Semper Reformanda and the Nature of Mystery

The word “mystery” is usually used to refer to the unknown or the vaguely known. I usually get the image, when it is used in context of theology, of a staircase which goes up and suddenly ends with nothing but air above the highest step. “Mystery” is thought of as the space above the staircase, where one would like to set one’s foot, but cannot. It is in this sense the unknown, or even the unknowable. So far as I can tell, this sense of the word is only a century old. It was first thus used for detective novels, and has since, it seems, made its way back to the field of theology with this new meaning. We think of a mystery as a thing which we don’t know, at least not yet, such as the identity of a culprit. “Mystery” thus takes its place in our system of thought as a label for the yet unexplored, or possibly the unexplorable.

But, just as “UFO” is an identification for an unidentified thing, use of the word “mystery” has become a way to “know” what is unknown, and is something of a self-negating word, that is, it is a label which says we don’t know which label to use. We often call something a mystery in order to feel less uncomfortable about it. We feel more comfortable with it because we feel we have understood it: “What’s that?!”—discomfort—”Oh well, it’s a mystery“—alleviation of discomfort. We have named it, we have controlled it, so we feel.

Now, if I told you that sea serpents are not fictional, you might either think I am about to tell a joke, or that I don’t really mean it in that sense but am only referring to, say, an oarfish, to which sea serpent tales have been attributed. But just because it fits into the scientific convention’s category of “fish,” and has been given a scientific name, does that make silly the terror it brought ancient sailors? Does that change what it is, or make the sailors’ observations about it any less true? Of course not. Saying “oarfish” instead of “sea serpent” only uses a name which helps us to feel we have it under our control. It is no longer an anomaly; it fits into our head; it is just an oarfish, a 30 ft. long, slithering, bright red-crested oarfish . . . nothing of the marvelous about that.

Like “oarfish,” the title “mystery” can provide a false escape from uneasiness and wonder at something which we don’t really have under our intellectual, emotional, or physical thumb. In the image of mystery as the empty area at the top of an unfinished staircase, the word becomes a sort of pretend stair step that we place there. Many people can relate to the frustration of asking questions regarding things like the sovereignty of God, and ultimately getting the answer that it is a mystery. Of course it feels like a cop out, an excuse to not have to do any intellectual work, or even an excuse for rational error. It does not seem credible. And often, I believe, it is only an excuse. It need not be, but it often is. For others, theology seems to be worked out to a coherent system, communicable by a code of terms, and there is really no space left for mystery. All is known, except for a select few items, such as the apparent contradiction between God’s unity and threeness and between sovereignty and free will.

We speak of both sorts as lacking a respect for mystery. The former use the word to seal themselves off from dangerous possibilities of error, the latter use it to conquer their only remaining frontier. Both use it about specific items and not about others. Now, I have claimed that the use of the word to mean a blank area in the understanding (e.g., the mystery of who committed a crime) is a relatively recent one. I believe such a use is also misleading to a degree. Looking at our staircase, to what then ought we apply the word “mystery”? I want to argue that mystery is not a word for the empty area where the next step (fact) ought to be, but is rather something true about the whole staircase. What is a mystery? Everything. Reality is mysterious.

A respect for mystery is, I think, not so much a respect for the fact that there are things we don’t know, but rather a respect for the fact that our articulate understanding of anything is never fully complete. Adaequatio rei et intellectus, correspondence of the thing itself to our idea of it, is never really achieved. It is never fully adequate. In one sense, all this means is a recognition of the otherness of all that is not ourselves. That does not mean that words are inappropriate or flawed. In fact, we have no choice but to use words to try and understand truth. A proposition can be true, completely true, but truth is never contained in it. It may be true in its proper sense, but that sense is easily misread. The sense in which true propositions are meant, that is the truth of them.

In his address entitled “Education by Poetry,” Robert Frost claims that all of language is metaphorical, or, “saying one thing in terms of another.” Even the apparently precise and literal language of measurement is metaphorical; to say, “That board is three feet long” is to say spacial occupation in terms of a measuring standard, i.e., properly speaking, it is only like three marks on our measuring tape. You could just as truly compare the board to another object (which is a metaphor, if you will) of its length. The point of saying this is that we need to remember not to take our verbal descriptions of truths too far, and to recall that the reality they point to is not exhausted by the words.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger conceived of truth as the unveiling of being, rather than as a proposition. To grossly oversimplify his ideas, being (what is) is unveiled to dasein (literally, “there-being,” i.e., a person who is present), and that is truth. Think of a eureka, an epiphany. In my own experience, the most profound insights I have strike me at a usually unexpected moment, and I then try to preserve them in all their profundity through words (usually a poem or song, journal entry, or mental note). However, I find it difficult to once again experience the richness of the meaning of those words. I will get a glimmer of it, but rarely the whole sense of what they meant to me at the time.

Language’s lack of adequacy to carry truth has lead to deconstructive criticism, which, out of a perfectionist cynicism, leaves little hope of finding truth at all in language. However, as French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote, “Out of the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.” Having no other medium but language, we humans can properly be lead to truth by it. It takes a lot of work though, for we must be present, intentional. We must be ever revisiting the encounter with truth which is referred to in the propositions.

Enter semper reformanda. Ever reforming, always to be reformed. Contrary to the expectation—and, often, experience—that those traditions who hold up their mystics have greater respect for mystery than those who hold up their theologians, the Reformed tradition has a particular prerogative to respecting mystery. That is, there is a call to renew truth, to engage with it actively. To ever reform is to ever take the mold of the doctrinal words and pour reality into them. It is not always to change the words, and it is certainly not to change the meaning of words that are true. Truth does not change, but we must re-encounter it regularly. We cannot constantly encounter truth; we must rock between the Thou and the It, the unveiled being and the proposition. This usually means going back to the same truths, the same words or perhaps rephrasing it (though we should not lose touch with the original).

It’s not that we need always say something new, for that is either impossible or dangerous. We should, however, say what is needed. If a phrase has been beat dead, it is not less true, though it may not need to be said, at least not that way. We should speak intentionally, presently to the truth of the words, and thus profoundly. To be always reformed is to be always renewed. And so we must speak in newness, even if the newness of our words is sometimes only the claim that these old phrases are in fact true for the moment.



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