Sunday, May 08, 2005


What can we say about God?

The first thing we need to say is that God is absolute mystery. This is actually something that gets said reasonably often, but it's often misunderstood or misrepresented. Before we say what it means to say that God is absolute mystery, we should say what it doesn't mean.

It doesn't mean that we know nothing about God. Sometimes the idea that God is mystery is invoked as an argument against declaring anything to be orthodox. In the name of tolerance and openness, we might declare that God is mystery and therefore one person's ideas about God are just as valid as the next person's and any attempt to define orthodoxy is just putting up needless walls.

The intention behind this is good. Orthodoxy should not be used to decide who's in and who's out, and really not even who's right and who's wrong. But the fact is that when Christians have affirmed that God is absolute mystery, they haven't meant that we can't know anything about God.

We can know things about God because God interacts with us, God reveals Godself to us, and because of this revelation we can begin to speak about God in a way that isn't arbitrary.

On the opposite side of the coin, when we say that God is mystery, we don't mean that we have secret knowledge about God. Greco-Roman society in the first century included a number of religions known as mystery religions. One of the characteristics of these religions was that no one was told what the beliefs of the group were until they became a member. Through special rites and ceremonies, proselytes receive the secret knowledge of the group.

This isn't what we mean when we say God is mystery. The Christian beliefs about God are open and proclaimed to all. Christian beliefs about God aren't private property. Christianity was founded on the principle of taking our views about God into the public square and inviting people to consider them.

Finally, when we say God is absolute mystery we don't mean that certain doctrines about God just have to be accepted on blind faith and apart from reason. This is where a lot of talk about the Trinity stops. Someone will object that the doctrine of the Trinity is unreasonable, and a well-meaning defender of the doctrine will say, "Well, it's a mystery. You just have to accept it."

That is a fundamental misunderstanding that belies the history of the doctrine. The Christian doctrine of God is the result of the process of trying to make sense of our experience of God. It's certainly not easy to understand, and understanding is in no way a prerequisite to faith, but it is something that can be scrutinized.

So what does it mean when we say that God is absolute mystery? It means that God is much more than we can possibly know. This isn't just a limitation in our logic or the quality of our revelation. It's not just that we don't know everything about God. It's that God is more than we could ever possibly comprehend.

Albert Einstein described mystery this way:

It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity

Continue to "The Basic Problem"
Go back to "Let's Talk About God"


Blogger cranmer said...

I agree entirely with what you are saying about mystery and God being 'more than we could ever possibly comprehend' ... I just wonder if the Einstein quote is a bit of a distraction?

It seems to be introducing the idea of natural theology and an anthropological understanding of the origins of religion.

My initial thought was that you wanted to talk about 'Mystery' in the context of special revelation particularly - that we shouldn't be too positivistic about our doctrinal formulations.

The above is lots of words just to say I was enjoying the post and the preceding ones, finding them well written, then suddenly got to this point and found myself scratching my head.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

I see your concerns about the Einstein quote. What I wanted to convey is that by mystery we mean to say "we know something is there, but we don't necessarily know what it is". It does introduce a sort of natural theology, and I'm not necessarily against that.

I would be uncomfortable with the idea that special revelation is something we've been told and that we have no reason to believe it except that we've been told. Without special revelation we would doubtless completely misunderstand what it is we're perceiving, but without the perception of something there the revelation would have to be questioned.

12:25 PM  

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