Question the Mystery

Through the broken clouds of the mid-evening sky, rays from a hidden sun fan out like venetian blinds shuttering a glimpse of the glory of Heaven above a watery horizon. Soaring gently over the high tide lapping at the sandy shoreline, a lone gull pulls its way upwind in search of necessity or perhaps desire. Across the shallow water stands a chain of forested islands, silhouetted against the perpetual gray haze of the western Korean coastline. Beyond, only imagination can tell us what lie in the space past the edge of the Earth.

Actually, I know what lie beyond: China. Just a few hundred kilometers over this sea sits the Middle Kingdom, a few hundred more lie Indochina and the Indian Ocean, then Antarctica, the Atlantic, North America, the Bering Strait, and finally Korea. It’s a simple exercise of tracing a line on a globe. This procedure, however, is far less wondrous or inspiring than the mystery of the unknown.

Looking out over this beach, I am trying to catch a brief respite from the camp I have agreed to attend. The campsite belongs to the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church, an organization of which I am an employee. I hold no ill will against the church or my school. In fact, the school has an exceptional reputation for treating its employees well, and my observation confirms the testimony. That said, I have yet to find a comfortable way to operate within a religious community. In addition to the stress of teaching several hours a day, the discomfort of standing silently with eyes lifted through a group prayer or listening distantly to worship songs constantly adds to the pressures of my life.

When I agreed to participate in the camp, I thought it would be a quiet escape to nature. Little did I know, the beach on which we would be camping shared the space with a large dormitory and chapel at which a hundred young campers and families are participating in a church seminar. In no way are they rude or particularly inconsiderate, but after hoping for silence, I find the excited shouts of children or the gay chatting of a group of new friends less joyous. Lost opportunities for silent solitude have ruined my hope for much needed stress relief.

The camp, though, has not been a waste. I have been able to share some great conversation with my coworkers, encounter some beautiful views, and restart my photographic habits. I will share some of my pictures at the end, but I would like to share my reflections of one discussion that shed a bit more light on the reasons behind my discomfort in the religious community.

In the packed wet sand of the exposed shoreline, my gregarious colleague had dug a pit and started a fire around which the two dozen or so campers gathered last night. In proud introduction of the great American pastime of making s’mores, my American colleagues and I taught our students and coworkers how to properly roast a marshmallow and sandwich it between cookies that served as graham crackers with a slab of melting milk chocolate. Glad I had not lost the touch of preparing a perfectly golden-brown, crispy yet gooey marshmallow, I enjoyed more sugar than I needed as we chatted.

I wonder how many thousands of generations did just this; sitting around a fire, roasting food, sharing the stories of their lives, and discussing the most distant ideas their brains could fathom. I imagine those conversations were not much different from those we had here on the beach.

A memorable conversation began when I asked a devout colleague why the SDA church observes the sabbath on Saturday while most other Christian denominations observe it on Sunday. With a bit more prodding, I was able to elicit the story of how the early church under Roman rule changed the day to Sunday to appeal to the pagan masses whose celebratory day to worship the Sun was (of course) Sunday. They mentioned a few other ideas from the old pagan religions that Christianity adopted during this time to make it more appealing to the masses, but I didn’t dig into it. I simply enjoyed the historical recitation of how this apparently minor change would have future ramifications that ranged from the immense as in the case of armies that would not fight on the sabbath to the inane like the lack of bus service on Sunday in my hometown.

The conversation continued to wander, sometimes departing from my attention when it changed to Korean, but I would end the night with a very deep discussion about life, love, and geopolitics with a new acquaintance from another school. Though it was entertaining, I left the conversation with a sense of dissatisfaction. I decided to follow up today. I asked the original devout fellow teacher why it matters what day we call the sabbath. She and a couple of our colleagues tried to explain the biblical roots of the Saturday sabbath; its practice among the original “chosen people,” the Jews; and the SDA church’s commitment to adhering to scripture. These are all interesting tidbits, but none of them answered the question Why does God care what day we keep holy? Maybe the question is exceptionally basic, but I thought that should make it all the easier to answer. Despite this, I continued asking the same questions in as many different ways as I could contrive because the responses continually dodged them. After going in circles from tradition to scripture to tradition to scripture, I finally asked what answer satisfies them when they ask these questions. The discussion ended with the explanation that the important part was the relationship to God and that we could talk with God on any day of the week. But the sabbath should still be Saturday.

Herein lies another reason why religion will never satisfy my wonder. Mystery is beautiful, and the unknown commands incredible feelings of wonder, fear, and hope. For me, though, that unknown is not the end; it is the beginning. It is the beginning of discovery. The wonder is for the incredible things that are waiting to be known, the fear is for the feeling that I might never find them, and the hope is that I will.

I will not try to make a value judgment of this trait, but my colleagues do not share the same thirst for further answers. Because it has always been done this way or Because someone important said so is sufficient. For me, it is not. Though some aspects of The Bible have escaped my criticism, the lack of logical explanation in its immense collection of writings fails to satisfy my needs.

When the words of The Bible were written down, there were no globes detailing the continents and expansive oceans (at least in that part of the world). What lie over the horizon was indeed a mystery. However, we have come a long way in the ensuing millennia. A product of centuries of years of exploration, the modern globe is a testament to those who did not accept the answers given by wisemen and prophets. These explorers saw mystery and wanted answers. When asked the tough questions, they did not dodge and rationalize; they cast off in search of answers. They did not take for granted the knowledge that we had gained, but knew that humanity’s continued advance depended upon the steady expansion of the collective body of knowledge on which we draw when we invent new technology or solve new problems. I will not accept the regurgitated answers of antiquity or authority. I want to know the true nature of this world, and that involves continuing to ask the tough questions and find their answers. To stop questioning is to stop learning, and to stop learning is to stop living.

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