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.

Why Mystery is Valuable

It happened again. I overheard a man saying how great “mystery” is because it keeps us from arrogantly thinking that we have all the answers. He’s right, of course—but I wonder. I can’t help thinking that the real problem here is not exactly the having of answers: it is the kind of answers that are had, the kind of stale, simplistic, cut-and-dried, one-size-fits-all answers that bely the richness and freshness and complexity of human experience. It certainly is not that that we’re looking for, but we are looking for something.

For what? For an approach to things that simplifies, but doesn’t oversimplify. For an approach that doesn’t offer pat answers for every question, but that does have answers of some kind, answers that open up our experience instead of shutting it down, answers that explain rather than explaining away, answers that awaken our wonder and empower us to move forward with deeper insight and greater confidence.

If “mystery” is to help us here, it won’t do so by being sheerly negative, a mere statement about how much we don’t know. It will need also to have some positive, constructive, energizing features, so that it can carry us more deeply into reality, not just confess ignorance about reality.

Note that this is “mystery” in a stronger sense, with a little more bite to it. It has to do with what we as human persons are, what the world is, what reality as a whole is. Its final word is not about us in our ignorance, but about the world in its fullness—a fullness that turns out to be too much to take in. Mystery in this sense is not negative, not a lack: it is positive, an excess—an excess to be explored, wondered at, tasted, and proclaimed with boldness and power.

Wait a minute—“proclaimed”? Using words? Some people will be troubled by this last step. They will think that any attempt to articulate the mystery, to put it into particular words (especially “bold” or authoritative words) is bound to fail. Worse than that, the very attempt must inevitably involve a betrayal of the mystery itself. They will think that this is the very place that organized religion, with its doctrines and rituals and trials and heresies, goes wrong.

Those who think this way typically find Chris’s and my new book to be inexplicable and even maddening. To take but one example: an unhappy reviewer on expresses disappointment with the “bold and unsupported statements” that are found in our book; he (or she?) complains that “the discussions were almost circular”, sometimes being “pompous and narrow-minded”. I do not know this reviewer, but I suspect that the gripe in the review really boils down to the fact that mystery as we describe it is not . . . well . . . mysterious enough. Chris and I end up talking as if we really know something about God, as if we have an inside track, as if we had access to some special guidance through the pathless, trackless abyss of glorious divine transcendence.

Well, yes, we do talk that way. We do so because we are Christians, and because we therefore believe that God really has made himself known. This claim may scandalize some people, but it definitely is the historic Christian claim—and a claim that (paradoxically) does not betray the mystery, but that establishes the mystery more fully than ever.

For according to biblical Christianity, the mystery of God is not an absence, but a presence—and more than that, a Presence with a capital P, a Life, a Personality who has made himself known. This incomprehensible Reality has spoken, has acted, so as to draw us forward on a path that would otherwise be impenetrable. How could we even perceive, much less walk, such a path if left to our own devices? Clearly, we couldn’t. But what if we have not been left on our own?

This is really the key (or at least a key) to understanding what our book is about. It is an attempt to take seriously the Christian notion of a revealed mystery, where the revelation does not eliminate the mystery and the mystery does not obviate the revelation.

Readers who miss this point may well be dissatisfied. The reviewer complains that Chris and I cannot separate “scholarly work” from “the God of their own making”. I don’t think this criticism hits the mark in our case, but it is a very legitimate concern. The one thing none of us must do is to rely upon a God of our making. Heaven forbid. This would be to court disaster.

But what if there is a real God out there, not a God of our making, but the God who makes us, the unfathomable Lord of Glory who stands behind our whole world (and every other world besides)? What if that incomprehensible God, without ever asking our permission, has stepped into the world and addressed us? What if that God demands a response?

We might find that “mystery” is not really the relaxed, fuzzy, anything-goes reality we had supposed. There is such a thing as getting more than we bargained for.