Why Mystery is Valuable
by Steven D. Boyer
It happened again. I overheard a man saying how great “mystery” is because it keeps us from arrogantly thinking that we have all the answers. He’s right, of course—but I wonder. I can’t help thinking that the real problem here is not exactly the having of answers: it is the kind of answers that are had, the kind of stale, simplistic, cut-and-dried, one-size-fits-all answers that bely the richness and freshness and complexity of human experience. It certainly is not that that we’re looking for, but we are looking for something.
For what? For an approach to things that simplifies but doesn’t oversimplify. For an approach that doesn’t offer pat answers for every question but does have answers of some kind, answers that open up our experience instead of shutting it down, answers that explain rather than explain away, answers that awaken our wonder and empower us to move forward with deeper insight and greater confidence.
If “mystery” is to help us here, it won’t do so by being sheerly negative, a mere statement about how much we don’t know. It will need also to have some positive, constructive, energizing features, so that it can carry us more deeply into reality, not just confess ignorance about reality.
Note that this is “mystery” in a stronger sense, with a little more bite to it. It has to do with what we as human persons are, what the world is, what reality as a whole is. Its final word is not about us in our ignorance but about the world in its fullness—a fullness that turns out to be too much to take in. Mystery in this sense is not negative, not a lack: it is positive, an excess—an excess to be explored, wondered at, tasted, and proclaimed with boldness and power.
Wait a minute—“proclaimed?” Using words? Some people will be troubled by this last step. They will think that any attempt to articulate the mystery, to put it into particular words (especially bold or authoritative words) is bound to fail. Worse than that, the very attempt must inevitably involve a betrayal of the mystery itself. They will think that this is the very place that organized religion, with its doctrines and rituals and trials and heresies, goes wrong.
Those who think this way typically find Chris’s and my new book to be inexplicable and even maddening. To take but one example: an unhappy reviewer on Amazon.com expresses disappointment with the “bold and unsupported statements” that are found in our book; the reviewer complains that “the discussions were almost circular,” sometimes “pompous and narrow-minded.” I do not know this reviewer, but I suspect that the gripe in the review boils down to the fact that mystery as we describe it is not . . . well . . . mysterious enough. Chris and I end up talking as if we really know something about God, as if we have an inside track, as if we had access to some special guidance through the pathless, trackless abyss of glorious divine transcendence.
Well, yes, we do talk that way. We do so because we are Christians, and because we therefore believe that God really has made himself known. This claim may scandalize some people, but it definitely is the historic Christian claim—and a claim that (paradoxically) does not betray the mystery but rather establishes the mystery more fully than ever.
For according to biblical Christianity, the mystery of God is not an absence, but a presence—and more than that, a Presence with a capital P, a Life, a Personality who has made himself known. This incomprehensible Reality has spoken, has acted, so as to draw us forward on a path that would otherwise be impenetrable. How could we even perceive, much less walk, such a path if left to our own devices? Clearly, we couldn’t. But what if we have not been left on our own?
This is really the key (or at least a key) to understanding what our book is about. It is an attempt to take seriously the Christian notion of a revealed mystery, where the revelation does not eliminate the mystery, and the mystery does not obviate the revelation.
Readers who miss this point may well be dissatisfied. The Amazon.com reviewer complains that Chris and I cannot separate “scholarly work” from “the God of their own making.” I don’t think this criticism hits the mark in our case, but it is a very legitimate concern. The one thing none of us must do is to rely on a God of our making. Heaven forbid. This would be to court disaster.
But what if there is a real God out there, not a God of our making, but the God who makes us, the unfathomable Lord of Glory who stands behind our whole world (and every other world besides)? What if that incomprehensible God, without ever asking our permission, has stepped into the world and addressed us? What if that God demands a response?
We might find that “mystery” is not really the relaxed, fuzzy, anything-goes reality we had supposed. There is such a thing as getting more than we bargained for.
Steven D. Boyer (PhD, Boston University) is professor of theology at Eastern University in Saint Davids, Pennsylvania, where he teaches classes on Christian theology, world religions, and the thought of C. S. Lewis. He has published articles in Religious Studies, Pro Ecclesia, and other academic journals. He lives in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, with his wife and four children.
For more information on The Mystery of God, click here.