Have you ever known someone who is married to someone who is way out of their league? I mean, to the point where it doesn’t even make any sense? I’m talking about a guy who is Steve Buscemi status marrying someone at the level of Scarlett Johansen. That drastic.
If I think about it too much, I end up confusing myself. Usually, I figure that it’s not even worth thinking about because I’ll never get a satisfactory take away from it. I’ve often just left it at, “Well… this is just a mystery.”
Christians have usually tended to read about God being a “mystery” in the Bible and think that when Scripture uses that word, it has a relationship analogous to being confused about a couple like this. We think that since we’ll never be able to get to the bottom of it, the endeavor itself is useless.
We’ve used language of God’s mysteriousness as an excuse to not engage in any kind of theological talk, because we are convinced that nothing productive can come out of it.
However, Scripture seems to give a different perspective.
To give you an example of what I mean, I’ll give you one of the most familiar verses in the Bible. Because, often, it’s the verses we are most familiar with that we tend to be desensitized to the most. It’s Ephesians 3:18-19, and it reads like this:
I pray that you may… know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…
Did you catch that?
Paul is telling us that he wants to know a love which transcends all modes of knowing. So it is with mystery. Mystery isn’t supposed to drive us away from God. Mystery is supposed to drive us into God.
Here’s the common misconception: Mystery does not mean “lack of significance”. Mystery means that something is so full of meaning that we’ll never be able to understand the totality of its significance. It doesn’t meant that something isn’t knowable. It means that there’s so much to know that we will spend our entire lives coming to a greater knowledge of it, never exhausting the fullness of its meaning. It means we find new bits of meaning in it every single day.
This is what it means to declare that God is a mystery. It isn’t that one cannot journey into God. It means that we can make an incredible journey into the depths of God and that it never has to end.
There are two extremes then. We can declare God a mystery and cease talking about God, or we can try and put our fingers on God’s essence and proclaim to know God fully. However, neither are faithful. We must talk about God and have a theology (because we all have a theology anyway—whether we acknowledge it as such or not). However, theology isn’t about putting our fingers on God either, as if God could be fully grasped.
Let me a give you a bit of information about theology that should both comfort and disturb you: when we talk about God, we’re all wrong.
Human words will always fall short of describing a God who is a mystery and transcends words. However, the important thing to remember is this: there are ways to be more faithful or less faithful in your failure to know God fully. Rowan Williams explains this brilliantly:
“[The faithful theologian] encounters Christian doctrine as the struggle for words large enough and resourceful enough not to be completely misleading about the mystery, the scale of the living God.”
Did you catch the weight of what he is saying? Williams is telling us that no matter what words we use, we’re always going to be somewhat misleading in our talking about the mystery that is God. However, our goal, as we fail in perfectly describing this awesome God, is to find the most faithful way possible to come short as possible.
How much more humble should that make us in our theology? That we’re all wrong, but some are maybe less wrong than others?
God is a mystery. But we need to mystify our understanding of mystery. It doesn’t mean that we can’t know God. It means that there’s an endless knowability to God, and thus endless significance to God. That being so, our words will always fail. In our stumbling on the path of describing God, though, we as Christians are simply trying to stumble in the right direction.
Let us fail in the insufficiency of our words toward you, Lord!