Room for Mystery

A temptation of our time is to present Christianity as logical and reasonable by the standards of this world. Many years ago Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, attempted this move in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultural Despisers (1799). He conceded that science and the Bible were incompatible and argued that “religion” deals with human “affections” and as such was a matter of faith, not fact. Schleiermacher’s work marks a beginning point for the current divide between public facts and private faith. Thus, in our time, politics belongs to the world of facts while religious beliefs live in the realm of private preferences. Neither have defenders of the Christian faith always helped. John Toland, for example, wrote a work called Christianity Not Mysterious (1693). Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, both liberal and conservative writers have attempted to remove mystery from the Bible and from Christian thinking. Oddly, both approaches accept that human logic and science should and can support all truth claims.

Not much has changed in this regard. Liberals still tend to reject anything in the Bible at odds with (the current state of) science and conservatives, using the exact same empirical tools, seeking to show that (what they call “true”) science supports the Christian faith, not realizing that they treat biblical truths as accountable to human logic. Some claims in the Bible cannot be reduced to being reasonable or answerable to the dictates of science or logic! Despite this, Christians should boldly announce these claims even when, by the world’s standard, they are considered foolish to science and contradictory to logic. (I am not arguing that logic and science have no role in how we know, but that reason and logic have limits when it comes to comprehending divine mystery).

The very centre of Christian theology, the incarnation (literally, the enfleshing) of God in the person of Jesus Christ, is one such mystery. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once labelled the incarnation the “absolute paradox.” This paradox, God becoming human, the creator becoming (in some sense) created, was not, for him, a problem for the intellect to unravel but a mystery for the human spirit to experience and to hold in awe.

Beyond debate, the Bible declares that God became human. This, however, is a logical impossibility as what it means to be God does not line up with what it means to be human. For instance, God is all-powerful; humans are not. Humans can die, and presumably, God cannot. If God could die, then, it would seem that he would cease to be God. The logical contradiction—that God could become human—is what Christians believe. There is no way to prove, in any way science accepts, that Jesus was both human and divine; yet the Christian faith hangs on accepting this very “contradiction.”

To explore this further, the Bible, as most Christians believe, is the word of God. This is a bold claim but also impossible to prove through science or reason. To complicate matters, the Bible is also the product of human authors. At least forty writers over a period of fifteen hundred years composed the contents of the Bible. Additionally, many thousands participated in the formation of the canon and the preservation of the texts in that canon throughout the centuries. Christians believe that the Bible is both a human product and the medium through which God reveals his Son to the world and continues to speak to the church today. Because of this, we revere the Bible as sacred Scripture carrying the very authority of God, and yet study it as a textbook with insights into human history.

This confidence in the human-divine origin of the Bible is not reasonable from a logical or scientific perspective. Christian belief in the incarnation (and the Bible) transcends human logic and the empirical observation of science. Thus, our faith and our thinking must have room for mystery.

This mystery only intensifies when we explore the meaning of the incarnation. Why did God become human? The incarnation is a necessary precondition for the atonement and our subsequent reconciliation with God. We believe, and the Bible teaches, that Jesus, the God-man, gave His life to save humans and bring them back to God. As Christians, we generally accept this so matter-of-factly that we do not reflect on how unreasonable this claim is. We believe the death of one person is sufficient to cover the sins of everyone who has ever lived. If Jesus were just a human, then there is no way He could pay for another’s sins and possibly not his own. Even if Jesus were just a sinless human, then His death might cover one other person—a life for a life. However, because Jesus is God he can cover the sins of the world. Thus, the mystery of our religion is that God took our sins upon himself; He paid the price for human sin. If true, then Christianity is far more mysterious than we usually comprehend.

Yet this is precisely what the Bible teaches: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5.20). The Greek, however, is even stronger: “God made the one not knowing sin [into] sin for us.” This Sinless One not only bore our sins, but He took our sins into Himself, a thought teetering on the edge of nonsense … a mystery.

If that is not enough, Paul, in a seeming slip of tongue, suggests that God himself experienced death in the crucifixion of Jesus when he urged the Ephesian elders to “be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20.28). God’s own blood? This bothered later scribes who altered manuscripts from “church of the God” to “church of the Lord” to avoid the obvious meaning of the text. We might say that these scribes struggled with the mystery of God dying.

Finally, since faith will always have room for mystery, how then should we respond to things we cannot explain? Paul may give us an example here. At the end of his discussion about God’s mysterious ways of dealing with Israel that resulted in an influx of Gentile believers into the church, Paul can only express awe: 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” (Romans 11.33-36).

Thus, when Paul encountered this mystery, he worshiped. So should we. There remains for us, then, room for mystery. May our strivings be not toward a knowledge that seeks to unravel the mystery, but toward faith that embraces more than science or logic can ever explain.

Adapted from my April 2008 Gospel Herald article by the same name.

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