Remembering it’s OK to embrace mystery in our faith
To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible. – Thomas Aquinas
Being a Christian is a philosophical tightrope. Most apologists know this. It’s knowing and perceiving the world from a certain point, but also being able to take the natural world as it is. While some Christians refuse to take the standard human understanding of nature, others are comfortable working with it while still holding on to their faith. I know friends and have read scholars who can put it more eloquently than this – but being a Christian is a paradox. This isn’t surprising as our entire religion is based on paradox, but what I mean is in an intellectual sense, we have two worlds in our head smashed together. This sounds like cognitive dissonance, but I believe it’s a lot more nuanced than that.
The two worlds I’m speaking of would be the metaphysical, unseen world and the natural world. Now, when I speak of the metaphysical realm, we mean the foundational order behind which we have no way of measuring. As Christians, we believe that there is an “uncaused cause”, a foundational principle, which we call God. God is not just a force, like when the wind knocks a plastic cup off the table…God is the sustainer of everything. He is in everything, but separate. We’re not pantheists. We’re panentheists. (Eph. 1:23)
As C.S. Lewis beautifully put in his book, Miracles:
He is not the soul of Nature, nor any part of Nature. He inhabits eternity: He dwells in a high and holy place: heaven is His throne, not his vehicle, earth is his footstool, not his vesture. One day he will dismantle both and make a new heaven and earth. He is not to be identified even with the ‘divine spark’ in man. He is ‘God and not man.
And so, there comes a time in the Christian’s journey into finding God, when he/she in some ways forgets that we’re still dwelling in an uncertain realm within our faith. We are walking out on the water and holding our breathe. There are times we can say we are certain of what we believe about God and there are times we need to say “I do not know“. I believe certainty itself doesn’t require a full commitment. It just requires a certain capability to accept the tools for having faith and then it let’s us try to cognitively build upon it ourselves.
It can be a tightrope walk with semantics, because we try to use words in our language to express the inexpressible. It’s like trying to explain a brand new color on the color spectrum to a group of people who have never seen it or even know what you’re talking about. If you’re not equipped to understand the greater meaning behind the language, things can get very confusing. So, we sometimes use words like “hypostasis” which described the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the God-Man.
Ultimately, what we try to do is look at the shadow of God, outline the shape and believe in that. The absolute characteristics of God are unknowable in as far as we can’t say something like “God is 100 feet and 7 inches tall”. What we do know (in terms of certainty as I’ve stated previously) is that God became man. That He had a face, wore clothes, ate, slept, etc. He is both transcendent and immanent. The things that can be said of God are in holy scripture and the teachings He gave to the apostles. It doesn’t mean we aren’t able to build on that and see obvious conclusions, but in many ways, these preponderances are a mere exercise of educated guesswork. Like a musical composition, we’re ringing tones as we go and adopting that which rings truest to the symphonic harmony.
A good example of what I mean would be the question of the ages – what happens to us when we die? Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 the nature of our resurrection to the body. He also expands on the resurrection in relation to the day of judgement in 1 Thessalonians 3. However, what we can’t really tell is what happens in between death and the state of resurrection. Where does the person’s soul go? Some say purgatory. Some say it’s asleep. Some say it’s immediately with God. How can this be if there is no separation between body and Spirit? To that we answer “We don’t know“.
We do know, as far as it’s been revealed in the Christian faith, that God became man and was fully God and man at the same time. He was still in union with God while also being mortal. How does that happen? We don’t know. But in the same manner, we who have been baptized into Christ, are also mystically united to His body. Again, we run into paradox and mystery.
So, I guess my point is that, in many cases it is best to say “I don’t know”. Knowledge doesn’t always mean certainty. Sometimes that knowledge proceeds an educated guess based on Christian principles handed down to us, but much is still uncertain. When we finally come face to face before the Father, we should at least be prepared to admit how wrong we were on a great many things. I’m sure God would appreciate that.