By K. Scott Oliphint, adapted from The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God
When it comes to biblical mysteries, the temptation that most Christians face is . . . to favor our own thinking, to trust our own minds. If we do this, however, we exclude the rich mysteries of the Christian faith.
But there is another, though not as pervasive, tendency that also could be a temptation. Trusting our own way of thinking buries the biblical notion of mystery, but so does its opposite. The mystery that is the lifeblood of Christian truth is not compatible with a trust in our own minds, but neither is it compatible with a denial of the use of our minds, sometimes called “mysticism.” Mysticism, in the way we’re using the term here, seeks to promote and praise a total lack of understanding and of thinking. It prizes the ineffable above all and sees reason and thinking as obstacles to true faith.
A somewhat obscure example of this can be seen in the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. As a mystic, Eckhart determined that a lack of understanding was the best way to relate to God. For example, in Eckhart’s sermon on Matthew 5:3 (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”) we see an example of a distorted view of mystery.
Eckhart’s sermon had three points. He focused on a poverty of the soul, which he called a “stilling.” His first point was that there must be a stilling of the will if we are to be poor in spirit. His second point was that there must be a stilling of the intellect, so that our goal would be to have no conceptual knowledge of God at all. In attempting to make that point, he says:
Why I pray God to rid me of God is because conditionless being is above God and above distinction: it was therein I was myself, therein I willed myself and knew myself to make this man and in this sense I am my own cause, both of my nature which is eternal and of my nature which is temporal. For this am I born, and as to my birth which is eternal I can never die. In my eternal mode of birth I have always been, am now, and shall eternally remain. That which I am in time shall die and come to naught, for it is of the day and passes with the day. In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of mine own self and all things, and had I willed it I had never been, nor any thing, and if I had not been then God had not been either. To understand this is not necessary.
Any reader or hearer of this sermon would be happy to hear the last sentence—“to understand this is not necessary.” Not only is understanding this sermon not necessary, it may not even be possible! But what Eckhart has in mind in that last statement is that it is better not to understand with the mind what he is attempting to communicate. To the extent that you do understand, you miss the real import of who God is. The way to “know” God, in other words, is by not knowing him (or it).
This is a view that sees understanding and intellectual effort, particularly with respect to God and his character and ways, as detrimental to a proper relationship to God. The best way to know God, the mystic would say, is to affirm that we cannot in any way really understand who he is. All that is left for us is an “experience” of God.
Are there parallels to this kind of temptation in Christianity today? Perhaps. I remember when the phrase “let go and let God” was a mantra for some Christians. The idea was not simply to cease trying to earn salvation—which would be a good thing. The phrase was meant to emphasize that it is best for Christians to take a docile, experiential attitude toward their faith. The more intensely you try to understand or obey God, the less you rely on him.
There is nothing wrong with relying on God, or with recognizing the importance of experience in our Christian lives. But if experience is our primary way to God, or if it begins to take the place of our efforts to understand what God has said in his Word, we are moving toward a mystical view of Christianity.
Here is the paradox: A true, biblical view of mystery has its roots not in a lack of understanding, but in the teaching of Scripture.
As a matter of fact, it is just the teaching of Scripture that gives us the biblical truth of that which we hold to be mysterious. A biblical view of mystery, in other words, is full of truth. It is truth that has real and glorious content. That content includes truths that we must affirm as well as falsehoods that we must deny, statements that are necessarily a part of a biblical understanding of mystery as well as exclamations that point us to its truth.
So mystery, if we understand it biblically, is infused through and through with the truth that is found in the Word of God.
Mystery is the lifeblood of the truth that we have in God’s revelation; it flows through every truth that God gives us.
The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.