Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Is mystery back in vogue?

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
- Albert Einstein

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
- Carl Sagan

I read these quotes recently and somehow missed their profoundness at first. Is mystery truly beautiful? Can I really know an incredibly mysterious God?

The more I try to wrap my pint-sized brain around truth, the more frustrated I become. The further I stretch my mind, the less I truly know about God. It’s a very frustrating reality. Parker Palmer, author of Let Your Life Speak, advocates embracing our limits. He says, "God asks us only to honor our created nature, which means our limits as well as potentials" [1].

Understanding and even embracing my limitations has produced inexplicable freedom for me. I am finally learning to embrace my finite view of God and to see theology for what it is—a vain attempt to wrap our finite minds around an infinite God. I am actually freeing myself from some theological baggage, so I can enjoy the mystery of God.

As I delve into postmodernism, I find that there are so many on this journey who have already come to this realization. Artist David Wilcox says, "I have the ability to see life not as a problem to be solved but a mystery to be enjoyed" [2].

Ah, mystery…that postmodern buzzword that explains everything about God beyond our comprehension but defies explanation itself. Do I really think of it as beautiful? Can I truly embrace it? Do I have a choice?

I’ve seen authors like Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet elevate mystery to a position of prominence. I’ve read articles where people like Rob Marus and Marshall Allen credit "a hunger for mystery" as the catalyst for a postmodern revival of liturgy [3]. I can search postmodern Christian websites and find mystery mentioned dozens of times.

This all leads me to the question, "Is mystery back in vogue?"

While the Bible is full of mystery, it seems the church has been less than eager to embrace it. By the church, of course, I mean followers of the Way. We are so prone to investigation and deductive reasoning that we have to follow all the clues until we have an "open and shut case." At least that’s how Bible scholarship has presented itself in Western Christianity in my opinion.

Sadly, many of our denominations feel that they have the market cornered on truth. But truth is not a commodity to be bought and sold on the Christian stock market; it is a person to be known in relationship. Truth, as revealed in Scripture, is Jesus [4]. And often times He relates that truth to us in parables. Why? I think it is because stories open our minds to see more of God than do propositions. Jesus’ stories often evoke more questions than they answer. That’s the beauty of mystery. It leaves room for questions and for exploration.

That is where the modern church has shortchanged us. They seem to have left little room for mystery or further discovery. To them, the Bible is an open and shut case. They have executed the theological equivalent of a slam-dunk. That is what causes so many of us to gravitate toward postmodern Christianity. We are no longer satisfied with having all the answers and filing mystery away in neat little theological pigeonholes. We don’t see Christianity in legal terms. Slam-dunk. Case closed.

But is this postmodern revival something new? As you can probably deduce from my use of the word revival, I don’t think it is.

Let’s look at how the Bible deals with the mystery of God.

Deuteronomy 29:29 explains that God has hidden mysteries not yet revealed to us and that we must rely upon revelation, such as the law. The revelation of Jesus provides even more clues to this mystery, as Paul explains in several verses in the New Testament.

In Romans 16:25-26, Paul explains that the hidden mystery of God spoken through the prophets was revealed in Jesus. 1 Corinthians 2:7 says, "we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began." In Ephesians 3, Paul elaborates on this, explaining that "the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." Again in Colossians, he states that Christ Jesus is the mystery of God "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (2:2-3) and that it was revealed to Christ’s body, the church, for the sake of the Gentiles (1:24-27).

Clearly Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles, so for him, that was a large part of God’s mystery revealed in Christ. He viewed it as God’s plan from the beginning. Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise to bless the nations through Abraham [5]. Ezekial and Micah both prophesied about this, which seems to support Paul’s claim. As Christ’s body and Abraham’s seed, Paul submits that we are now the repository of this hidden knowledge.

So does that mean we have been given the key to unlock all of God’s mystery? I don’t think it does. I refer back to Deuteronomy and the belief that some things will always be hidden from us.

I also hearken back to the words of Isaiah, who in chapter 40 says, "[God’s] understanding no one can fathom." He restates this in chapter 55, explaining that God’s thoughts and His ways are unknown to us because they exist on a higher plane. Paul quotes Isaiah on this topic several times in his writing.

That tells me that Paul never considered mystery a bad thing. As a student of the Law, he would have been intimately aware of the passage in Deuteronomy 29. It also tells me that Paul did not assume to know the mind of God.

We see, then, that the Scriptures do, in fact, embrace the mystery of God. They provide some clues--or revelations--into it, but they don’t account for the whole mystery that is God.

When in his first letter to Timothy Paul refers to "the King eternal, immortal, invisible," he is speaking of the unfathomable characteristics of God. Who can fathom eternity, immortality or things invisible even to an X-ray photoelectron emission microscope? Paul is referring to the deeply mysterious God who is all of these things. He has indeed embraced the Mystery.

For me, the Bible proves that mystery has always been in vogue. It is the fault of simple-minded humans that mystery has been relegated to such a nominal focus, especially in church.

The more I examine postmodern Christianity, the more I see mystery coming back into focus. I realize that it is not something to explain away, but rather to embrace…to treasure as something truly beautiful. Now I can honestly say that I agree with Einstein and Sagan. There is something incredible waiting to be known, but He is beautifully adorned in mystery.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
--Paul [6]

[1] Palmer, Parker, Let Your Life Speak, Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers, c. 2000, p. 50.
[2] Wilcox, David, "Going Deeper: An interview with David Wilcox," TheOOZE.com, 2/11/01.
[3] Marus, Rob, and Allen, Marshall, "Once and Future Worship," TheOOZE.com, 10/9/02.
[4] John 14:6
[5] Genesis 17:4-5
[6] Romans 11:33-36

No comments: