When I began to take my faith serious in my late teens, few things made me feel more alone among God’s so-called people than when my Christian community discouraged me from testing and pressing into my faith. They would say, “Don’t think too much!” or in more disguised positive ways like, “You just have to take it by faith,” or in ways that made me feel like I had a disease like, “Man, you’re deep!” Pressing into the so-called “deeper” things with thoughtful reflection was my life’s blood. If life itself was a meaningful as I sensed that it was, I couldn’t settle for pat answers, party-lines, and the insistent simpleness of the mob who fail to risk their reputation for freedom.
That was how I felt then, needing to push aside systems and people, including the church, in order to find light and truth. My quest continues. But the irresistible gnawing at my soul in those early years was unbearable, a real darkness, a kind of hell. A recent Christianity Today article moved this theme in me, “Reveling in the Mystery.” D.H. Williams, professor at Baylor College, explores the mystery of God. He writes, “As a result, Christianity has struggled since the 3rd century to avoid what theologian Jaroslav Pelikan called a "tyranny of epistemology" in its understanding of God and God's revelation to us. Simply put, this tyranny occurs when Christians think of God as a great field of investigation, a problem to be solved.” I can affirm that some have treated God as a problem to be solved. Wrap God up in a pretty box with a bow on top and call it “Christianity.” In reality, these are seeking merely propositions about God, in part, because the more you know the more you can control. It is a tyranny both of the knower and for those around him. I find that people in this position are often insecure and afraid and need our patience.
Many in the Emergent movement have decried the tyranny of epistemology, sometimes overstating exactly what the tyranny is out of their own insecurity, but still bearing at the heart of it an insistence that when we act as though we have the special corner on truth, all parsed and dissected, we are actually farther than God in our arrogance than we ever were without our knowledge. In dissecting our theology too much, we something gets lost. The patient dies. I know some groups that denounced the Emergent church as heretical, yet I suspect that denouncement can only come from those who have both misunderstood as well as become tyrants themselves with a wooden view of God and the universe. Yet, the other spectrum is equally dangerous, that we can know very little and must revel in nebulous mystery if we’re going anywhere. Reveling in mystery can become wallowing in mystery. Some of the people of my growing up years were like this, taking “faith” to mean contentment in not knowing even basic ideas revealed to us by God—things that God seems very keen on us knowing.
Williams then takes the reader through several stages in the mystical journey of the Christian journey, drawn from Gregory of Nyssa who draws these ideas from Moses. The reading is very interesting, so I recommend going through the article (one of the better ones by CT). While I’m unsure of Gregory’s hermeneutic that Moses life is an outline for our own, I do think many of the mystical experiences in this article are common to those who press into God, bringing all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
In reading the article, I wondered how we can explain mystery more clearly, at least to me. What exactly is mystery? Where does mystery begin?
Paul often talks about the "mystery of time," by which he means things we did not know and now do know. Jesus the Messiah being one such example of a revealed mystery. We did not know God would send THIS kind of Messiah! This is one of the pleasures of surprise in education: every day new knowledge comes to us. More mysteries revealed. With this kind of mystery, we go into the darkness of knowing that we don’t know. And, once illuminated, we now know.
Many of our questions in life are like this. We come to learn many things, just as the questioners Nicodemus and Thomas came to learn by simply asking their questions. And we continue to know as we grow. Like a child must have pureed vegetables, an adult gets to indulge in all the crispy pleasure of a ripened broccoli. We get to grow up in our knowledge too, taking in all that we are capable of. “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”
But there is another kind of mystery, one that is more interesting to me and more at the heart of this post. It is the "mystery of relationship." Mike Mason wrote the only marriage book I recommend for anyone serious about getting married called, “The Mystery of Marriage.” Marriage is a mystery, because marriage is relational. Unlike the mystery of education, where we grow to know more as we study, the mystery of relationships involves mysteries we may never know as we have no capacity to get into the mind of the other. As much as we can show courtesy to see things from another’s perspective, we can never get inside their skin.
This is true with God as well. He reveals things to us, but we only know him as we get to know him. Because he is Creator and we are creaturely, many things about him I may never know, but can only experience. I’ve heard the verse abused, “His ways are higher than our ways,” to mean that that God is indescribable, past understanding. But that’s not the context of Isaiah (55:8). God is referring to his love, that quality so broad and deep, that we hardly approach understanding how much he cares about his creation and to what ends he goes to be with humans and redeem them. Who knows what he will do next? Who knows what his full feelings are for me? Who knows how far he is inviting me up his mountain? That is mysterious indeed.
Paul was getting at this kind of mystery in Ephesians, when he wrote, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). Love is a mystery. It is only known, not through propositions, but through experience. Like a rainbow, you can see love, but you cannot bottle it.
This morning I listened to the bull elks bugling in the forest around our cabin. The bulls are collecting harems, their mistresses of the rut. Their trumpeting bugle echoes off the canyon walls, inciting fights from other bulls and inviting cow elks to their bedroom chambers.
I hike into the 100 acres of aspen, pine, and gamble oak that we affectionately call the “White Woods”. I see the sign, the scraped trees, the scat on the ground. I smell the musk in the air. I even walked up on a bull last week. Within my boundaries, I can explore what the elk are doing, see the spike following the bull, see the cow a hundred yards to the south making her approach.
I think of the boundaries as the knowledge we grow into. And while there is still much to know, knowledge is available to me. Yet what goes on outside my boundaries? I can still hear bugling. But I cannot explore it. I cannot see the clashing of antlers between two mature bulls. I cannot count the number of heads in the herds. My boundaries are not limitless. Beyond my borders, mystery comes to me in sounds and hints, enough for my imagination to marvel at what lies beyond.
Most of each person lies beyond our borders: My wife, my friends, God, and even myself. I am closer to myself than anyone else in existence, yet I have depths I do not understand. My self-knowledge is limited. I gain some tools through therapy, unpacking my past, letting the Spirit search me, knowing myself and my desires, but I see a deep, dark well within me, one that I will never fully know. I explore what I can until I hit the border when I can go no further. I can grow in virtue, but it will require more than willpower to change myself. If I’m mysterious to me, if I have parts inaccessible by my own faculties, then all I can do is hear the faintest hints of who I am and what lies beneath and let my imagination marvel. “I am fearfully made.”
The mystery of mystery is that God’s generosity puts us in a world too big for us, inviting us to know all we can and marvel in what is beyond. We do this generosity a disservice when we use “mystery” to be lazy, as an excuse from pushing into love because our souls are weak and undisciplined. Only a mind awake takes the greatest pleasures in what is unknowable because it it knows its own limits, seeing mystery not as a hindrance nor as fearful, but a place filled with God’s love unfolding colors I can only dare to dream about.
One day we will see God’s face and I pray that we recognize it. Perhaps the only way forward is to take what God has revealed, press into its meaning as much as we can, and then allow the mysteries that lie beyond the border continue to sound off.