I’m fascinated by the plot twists fate appears to write into our life stories, if only to create drama for its own amusement. Writing about my religious upbringing may seem like a non sequitur after publishing a book-length appreciation of a video game. But don’t be fooled. There's a thread uniting these two projects – one about a medieval fantasy role-playing game, the other about religion. And that link resides in the way mystery interacts with the human psyche.
Mystery inspires appreciation, even worship. Mystery fosters the interactivity of conjecture. Mystery in art (the ‘Elsa Effect’ of don’t let them in, don’t let them see) is what drew me to Dark Souls. And I’m increasingly convinced that, despite my eventual deconversion and exit from the church, mystery is the thing that provokes my ongoing fascination with religion to this day. I’ve heard my condition referred to as being “Christ-haunted” (though it's difficult to understand why Christ would do the haunting himself when there’s a Holy Ghost on the payroll).
Four or five years ago, as I was beginning to admit to myself that I didn’t see or feel any compelling evidence of God’s presence – in the world, in my life – I ended up texting with an old pal. He’d gone through his own spiritual deconstruction but his curlicue trajectory had led him from evangelicalism to the Greek Orthodox church. He talked about the enjoyment of loosening his grip on certainty and seeking the rapture of mystery, of letting oneself be dazzled by a light too searing for the mind’s eye to register, of calling that God. Even if we couldn’t form an intelligible mental picture, we could still shut our eyes and bask in its warmth, he suggested. There was something attractive to me about that idea. A letting go of the need for certainty, a growing peace with “I don’t know” even while clinging to that old majesty.
I write in You Died about how the game’s use of ruined architecture and intentionally fragmented narrative draws you in and keeps your mind engaged, long after you’ve stepped away from the game. If you’re a straight man living in a historical period that obligates women to cover their bodies head to toe, the mere sight of an exposed ankle might drive you insane with lust. You might spend hours ruminating on the landscape concealed behind that curtain. Religion doesn’t reveal God’s ankle so much as it passes down a body of literature written by people who did and were transfigured by the sight. If we believe the stories, this simply creates even more mystery for our brains to chew over. With no empirical evidence to review, the pleasure loop of cogitation and conjecture – what we’ve come to call theology – can cycle like a perpetual-motion machine.
The ignorance of having never seen God’s face, or heard his voice, wasn’t bliss exactly but it felt like a necessary precursor to bliss. The straining toward illumination, the intellect’s version of sexual tension. The less resolved the question could be, the more you could exist in the strip tease of the half-naked truth. I’m convinced this is where the ecstasy of religion exists for many people. A mystery so impenetrable that one can spend a lifetime squirming in anticipation of the dam burst of answers occasioned by one’s own little death.
I’ve heard fellow atheists mock God as the “hide-and-seek champion of the universe” (no less strident a provocation than the words God’s own prophet Elijah used to troll the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27). I just think He’s a love interest that plays ‘hard to get’ more effectively than any being in the universe. His unattainability, his silence, his aloofness, is the very thing that makes his admirers want to drop everything and chase him, panting and deranged with desire, to the horizon's far edge.