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Mystery vs. Contradiction


Do you think anything is mysterious?


Crop circles.

JFK’s assassination.

Black Holes.

String Theory.

The Amityville Horror.


As always, it matters what we really mean by “mystery.”


We use it in a few ways; something that is quite difficult to understand, something that is currently unknown and hidden behind various obstacles such as the passage of time and access to materials, and then something whose qualities make it impossible for human beings to fully or even partially understand.


There’s others out there, but it is this final usage that interests me. Are there some things that human beings just simply cannot understand in virtue of being a human? Our reason, capacity for language, and sensory apparatus are unable to muster a force strong enough to render certain things intelligible and understandable. Is anything like that?


Some folks would say God is mysterious in that way. But, what exactly about God is mysterious? Is everything about God mysterious or only certain aspects? On what level of analysis?


If you are a theist, do you find any of these basic theological claims mysterious, again on the third conception, not just difficult or unknown?


God exists.

God is morally good, perfect even.

God is powerful.

God is intelligent.

God is in control.


There’s no doubt we’d want to hear more about each and to properly unpack them to get a deeper, fuller understanding. But, these statements aren’t nonsense. They are intelligible. Our minds understand what the words mean, even if we don’t possess a robust, full grasp of the implications and texture of what the claims amount to.


Here’s two more I’d like to compare:


  1. God is one being with three centers of consciousness (persons); often called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


  1. God plans and renders certain everything that happens and human beings can freely act in the world.


The first is mysterious. Though it is intelligible - I know what the words mean and what the claim is - it is so different from my normal experience that I don’t have anything close to a sense of what it would be like to be that kind of being. I’m used to seeing beings with just one center of consciousness; human beings are this way, and I’ve seen a bunch of those. I don’t have any typical experience with the “one being, three persons” set up. This is mysterious; it is beyond me and my normal apparatus for understanding the world. This doesn’t make it unintelligible or contradictory or false. It is a mystery.


The second is very much unlike the first. I find it unintelligible. I haven’t the faintest idea what it means. This is because it is contradictory. Human beings can’t act freely if everything that happens, including their actions, are already planned and rendered certain by God.


Yet, there are prominent theologians and pastors that cling tightly to (2), and declare that it is not contradictory, but is, in fact, mysterious. The truth of (2) so transcends our meager human reason and experience that we can’t hope to understand it, but we can be sure of its truth due to its having been revealed in infallible scripture.


Leaving aside the incendiary debates over whether scripture recommends (2), it is important for us to be clear on our terms. Is (2) really a mystery or a flat-out contradiction?


We’re in need of a theology of mystery that appropriately marks out the things that are mystery and discards what is contradiction.

We talk all about a big debate in theology that has (2) as one its main flashpoints in this week’s episode. You can listen on your favorite podcatcher or watch on Youtube. We’d love to hear from you! You can reach us at mailbag@opentotruth.com.


Stay Curious!