How do we deal with mystery? I am not talking about “Whodonits” of modern parlance. I am not talking of mystery in the old idea of “revealing”. I am talking about the middle of the road mystery– something that we “know” but do not fully comprehend. In Christianity (as with many faiths) there are several major ways we de deal with mystery. Here are three.
- Simplified heterodoxy
- Absolutized orthodoxy
- Orthodox mystery
Let’s take two common areas. (a) the nature of God and (b) the nature of Christ.
(a) The nature of God. Historically, the church has been Trinitarian (some would argue Binitarian, but I will stick with Three in the Godhead). The concept of the Trinity flows out of the fact that the Bible does describe Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit as persons, as divine, and having mutuality in their relationship.
-Simplified heterodoxy takes what is hard to understand on the human level and makes it more accessible. Radical monotheism, modalism, and (Mormon, for example) henotheism/polytheism are some of many ways this is done. Ultimately, the goal is to simplify that which is mysterious. When this is done, the Bible is moved subtly from a position of revelation, to proof-text. This position opens one up to the charge leveled by atheists or agnostics that theists are “creating God in our image.”
-Absolutized orthodoxy in the case of the Trinity draws from the Bible, but then removes the mystery. In essence, one comes up to a confusing situation and says “This is the complete understanding and variations from this are necessarily wrong.” So in absolutized orthodoxy, one must decide the nature of the relationship within the Trinity, whether it is efficient or essential, and what is its place within the full scope of history. It is creedal and inflexible. These can be charged with being narrow-minded.
-Orthodox mystery accepts the Bible as God’s revelation, but does not seek to go beyond what is revealed to us. If God self-describes Himself in three persons while being one, it seems reasonable to accept this without fully understanding what it is like. Of course one can be charged with being irrational or lacking curiousity (and if one does not seek to learn and grow but wallow in ignorance, perhaps such a charge has merit). Years ago there were conjoined twins who were joined at the skull. The two even shared some common brain matter. It was suggested that these girls, before surgery, were perhaps the only two humans who could genuinely share thoughts, who could genuinely read each other’s mind. Perhaps if allowed to grow up in this manner, they would have helped us understand what it means to share thoughts and feelings while being two separate individuals. But perhaps even with such an example, we could never truly understand it. Our understanding is limited by our limited perspective and experience. Thus, the mystery. Mystery is normal and healthy.
b. The nature of Christ has been a big question throughout history. Despite popular fiction in recent years, the early church had no real issues with Jesus being divine. They seemed to accept this quite readily. They also had to deal with eyewitness accounts that definitely supported his humanness. But in the accepting of His humanity, these same eyewitnesses did not appear to have a problem with accepting His divinity. Here is, indeed, a challenge.
-Simplified heterodoxy seems an easy answer here. One way this is done is to make Jesus only human. Islam does this. So does some branches of Liberal Christianity. The Gnostics/Docetists tended to go the opposite way. Jesus was God (or at least divine) but only gave the appearance of being human. Once again, these viewpoints must be supported more by experiential logic than by Scripture.
-Absolutized orthodoxy was seen in many of the early church councils. It was not enough to say that Jesus was both human and divine. They sought to determine exactly how this was and what effect it had. Did Jesus have two natures? One nature? How many essences? Understanding Jesus in a way that is consistent with Biblical revelation but not with the philosophically-based creeds could cause one to be thought of as heterodox.
-Orthodoxy mystery. To accept the Bible without understanding the How (especially if the How is not given) is rather freeing. It provides room for meditation, study, and growth.
BUT WHAT DOES THIS ALL HAVE TO DO WITH MISSIONS. Let me suggest a few ways.
A. Apologetics. We live in a universally skeptical and periodically hostile time. We want to share our faith and beliefs in a way that is accepted. If it is not accepted, we want our beliefs to be considered “reasonable”. Muslim scholars like to challenge Christianity as to its rationality (of course, the Islamic doctrine of the uncreated, co-eternal Quran opens up that faith to charges of irrationality as well). Logical positivists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even some theologically liberal groups within Christianity like to challenge Christians for their seeming acceptance (by faith) of the irrational. The quote by Mark Twain that said that faith is “believing what you know ain’t so” seems appropriate. Because we want to appear to be rational people, we may have the temptation of simplifying our beliefs to conform to cultural pressures (simplified heterodoxy) or crystallize our contrast with that culture by absolutizing a narrow interpretation (absolutized orthodoxy).
2. Contextualizing our faith. Starting churches in other cultures means taking people and discipling them in the Christian faith. How much range is allowed. Some C4 and C5 churches (two types of Muslim Background Believer churches, although such terms could have meaning in other cultures as well) go to great lengths to maintain cultural distinctives of the people while developing them in the worship of Isa as both Messiah and Allah. But when does one cross the line from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. If one looks in a Korean Bible (at least some Korean Bibles) you will find that the Eastern concept of “Chi” is in there and is created by God (in Genesis 1). This sounds heterodox. However, in the West we are pretty comfortable with the concept known as “Energy”. Having been a mechanical engineer for many many years, I can tell you that “energy” is an extremely difficult and abstract concept to wrap one’s head around. It may be inappropriate to assume that “energy” is Biblical while “chi” is not. Maybe both words have aspects that are Biblical and aspects that are not. This can certainly lead to mystery.
3. Sharing with children. When we share our faith with children, we want them to understand things… even complex things. We might use a clover leaf (like St. Patrick) or an egg to try to explain the Trinity, but we may be guilty of oversimplifying when we do this (developing the seeds of heterodoxy). On the other hand, we might give a simple answer (in form of creed, proof-text, or catechism). In this we may be absolutizing… providing no room for growth or exploration. I think it is perfectly appropriate to draw our faith from God’s self-revelation while recognizing the limits of that revelation and our limits in understanding that revelation.
- We don’t need to have all of the answers (“I don’t know” is a fine answer sometimes).
- We should recognize that mystery opens us up to study and growth (something that oversimplification or absolutization does not).
- We need to contextualize our faith to the culture, but not by oversimplification or changing of Biblical essentials. Neither should we live reactively to the local culture by setting up narrower and narrower interpretations of orthodoxy to attack and contrast local culture.