Mystery: Positive and Negative


Yesterday in my Catholic Church Today course (one of two Theology courses I’m in this semester, the other being Theologies of Violence/Nonviolence) we discussed a reading that talked about the difference between a problem and a mystery. Naturally the two Theology classes I’m in will end up complimenting one another, and it is this topic of mysteries that I find applicable to the work I’ll be doing in my Philosophy of Human Nature course as well as perhaps the Freedom of Speech course I’m in. For that reason, before I find myself posting thoughts or assignments that lean on parts of this distinction (and as it’s the start of a weekend I will have most of the next two days for what homework is due on Monday as well as Tuesday) I wanted to describe it in its own post here.

First I’ll discuss negative mystery. When the term “mystery” comes up in daily language you may think of solving crimes, maybe Sherlock Holmes or CSI will come to mind. This is actually negative mystery. These result from a lack of information; they result from a deficit of knowledge. The scope of these can fit into words in our human languages. In the reading we did for class these were what the author labeled problems; they always have a solution. We can easily comprehend these. The more we learn and comprehend the more the topic will make sense, and once we have a final answer we’ll usually close the case and move on. Negative mysteries can be empirically or scientifically explained. All sciences, social and physical, operate to solve negative mysteries. Any court system likewise is essentially solving (or ruling on) negative mysteries. We discussed this in my Theology class because when the rest of the world was turning to science to answer questions they grew impatient with the church because the church couldn’t find answers to questions they’d been asking the entire time they were in existence. To science, theology isn’t a real discipline.

That is where positive mystery comes in. This is what our author referred to as mystery. These result from an excess of reality. What is presented exceeds our finite human ability to comprehend and understand. As we learn more about a positive mystery we only find deeper questions that need answering (thus, the more you learn about a positive mystery the more mysterious it gets), but never a comprehensive answer. We may try to understand these by categorizing them as something we already know or by developing models that can represent them. Positive mysteries are always open for more development and clarification as they have no end and are inexhaustible. Theology and Philosophy are both prime examples of valid disciplines that operate on positive mysteries.

I learned of this distinction in one of the four classes I’m taking this semester, but two others also operate within the realm of positive mysteries. The Freedom of Speech course operates much more in the realm of negative mysteries. Therefore you see why me posting something on this is somewhat prerequisite to posting later thoughts and assignments.