What's Tony Thinking

Too Much Mystery?


In my last post I wrote about the existence of God. The point was to say that if we think of God as a kind of thing, another object in the world or a being among beings, it is not God of which we speak.

I argued that God is, to use Paul Tillich’s phrase, “the Ground of Being,” the ground of all being. God is the Being from which all that is derives. Existence from which all that exists comes. So attempts to describe and circumscribe God as another object in the world reduce God to a controllable and comprehensible thing.

So reduced, God becomes something we seek to control and use to our advantage. Something we use to baptize our own wants and desires. “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz,” sang Janis Joplin.

Hence, “you shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20: 4) Yes, we usually think of “idols” as little statues or shrines. But a house, a car, a political program, a human leader, a nation, a race, money and a way of life — all these can be and have been turned into idols. How can you tell something is an idol? No laughter or humor allowed. We are very, very serious about our idols.

All that being said, there is also a potential problem here. Affirming that we cannot fully know or pin down God, we may then suggest that there is nothing at all that can be known or said about God, and that the best we can do is be silent on the  matter. We are left to say, “It’s a mystery.”

I remember being on a panel once where various religious leaders were asked to describe the faith of their particular church or tradition. A Unitarian minister went on at exhaustive (and I thought somewhat smug lengths) about how, in his tradition, it was all about “the search.” “We are all but searchers.” “We come together to share in the search.” “As a minister, I am no more than a fellow searcher.” I couldn’t help myself, I asked, “What if someone finds something — or, even better, is found by Something? What then? Do they have to leave your church?”

Sometimes the recourse to mystery, to silence or to a never-ending search for God can become a failure of nerve, a failure to declare the truth of faith with conviction.

Debie Thomas in a recent Christian Century column asks can there be “Too Much Mystery?” Here’s Thomas:

“Yes, it is absolutely the case that our scriptures insist on the importance of mystery in the life of faith . . . The writer of I Timothy insists that “the mystery of our religion is great.” Paul describes ‘the mystery that was kept secret for long ages.” Jesus himself speaks of “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” . . .

“And yet we are also the inheritors of revealed truths. Of gracious disclosures. Of God’s astonishing willingness to take on human form so that we can know something of God’s vast and mysterious nature. In the gospels, Jesus doesn’t back away from affirmation; he makes specific claims about what is good and just and loving — and he tells his disciples to go into the world and do likewise. It is not polite silence in the face of mystery that gets Jesus killed: it is his refusal to water down his convictions.”

Thomas wonders if she has reached a point in her faith life where “I’m using mystery as a cop-out? As a refusal to commit, to engage, to bear public and vulnerable-making witness in the name of Jesus? Is it possible to turn mystery into a self-protective shield, so that I won’t have to stand with conviction and urgency in a world that needs to know the healing love of God?”

Tough questions. Good questions. Important questions.

“These questions,” writes Thomas, “have been creeping up on me for a while. I think about them every time I see a version of Christianity in the media that is divisive, fear-based, racist, sexist, or nationalistic. I wonder where the impassioned progressive response is. Where is the bold articulation of an alternative Christianity? A Christianity that insists — without polite equivocation — on inclusion, self-sacrificial love, and restorative justice?”

That said, you may be unlikely to read about such a faith in “the media” perhaps because the media and its consumers seem to be largely addicted to outrage and grievance. So “inclusion, self-sacrificial love and restorative justice” may not get much media attention.

Nevertheless, it is not mystery or witness. It is mystery and witness. This week, on May 31st, is the 90th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, a bold witness against the claims of Nazism and for Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth and the life,” to which the church must be faithful. To learn more about Barmen, tune into our webinar this afternoon.



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