From The Archives: God is a Mystery, not an Explanation

The world we live in is full of mysteries. When we envisage the self-replicating molecules that drive life on this planet, we wonder how they could have arisen, and we seek explanations. Likewise with the very fact than anything exists at all, we wonder why there is something rather than nothing.

To say “God did it” is not an explanation. To suggest that an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient being is somehow self explanatory and a way to eliminate mystery is misguided. This doesn’t mean that it is inappropriate to talk about God when talking about these mysteries. But God is part of the mystery, and to speak of God is to affirm that beyond these tangible mysteries we perceive there are even greater mysteries regarding which we may not even yet be asking the right questions yet.

You might ask whether or not God was in fact an “explanation” for the ancient Hebrew authors who wrote the Biblical creation stories. To answer that question, we must put ancient Hebrew thought in its context in time and space. Although the Hebrew word olam has evolved to mean ‘universe’ or ‘world’, in the Biblical world it still had a meaning more akin to ‘age’. There was no single word that referred to everything that exists, because existence was not generally thought of in unitary fashion. The sun, the moon, the earth were, in the wider context, all separate divine entities. In this context, in which other peoples were talking about “deities” in the plural, the Hebrews began to use the plural as an abstract singular noun (as was done in Semitic languages) to refer to “the deity” in the singular. This was an affirmation that all these divine realities (what we would refer to as impersonal “forces of nature”) were in fact united in a single “being” that encompassed all of them and of whom all of them were an expression. So, in a sense, all that we mean by “universe” really was encompassed within the Hebrew term elohim, the deity. While I would not go so far as to argue that the ancient Hebrew authors were advocates of panentheism, their worldview can be plotted on a trajectory moving in that direction.

That we are dealing with a trajectory and not an end point is important to note. Some Biblical authors still thought of God fighting with the sea monster to create, as was the norm in the wider Mesopotamian context. The furthest that the Israelites got was to think of all the deities – the storm god, the heavens and mother earth all wrapped into one God in the singular who is responsible for all the things these diverse deities were thought to do – fertility of womb and of soil, creation of life, blessing of households, and so on. But there is still much of the assumptions of pre-scientific polytheism in such a view of God, and it still attributes a personal purpose to forces of nature, to weather, to earthquakes, and so on.

Without the Hebrews’ insights into the unity of these divine/natural forces, the rise of modern science might never have been possible. The challenge to the theologian in the modern scientific age is to find ways of embracing science – one of Abraham’s children every much as Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and to find the next spot we can affirm on the trajectory of mystery that begins, but by no means ends, with the writings of the Biblical authors.

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  • While I am not inclined to Panentheism , I do think that this post makes some very important points . Especially the title … ' God is a mystery , not an Explanation '.Regards ..

  • Second paragraph makes my cut for "quote worthy".

  • KCharles

    As a writer, James, don’t you sometimes find an article or anecdote that you wrote longago, then read it and say to yourself, “Did I write this?” If God wrote the Bible then I am sure he reads it from time to time and thus I wonder: Does he say to himself, “Did I really write this?”I as well like the title, “God is a mystery, not an explanation.” Let me suggest that God is also an ‘observer,’ who stands at the back of the Gallery watching us review his masterpieces.I believe God, to this very day is busy painting an impressionist Muriel over an infinite cosmic canvass just to keep our conscious minds busy and not lazy. It seems however that the canvass is stretched too wide for our narrow vision to absorb and so it is fully beyond the scope of our understanding. We then critique and wonder what God was trying to create, if indeed it was by Him in the first place. I know that God created the atom, chaos and mankind. From this colorful palette He creates reality. The work remains a mystery because mankind hasn’t found God’s signature to credit all these things, so they will be classified as mysteries.Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.” I think Einstein was giving credit, and a back door compliment to you know who.

  • I’ve often wondered about “elohim”. I once asked an Orthodox rabbi whether he could think of another –im word that was singular, and he said he couldn’t.Can you give some examples of using “…the plural as an abstract singular noun (as was done in Semitic languages)…”?Thanks.

  • Would Mayim count? Water? Rachamim–compassion.

  • James Pate: “Would Mayim count? Water? Rachamim–compassion.”Hmm…if elohim translates as something like “divinity” (a mass noun), then yes; but if it means “god” (a count noun), then we’re not quite there yet.

  • Hmmm, that was interesting. Looks like somethings will always remain mystery.I myself has been trying to solve the mystery of the legend that forces you to have "earn it before having it", for a wile now. Could not understand much though. Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the Old Hound and the LegendBy the way, good writing style. I'd love to read more on similar topics

  • To say that God is “not an explanation” is to say that He has no hand in creation or the existence of all. God does do it, I believe, but through the physical and metaphysical laws that He causes to be. There is, however, mystery within how/what/why He does it.Humanity’s knowledge and understanding of that mystery is not static – we continue to push aside the veil of mystery to discover new explanations of how/what/why through science and spirituality – we continue to discover more of the reality of God. Our ability to do so and the fact that the laws of existence are discoverable is part of the mystery.History is a chronicle of change. From animism, through polytheism, into monotheism, we have gained new, more sustainable insights into the mysteries of God through both science and theology. Perhaps that is the ultimate explanation, the next step following monotheism that unites science and religion, the TOE (theory of everything) of reality: God.I’d rather say, therefore, that God is both mystery and explanation.