Think for a moment of our Flatlander friends. Recall that Flatlanders understand only two dimensions. If we introduced the idea of a cube to them, a three dimensional figure, they would simply have to take our word for it that such a figure could actually exist. Initially, the problem the Flatlanders face in understanding three dimensions is not that their reason could not be applied to the cube, but that they wouldn’t know how to apply it.

Let’s return to the mystery of God. If God himself is the supreme or foundational instance of dimensional mystery, then it seems that we ought to expect God to be both reasonable and beyond reason is some way analogous to the situation facing our Flatlanders. 

The problem we face as we address the reality of God is not that human reason does not apply but that we don’t know how to apply it. The things of God are not internally self-contradictory, but what we say about God would be self-contradictory if we were speaking of them like we speak and think of other ordinary things in our world. Now, as Steve Boyer, co-author with me of The Mystery of God, comments, this is an awkward position to be in. For it means, on the one hand, that we cannot simply dispense with reason: We should not blithely tolerate any and every bit of foolishness that happens to cloak itself in the mantle of mystery. Yet on the other hand, it means that we cannot uncritically rely on reason either, for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom’ (I Cor. 1:25).” If so, we will encounter truths about God that are simply beyond our capability to understand. They may even appear unreasonable and irrational. 

So how can we distinguish nonsense about God from genuine mystery? There is no easy formula to answer that question. Certainly we shall have to consider the authority of any claim, how directly it is supported by God’s own revelation. We shall have to consider as well how it might be related logically to other truths that involve mystery. Perhaps most importantly, we will need to ask a very specific question: Does the truth I am affirming, a truth that is beyond my ability to comprehend, enable me to make sense of larger matters, allowing me to grasp more of the truth of God with depth and coherence? In other words, does it fit” God’s revelation given to us in Christ? 

Recall C.S. Lewis’s observation that we know the bright noonday sun is in the sky not because we can see it but because by means of it we can see everything else. So, does some purported mystery of God similarly allow us to see everything else”? Would the truth of the mystery shed light on other aspects of God and the Bible and the world and ourselves? When the answer to our question is yes, we may paradoxically have good reason to say that we are dealing with something beyond reason. 

Here’s another way of saying the same thing. While the mystery of God is by definition beyond rational comprehension, the appeal and affirmation of mystery need not be. On the contrary, since God is not less than rational but more, our intention must never be to jettison reason but to see – rationally – how God is exalted beyond it. We will find ourselves saying, Hmm. It seems that the acknowledgment of mystery’ does make sense. If God is really God, then recognizing reason’s limitations really is the most rational thing we can do.” 

Catch up with all of Chris Hall’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.