God is a Mystery, not an Explanation (From the Archives)

God is a Mystery, not an Explanation (From the Archives) June 15, 2011

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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