If God is the kind of mystery I described last week, a dimensional mystery of abundance and glory that resists all classification, coming to know God looks to be a very precarious enterprise indeed. It appears we must admit from the outset that we have no capacity, no resource of any kind, for bridging the gulf between ourselves and the mysterious God we so deeply desire to know. If God is a mystery in the radical sense of a dimensional mystery, must we not simply confess our ignorance and remain silent?

Happily, the answer is no. Human reason can and should be applied to God. How so? First, recall that a dimensional mystery is a species of revelational mystery. That is to say, our affirmation that God is a mystery does not depend on what we do not know, but on what we do know. The mystery of God has been revealed to us by God. It is true that it has been revealed as a mystery, but this should not discourage us. A revelational mystery carries within it the hint that mystery and genuine knowledge of God are not opposed in quite the obvious, straightforward way we might initially expect. 

Remember that both the Bible and subsequent Christian history are chock-full of men and women whose zealous commitment to God involved exactly this interesting juxtaposition of mystery and knowledge. From the books of Moses, from the Prophets, from the Gospels, from the Epistles, from the church fathers, from the medieval theologians, from the Protestant Reformers, from contemporary evangelicals, the overwhelming picture one gets is of a faith that knows God and simultaneously confesses that God is beyond knowledge. We’ll have to work at pulling these two elements together with unqualified consistency, but that they belong together the whole Christian witness seems to demand. 

As we will see, the Scripture and traditional Christian theology give us some important tools for understanding how the gulf between finite image-bearers and the infinite God can be faced with rich hope. The God who is beyond knowledge intends for us to know him and offers wonderful guidance as we seek to do so. To regard real knowledge of God as impossible would be to ignore much of what God has told us about ourselves and how we should live our lives. 

So, while we have good grounds for expecting that human reason will be unable to master God the Creator, we also have good grounds for believing that reason should not be abandoned as vain or worthless. The same can be said for other human faculties such as emotion, intuition, and sensation. None will apply straightforwardly to the mystery of God, yet none can be ruled out. 

To put things in a more positive light, human beings — God’s image-bearers — may approach God through the use of all the faculties God has given them. Yet whether we are speaking of human reason, human emotions, human intuition, or human sensation, we should expect to be overwhelmed and sometimes undone by a supremacy that cannot be mastered. With all we are as God’s image-bearers, we come as petitioners seeking the Lord’s bounty, not as judges or philosophers demanding a satisfactory explanation. 

As we approach the mystery of God we must keep two possible errors in mind. Some might be tempted by an arrogant rationalism that denies the unspeakable greatness of God and thus loses mystery altogether. Others might be tempted by an anti-intellectual irrationalism that affirms mystery so quickly and uncritically that reason itself is undermined. Most of us probably judge one of these two errors to be the more pressing danger for contemporary believers, but it’s worth noting that either one seriously cripples historic Christianity.

Catch up with all of Chris’s blog posts on the Mystery of God and more 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.