Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Introduction to Mystery

The seeking of knowledge is something that has always captivated man. Man wished to know time, so he recorded it and created calendars based on his recordings. Man wished to know the patterns of the stars, so he watched them each night and grouped them into constellations based on what he saw. Man wished to know the workings of animals, plants, and men themselves, so he studied them and wrote books of anatomy and biology based on his observations. Yet even beyond the seeking of this knowledge and information, which can have value in a man's labors in the fields, man sought wisdom, which, as Aristotle says, "exists for its own sake"; "we do not seek [wisdom] for the sake of any other advantage" (Metaphysics, I.2, 982b24-27).

Aristotle remarks on why men philosophize, although his remarks can be broadened to refer to any seeking of wisdom: "It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize" (ibid., 982b12-13). Men wonder about that which they do not know, for "a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant" (ibid., 982b17-18).

These comments on wisdom are merely the part of the preface to the topic of this post. For what is it that man wonders most about? That which he is most ignorant of. And what is he most ignorant of? That which he can know least. That is God.

A troubling concept that has become prominent is that man's knowledge is limitless: there are things man does not yet know because he has yet to learn them, not because he cannot learn them. Science, the main avenue of human knowledge, is, respectively, where this concept is seen the most. It can take a disturbing turn, for instance, in psychology, where schools such as behaviorism attempt to reduce the human person to a series of reactions and responses deriving from the brain, with no free will whatsoever.

This idea is not restrained to science, though: it sneaks into theology and spirituality as well. Theology is often speculative: there is only so much in theology that can be considered certain. There are dogmas and doctrines that the Church is certain of, yet there are other issues that will never be solidified. One such issue is the common debate whether God could have redeemed humanity without the death of His Son. While it is an interesting discussion, it must be remembered that it is only speculative: we cannot know God's thoughts for certain. That is thing many do not realize: we, as humans, can only know as much about God as He is willing to reveal: we cannot completely comprehend Him.

All this introduction leads to the concept I wish to discuss: the concept of mystery, specifically the mystery of God. God is mysterious. This is a fact. A mystery is something which must be revealed: it cannot be taken by force. If this applies to any mystery in general, how much more must it apply to God!

This post will not be my last on this topic, as the title shows. My goal in discussing mystery is to draw out and discuss this topic as it appears in theology and spirituality. It seems to have lost popularity recently, but it is not gone. "Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so...Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God" (CCC #40, 42).

Mystery appears as a concept more in the early Church and the Eastern Church, so that is where I will draw most of my material from. I do not know how many posts I will write about this: since the topic is the inability to completely know God, I do not think it is possible for me to completely encompass the topic, no matter how many posts I write. It will depend on how much the Spirit moves me to write, how much He wants to reveal to me and how much He wants me to reveal to others.

Now I think I have made this introduction long enough, so I will end with a quote that summarizes the point well. It is from Chapter 4 of the first book of St. John Damascene's De fide orthodoxa (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith):

"God is infinite and incomprehensible. And there is one thing about the divine essence that can be comprehended: namely, that the divine is infinite and incomprehensible."

St. John Damascene, pray for us!

Nota bene: I quote from W.D. Ross' translation of the Metaphysics, from The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon. "CCC" stands for Catechism of the Catholic Church. The quote from St. John Damascene was quoted in St. Bonaventure's Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ, Question VI, Argument for the Negative Position 1, translated by Zachary Hayes, O.F.M., D.Th.

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