My prime concern in recently authoring The Wonder of It All (University Press of America) was to explore the realm of mystery in scripture. Then, recalling C. S. Lewis’ warning about our proclivity to err in one direction or the other, I added a briefer discussion of a common sense approach to its meaning.
Mystery is primarily associated with God and his initiatives. As for confirmation, Nebuchadnezzar allows: “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries” (Dan. 2:27).
The nearest analogy we have to divine mystery is our inter-personal relationships. Unless someone is willing to divulge his or her thoughts, we can only judge on the basis of behavior. This led those of traditional religion to conclude that the High God was unfathomable.
Mystery extends in some measure to creation. The more we grasp, the more we realize we do not know. Our understanding resembles the proverbial tip of an iceberg.
Having set the course, the dogma of the Trinity first invites our attention. This is associated but not identical with the notion of complex monotheism, so while we speak of God as residing in heaven, he manifests himself elsewhere.
Some years ago another Christian and I were conversing with four Muslims. One of them, a former university professor, initiated the discussion. “Of course,” he noted, “I cannot accept the Christian teaching, but complex monotheism is quite acceptable.”
The incarnation next solicits our consideration. Jewish tradition accepts without equivocation that it is God who saves. Now the creeds affirm that Jesus was both divine and human. One might even speculate that he was more human in a pristine sense for being divine.
The illusive mystery pertains to the Holy Spirit. “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” Jesus allowed. “You hear the sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). I dealt with this topic more at length in The Signature of the Spirit (iUniverse). This served to distinguish the work of the Spirit from pretenders.
The rumor of angles next presents itself. I have not knowingly encountered an angel, although my culture tends to obscure such spiritual entities. In this regard, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb.13:2). In any case, angels appear as an intricate part of a cosmic drama.
Then there is what is sometimes alluded to as the mystery of the ordinary. Such as the astonishing way in which people can communicate. Then by way of referring to the past, anticipating the future, and sorting out priorities.
Universal mystery attempts to paint the larger picture. We are told that the universe came into being as a result of what is popularly known as the big bang. It appears to be continually expanding. At some point, one would expect it either to degenerate or come rushing back together. Humans would long ago have disappeared.
One scientist observed that whereas we do not know precisely how things originated, he was confident that if life were to disappear, it would not be revived. The mathematical improbability of life is staggering.
Prophecy next solicits our attention. Thus God says served as the prophetic formula. Accordingly, his message was essentially forth-telling rather than fore-telling. Were future events involved, it was by way of exhorting persons to live toward what would eventuate.
If of liberal persuasion, interpreters point out the ambiguity in future references or attribute them to after the fact. If of conservative conviction, they often reason in terms of history written beforehand. Whereas history, as such, requires an actual setting.
The afterlife raises more questions than ready answers. In particular, the resurrection stands in sharp contrast to the Greek alternative of the immortality of the soul. As for the former, it consists of a remarkable transformation, while the latter makes a far more modest claim.
Miracles naturally arise in the context of a study of mystery. These are not simply unusual events, but such as reveal God’s ways more perfectly. As C. S. Lewis observes, they do not occur in uniform fashion in Scripture, but proliferate at critical points in salvation history.
While some miracles may involve merely timing and/or extent, others seem more distinctive. Were the first nine plagues of the former sort, the tenth requires some additional explanation. God appears to use the means that is deemed most suitable for his purposes.
While usually taken for granted, morality boarders on the mysterious. Although the sense of right and wrong differs from one culture to the next, all cultures have some code by which to live. In this regard, Jesus observed: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Two chapters delve into interpretive problems. For instance, there is the longevity of those mentioned early on in the biblical text. Some speculate that this could be a carry-over from the more favorable conditions prior to the fall.
Creativity finally draws our attention. It brings to mind an occasion when some of us were watching a Hebron potter apply his trade. At first, there was simply an amorphous lump of clay, and then a vessel began to emerge. This was greeted by an appreciative murmur from those assembled. The matter of interpretation, which appears throughout the early part of the text, thereafter is given more deliberate attention.