God is mystery. We can never encompass him in thoughts or words. When we talk about God we are trying to describe the divine from the point of view of the human, the eternal from the standpoint of the temporal, the infinite in finite terms, the absolute from the severely limited perspective of the relative.
Rudolf Otto describes the sacred as ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, the awe-inspiring mystery which fascinates us. We are tempted to hide from the fearful majesty of God, but also to gaze in wonder at his loveliness.
We encounter mystery in the descriptions of the ways of God in the Bible, in the sacraments, liturgies and rites of the church, in nature, and in the events of history. Mystery pervades the whole of reality. Indeed, true knowledge and freedom are not possible without an ex perience of mystery.
In the languages of literature, art, music, we touch the hem of God’s garment and feel a little tingle of power, but God will always remain incomprehensible.
Mystery also surrounds the human creatures who are both made in the image of a mysterious God and who have, by their sinning, marred that image. Pascal says this doctrine of the Fall offends us, but yet, without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves.
So Christianity, says Kierkegaard, is ‘precisely the paradoxical’. (Paradox — from the Greek para and doxa, ‘against opinion’.) The idea of mystery invites us to think more deeply, not to abandon thinking; to reject the superficial, and the simplistic.
Prejudice is, in essence, idolatry: the worship of my – or my group’s – ideas, even ideas of God. If I know all the answers I would be God, and ‘playing God’ is the essence of idolatry. One of my greatest dangers is to relax my vigilance against the possibility of prejudice in my own life, or to suffer from the delusion that I can ever be really free from it. We human beings are more rationalising than rational. Thomas Merton said somewhere, ‘No-one is so wrong as the one who knows all the answers.’ Alfred North Whitehead says, ‘Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in their dogmas.’ ‘If you understand everything, you must be misinformed,’ runs a Japanese proverb. People who are always right are always wrong. The dilemma is summed up by W.B. Yeats — ‘While the best lack conviction, the worst are full of certainty and passionate intensity.’
The key lies in distinguishing between faithless doubt and creative doubt. Faithless doubt, as Kahlil Gibran put it, ‘is a pain too lonely to realise that faith is his twin brother’. Or it is a cop-out to save us being committed to anything. Its accomplice, neutrality, is also evil: the apathy of ‘good’ persons results in the triumph of evil. The worst evils in the world are not committed by evil people, but by good people who do not know they are not doing good. The authentic Christian is willing to listen, as well as to save.
Creative doubt, on the other hand, is ‘believing with all your heart that your belief is true, so that it will work for you; but then facing the possibility that it is really false, so that you can accept the consequences of the belief.’ (John Reseck).
So faith is not about certainty (certainty makes faith invalid and unnecessary). Its core is the mystery — and the reality — of the Eternal coming into time: ‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man’ (Wesley). The essence of Christianity is not dogmatic systems of belief, but being apprehended by Christ. True faith holds onto Christ, and for all else is uncommitted. It is about a relationship with Christ (and all meaningful relationships involve risk). The true God does not give us an immutable belief-system, but himself. He became one of us to ‘make his light shine in our hearts, to bring us the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4: 6). Alleluia!