Last week I ended by noting two errors Christians can make when dealing with the mystery of God. Some fall into a prideful, arrogant rationalism that leads them to believe everything about God can be reduced to facts fully comprehensible to the human mind. Some of these folks, worried about the volatility and creeping relativism that may lie hidden in experience-driven spirituality,” tend to emphasize ever more vehemently the historic, doctrinal center of the faith and are hesitant about any kind of vision” that goes deeper. 

The second error occurs among Christians who have become disenchanted with a lifeless dogmatics in which Scripture is taken as a divine fact-book that provides quick, final answers to every question. They tend to be wary of doctrine” and theology” and to prefer the joyous life of the Spirit. 

Each group sets out, quite rightly, to defend the real lifesaving gospel against the misreading perpetrated by the other side. My friend Steve describes them as like sailors battling to right a listing ship. The question is, to which side is the ship leaning? If to starboard, then those sailors who are shifting cargo to the port side of the deck are rescuing the ship. But if to port, then those same sailors moving the cargo to port are not the solution but the problem!” 

There are plenty of twenty-first century Christians on both sides of the theological ship, denouncing their counterparts on the other side. We tend to rush madly to our own side of the swaying deck, not perceiving that a ship can capsize in either of the two directions. 

What to do? How can we use our minds in relating to God appropriately without beginning to worship human reason itself? How can one bow before the mystery of God without simply acquiescing to every bit of nonsense that may fill a bowed head? Try to create an imaginative picture that can bring both sides of our dual affirmation together and that can therefore remind us of both errors by reminding us of both truths. An ancient image can help us. 

The ancient image, which has made very common reappearance throughout the history of Christian thought, is based upon the metaphor of seeing.” It is interesting to note that, while in principle every visible object can be seen (for that is what it means to be visible), it is another thing to say that we can see every visible object. We can see the sun, but if we look at it directly, we’ll go blind. If we do not turn away promptly, we’ll find ourselves unable to see anything whatsoever. 

Now in every corner of Christian history, we find faithful Christians insisting that what the sun is to our eyes, God is to our reason. The living God is too bright for our minds to see. He dazzles us, and we are overcome. Does this make God irrational” or unintelligible”? Perhaps so, but only in the sense that the sun is invisible.” If we say that the sun is invisible,” we don’t mean that it is unavailable to our vision – we can look directly at the sun if we want to — but that the sun overpowers our vision; not that it cannot be seen but that it cannot be steadfastly looked at. If so, we could say that God is irrational,” not in the sense of being below reason but in the sense of being beyond it. 

Let me say that one more time. God is hard to wrap our minds around because of God’s greatness and deep mystery. God is too great for our finite intellects to take in. As some ancient writers put it, the brilliance of the divine light makes all our knowing into a mysterious unknowing,” but it is an unknowing that is also a real knowing, just as having our eyes blinded by the noonday sun is the result of seeing, not the absence of seeing. That is, we have real knowledge and real mystery. Both knowledge and mystery are essential. God wants us to use our minds to look upon him; he intends for us to look. Yet we will not be surprised when we have to look away as well. 

Catch up with the previous posts in this series at Conversations with Chris.

Image Credit: By Bonaventura Peeters (I) — [1], Public Domain,…

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.