Embracing Mystery

Theology, better yet, knowing God, is like observing the sun. You look at it and you go blind; instead, you snatch glimpses and you learn to see everything else in light of the light the sun generates. That is, “… there may be certain things that are themselves too great to understand but that nevertheless enable us to understand lesser things with remarkable clarity” (xiii). Yes, that’s a riff on the famous line by C.S. Lewis, but it is also the theme of a new book by Steven D. Boyer and Christopher A. Hall, called The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable.

God is a mystery but not the sort of puzzle-like mystery that can be solved. And theology itself challenged to know what is beyond its knowability. “God is not a puzzle, and to relate rightly to him is not to analyze or classify or master, but to worship” (xvi). So the goal of theology “is not merely that we should get our theological formulations right, but also and more significantly that we should get ourselves right; not that we should master theology, but that we should be mastered by the theos whom theology must approach” (xvii).

What are some areas of our faith where “mystery” is the appropriate category? 

The goal of theology then is worship.

And mystery maybe should be the first word in any genuine theology, any talk or thought about knowing God. Mystery, to be sure, sometimes means a puzzle to be solved but that won’t satisfy us because we can’t solve the puzzle known as God. The Bible uses the word “mystery” for a secret plan now revealed, and in some ways that’s the heart of the Christian sense of mystery because God has been revealed in Christ. Even here, then, we are driven to the end of our ability to know where mystery — even as revealed in Christ to fallible and finite humans — because quantitatively inexhaustible. There is here a confession of immensity and a magnitude of internal and external complexity beyond our knowing. In this case it is not that we don’t know enough but that there is so much we can’t take it in. What, then, can it mean to say God is “infinite” when it is finite beings making the claim? So there is as well a supra-rational or even nonrational opaqueness about dimension of knowing and worshiping God. There is numinosity about God, a kind of personal engagement wherein we have experienced God but cannot put that experience into words adequately, and even if there is truth here it cuts into the fabric of what it means that God has made the mystery known.

Flatlanders, an image the authors use for us, can only know so much and they attempt from the two-dimensional, finite minds to explain what has more dimensions than their minds have categories for. This dimensional mystery is about unclassifiable superabundance. That is the mystery of God.

This sketch is about five dimensions of the term mystery: investigative, revelational, extensive, facultative and dimensional.

God is reasonable and beyond reason.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Scott Gay

    Paraphrased-It’s a paradox to seek lucidity and you can make everything mysterious, allow one thing mysterious and things become clear. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”, Chapter II, pg23.

  • http://www.theinfluenceproject.com Mel Lawrenz

    One has to wonder how many splits and splinters in Christianity might be avoided if we lived within the mystery of God. When evangelicals speak of mystery it is often with a sense of concession (“oh well, we’ll just have to chalk that one up to mystery”) instead of valuing mystery as the milieu of our relationship with God. Adoration of God, with mystery, reaches across generational, cultural, and national divides.


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