went on to achieve — he became a highly respected college professor — his entire life and career from that point in time, when he was a young officer aboard a ship, was built on a faulty premise: That the truth about who we are and our place in the universe is ultimately unknowable.

Therefore, any claims to know it are immediately out of bounds.

The best we can hope for in life is to shrug our way through it, subscribers to a sort-of bland “who knows?” agnosticism.

I could say more about how in the world it’s possible to get from that unpromising premise to caring so much about what happens to people. This guy by all accounts was a big-hearted soul.

But an even greater mystery to me is this:
How is it that one person could come to this conclusion, while another, beholding that same sea, thinks instead of the God who made it and falls down on his face in worship?

I can tell you that in my experience writing about people, including many WW2 survivors, the latter has been by far the more common response to the big events of their lives.

And it bears out, I firmly believe, what the Bible teaches: that we are hard-wired to acknowledge God. For those who do not, sadly, it’s as much a problem of the will, it seems, as the intellect.