In my last post, I shared a comment from C.S. Lewis: We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we can see everything else.” The first time I read these words, I struggled to understand them. Finally, the aha moment” came. Of course. If I look at the sun directly, almost immediately I don’t see anything. Everything goes dark. Yet I know the sun is shining if I look at anything else. If not for sunlight, I couldn’t see squirrels, spiders, trees, golf balls flying, humming birds, or my dog Poncho. I know the sun is there because it enables me to see everything else. It took me a while to get Lewis’s point, but when the light finally came on in my brain, it made all the sense in the world. 

So, the question becomes how this illustration might relate to our understanding of God and what Christians have said about God for over two thousand years. Christians have insisted, for example, that God is one,” true,” and living.” God is not one thing” among many others, but is the creator, source, and end of all things.”

Not only so, but we are forbidden to make any image” of God, since any image would drastically, infinitely fall short of the indescribable reality that God is, has always been, and will always be. I recall biblical writers insisting that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways. All the gods of the nations are idols,” declares the psalmist, but the Lord made the heavens” (Ps. 96:5). The Creator of all things lives in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16). Before God both heaven and earth flee away, and no place is found for them (Rev. 20:11). God warns us: No one may see me and live” (Exod. 33:20). In light of texts such as these, Christians have recognized that God is incomprehensible,” inscrutable,” hidden,” past finding out.” 

Yet the moment we speak these words, we also know that God is also the center of all things, the fount of life, the God of truth, the Father of lights, the Light that enlightens every person coming into the world” (John 1:9). How can we hold all these wonderful affirmations together? They seem to contradict one another. How can Life be the occasion of death, or Light dwell in dazzling darkness, or Truth be beyond understanding? Yet paradoxical expressions such as these are used to describe God throughout the Bible. 

Consider the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans: mystery that overwhelms yet attracts,” a phrase the German philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto used to describe God. Doesn’t this sound right when we think of God? This Latin phrase insists that God is, in some quite remarkable sense, a mystery. To speak of God this way is to speak of God as blinding, crushing, devastating, overpowering. To approach God is to approach an unfathomable depth of reality and truth that, like the sun in the sky, is too intense, too bright to look at, but that nevertheless brings meaning and coherence and beauty to everything else. God is a mystery. 

What we will need to explore is this: If God is a mystery, exactly what kind of a mystery are we talking about? 

You can 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.