The Other Danger

For every Christian I have met who rationalistically denies divine mystery (and there are plenty), there is another who has embraced mystery in a way that is equally dangerous. Tough-minded dogmatists certainly do need to be reminded that God is incomprehensible and therefore that “right answers” cannot be what theology is all about. But tender-minded experientialists are in every bit as much trouble, for theirs is a woolly aestheticism that thinks doctrine is not really worth much, that what we really need is the experience of nature, or liturgy, or music, or romance, or whatever feeling-exalting thing happens to appeal to us.

In this respect, many of us who are most attracted to language of “mystery” perhaps need to take warning: we may turn out to be what Peter Kreeft calls “feeling fondlers”. We cling to whatever causes a flutter in our diaphragm, to whichever expression of beauty or ultimacy most appeals to us. We sit pretty loose with doctrine, fearful of being too narrow or legalistic or ill-bred or uncouth, preferring instead to “rest in the bosom of the infinite” (Schleiermacher) in whatever form that infinite happens to be mediated to us.

But do we really think that spiritual reality is as relaxed, as benign, as user-friendly as all that? A Brahms concerto may indeed mediate ultimacy, but ought we therefore to conclude that concertos and their accoutrements are undiluted channels of blessing, that everything that dresses in elegant clothes and boasts refined manners is a trustworthy expression of the living God? Have we never read about dark, destructive powers that masquerade as angels of light (II Corinthians 11:4)? Have we never encountered sophisticated, winsome, dignified advocates of self-deception and damnation? It may well be that a good old-fashioned doctrine of sin is just what we need to recall us to a realistic understanding of the world.

This is why every deeply Christian account of mystery has got to take the dogmatic tradition with greatest seriousness. It embodies truths of revelation, and this specific, concrete revelation is absolutely essential if we, with our spiritually damaged sensibilities, are to have any chance of security in a spiritually war-torn world. Indeed, Christians have always insisted that good doctrine is precisely the sort of thing that protects us, from both the dangers we do understand and the dangers we don’t. It gives us solid, unyielding guard rails to keep us traveling safely along the highway toward the Celestial City.

It would, of course, be a dreadful mistake to think that the ultimate aim of a great family vacation is to get a clear, unclouded vision of a particularly fine set of guard rails. But it is every bit as foolish to ignore guard rails altogether, to scoff at those who attend to them, to regard such limitations simply as hindrances to real, direct, first-hand experience of the scenic vistas before us. A car going over a cliff might perhaps be construed as an instance of “real, direct, first-hand experience” — but it is not the sort of experience the wise traveler seeks or recommends.

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