The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 1, 2012

Craig Tally: Faith means embracing mystery

By Craig Tally
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — As a boy, I camped one night on the sandbar of a river somewhere deep in the swampland of southern Louisiana. Sleep was elusive as I experienced a mixture of excitement and uneasiness.

The cosmos affects me the same way. I feel the excitement of being a unique creation as well as the uneasiness of being a tiny part of a massive universe. As the Psalmist says in the language of King James, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

I know that feeling.

But as our technology develops, our planet shrinks and our universe looms larger, my thoughts advance from “what is man?” to “who is God?”

Magnificent telescopes journeying through the universe reveal far-away galaxies, nebulae and planets snuggled down in sister solar systems.

Recently, I watched a television program about giant, gaseous, Jupiter-type planets roaming the universe looking for homes in unsuspecting solar systems. As if I wasn’t already overwhelmed by the program, I was brought up close and personal to overwhelmingly beautiful, yet sometimes fearsome, cosmic activity.

It is one thing to feel the thrill of the beauty of outer space. It is another to feel somewhat uneasy by the sheer enormity and power of it all.

These are the times I am most challenged by the apparent insignificance of mankind. These are the times when I have to wonder how in the world (pardon the pun) God fits into this massive, beautiful expanse. These are the times when I most feel the tension that exists between believing in God, yet not being able to completely understand God.

My belief is on the side of God, but in believing so, I find that I must embrace mystery. The very nature of God is that he comes to us on the other side of mystery. To know God is to know how to live with mystery.

From this struggle between faith and understanding, some people emerge not believing in God. Others emerge not certain of God. Still others emerge with faith renewed.

In response to a letter of inquiry, Charles Darwin once wrote of his inconclusive mind: “It is impossible to answer your question briefly ... But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide.”

Richard Feynman, an American physicist awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, also offered perspective on the issue: “God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand.”

Finally, Francis Collins writes: “Science is ... a powerful way, indeed,  to study the natural world. Science is not particularly effective ... in making commentary about the supernatural world. Both worlds, for me, are quite real and quite important. They are investigated in different ways. They coexist. They illuminate each other.”

A piece published by The Huffington Post in February illustrated this point when 20 scientists were asked about their religious beliefs.

The idea of not understanding pulls and stretches faith, and, just as the pulling and stretching of muscles strengthens them, so is faith strengthened.

Such exercising of faith may not be pleasant, but it is beneficial. Faith grows and becomes stronger. And mystery, rather than being a threat, becomes something cherished.

Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at