Thursday, 26 October 2017

Coming to terms with mystery

It’s as old as history, wanting to know everything about everything. But there is a limit. For example, we cannot know everything about God, although that did not prevent Adam and Eve trying when they ‘ate’ of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:6). This attempt to be 'like God' (see Genesis 3:5) naturally failed, but it is a salutary lesson to us that there are limits to what we can, or indeed should, know about God.

This is not to say we cannot know anything about Him. We know something of the extent of His love because we have seen it in Jesus, and Paul talks about his desire and prayer that the Christians in Ephesus grow in their knowledge of that love (see Ephesians 3:18). Will we ever get to fully grasp it? No, but it is so rewarding trying, and besides, that is how we grow, and will continue to grow throughout eternity. 

We can know something too of His wisdom, His power, His beauty and His grace, all of which can be seen in His Creation and His Word. But there will be large gaps in our knowledge because at the end of the day we are creatures and He is Creator, he alone is God, and we are not. What remains, therefore, is wonder, awe and mystery.

The Eastern Orthodox Church can teach us much about this. Look at the following quotes by one of its best spokespeople, Bishop Kallistos Ware:

“We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” 

In trying to explain how we can get close to God but not too close, we can, for example, cite the experience of Moses on the Mountain in Exodus 33:20.

Earlier on in verse 11, we are told that "The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend". But when later Moses asks God if he can see His glory - which I think is another way of seeing God. But God replies:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (verses 19-20)
In other words, God is saying "this far and no further". He is setting limits on just how much Moses is able to 'see' or know about Him. As a result, the Orthodox like to make a distinction between God's essence and His energies:

“Such, then, is our God: unknowable in his essence, yet known in his energies; beyond and above all that we can think or express, yet closer to us than our own heart.”  (See Wikipedia)

His essence is His being, nature and substance, and that is what is being referred to when Exodus talks about God’s face. Your face is you, your substance/body. But we cannot look on this any more than we can look into the sun.

God’s energies, on the other hand, are what enable us to experience something of the Divine, at first through sensory perception and then later intuitively. Through prayer, revelation, personal experience and feelings.

And so the Bible can talk about knowing God and yet not knowing Him at the same time. Knowing God through revelation, and yet holding that in tension with the idea that He is also a mystery, so totally‘other’ that our puny and weak minds will never fully comprehend Him. And if we did, we too would be God.

But the wonderful gift of God is that we can know Him, and the most important thing about Him. His love. Kallistos Ware says:

“To know a person is far more than to know facts about that person. To know a person is, essentially, to love him or her; there can be no true awareness of other persons without mutual love.”

What is truly wonderful, miraculous and a great gift to us, is that through and because of Jesus, we can know the love of God, and God Himself, because as 1 John 4:8 "God is love". To know His love is enough to keep us eternally content and eternally satisfied.

As for mystery? Well, it keeps us wondering and worshipping, and that, surely, is how it is meant to be. 

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