In this blog, I want to explore anoth­er mean­ing of mys­tery” that is cru­cial for our under­stand­ing of the mys­tery of God. Recall that so far I have dis­cussed two mean­ings of mys­tery, each valid in their own way for deal­ing with cer­tain kinds of mys­tery: inves­tiga­tive mys­tery and rev­e­la­tion­al mys­tery. Now it’s time to pon­der a third sense of mys­tery, one more rad­i­cal and there­fore more elu­sive and dif­fi­cult to portray. 

Let’s begin with an anal­o­gy. Pic­ture in your mind a sim­ple, every­day cir­cle. A cir­cle is not, by ordi­nary geo­met­ri­cal stan­dards, a very mys­te­ri­ous thing. It typ­i­cal­ly does not resist or defy expla­na­tion. With only a lit­tle math­e­mat­i­cal knowl­edge, we can grasp lots of things about a cir­cle, whether these con­cern its cir­cum­fer­ence, diam­e­ter, and so on. Human rea­son, in this case exer­cised in the log­ic of math­e­mat­ics, sure­ly is applic­a­ble in under­stand­ing a cir­cle, and with reason’s appli­ca­tion any mys­ter­ies con­nect­ed to cir­cles can be resolved. 

Now con­sid­er anoth­er sense in which a par­tic­u­lar cir­cle might be a mys­tery. Sup­pose the cir­cle in ques­tion is not just a cir­cle; sup­pose it is the end of a cylin­der. Fur­ther sup­pose that we call in an expert geome­ter to ana­lyze our cylin­der, some­one we might call a Flat­lander. The prob­lem? Our Flat­lander exists and per­ceives in only two dimen­sions (length and breadth, but not depth). 

This is a very pecu­liar and dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion, indeed. We place our cylin­der before him and he pays dili­gent atten­tion to it. He can make all of the same cal­cu­la­tions about the cylin­der that we have pre­vi­ous­ly made. In prin­ci­ple, he can know every­thing two-dimen­sion­al about the cylin­der there is pos­si­ble to know. After all, our Flat­lander is an expert in two-dimen­sion­al fig­ures. Yet for him, there is still more” about the fig­ure that remains — indeed will always remain — out­side his two-dimen­sion­al per­cep­tion. The third dimen­sion, the very dimen­sion that makes our cylin­der a cylin­der, will always lie beyond our Flatlander’s per­cep­tion and awareness. 

So, there is more” — a third dimen­sion — that will remain entire­ly beyond the knowl­edge of our Flat­lander. It will always remain a kind of mys­tery to him. How could we explain this more” to him if we had the oppor­tu­ni­ty? Unless he takes our word for it, we remain in quite a quandary. The more” of the three-dimen­sion­al cylin­der involves an unan­tic­i­pat­ed over­throw of all the cat­e­gories that a two-dimen­sion­al geome­ter has avail­able to make sense of his world. This third dimen­sion is a rad­i­cal tran­scen­dence, not just of the indi­vid­ual cir­cle but of two-dimen­sioned geom­e­try itself. 

We are look­ing — along with our Flat­lander — at a dimen­sion­al mys­tery. There is an abun­dance to a dimen­sion­al mys­tery — we might even call it a super­abun­dance — that tran­scends but does not inval­i­date ratio­nal exploration. 

The only real­ly clear instances where a dimen­sion­al mys­tery should occur are when a greater con­scious­ness — think of God — is com­mu­ni­cat­ing with a less­er con­scious­ness, such as that of human beings. The less­er con­scious­ness, that of God’s image-bear­ers, lacks the per­spec­tive and clar­i­ty that God possesses. 

Many Chris­t­ian tra­di­tions read­i­ly refer to sacra­men­tal prac­tices and rites (espe­cial­ly the Lord’s Sup­per or Eucharist) as mys­ter­ies.” They mean that these prac­tices are bear­ers of a sig­nif­i­cance or pow­er or a depth that goes beyond their obvi­ous ratio­nal con­tent. The kind of mys­tery that lies behind these claims is evi­dent­ly dimensional. 

A dimen­sion­al mys­tery, then, is mys­te­ri­ous by virtue of an unimag­in­able depth or den­si­ty that tran­scends our ratio­nal capac­i­ties and all of our oth­er capac­i­ties as well. And to speak of the mys­tery of God” is to insist that, for finite crea­tures like our­selves, God the Cre­ator, the liv­ing God, is just this kind of mys­tery. But if so, how could God’s image-bear­ers ever come to know him? We’ll be con­sid­er­ing a pos­si­ble answer to this ques­tion in next week’s blog.

Catch up with all of Chris’s blog posts at Con­ver­sa­tions with Chris.

This series has been adapt­ed from Steven D. Boy­er and Chris Hall’s The Mys­tery of God: The­ol­o­gy for Know­ing the Unknow­able. Hun­gry for more? Please vis­it Bak­er Aca­d­e­m­ic for more information. 

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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