The Limits of Faith and Knowledge: God as Mystery
(This essay adapted from: All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice)
After years of avoiding organized religion, I surprised my friends when I joined a church in 2005. Though St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, is known as a progressive congregation with a radical minister, those friends were curious: Did I now believe in God? That depends, of course, on what one means by “God.”
A quick definition: God is a name we give to the mystery of the world that is beyond our capacity to understand, reminding us that the energy of the universe is ordered by forces humans cannot fully comprehend.
This approach to the concept of God not only rejects a naïve and illusory biblical literalism but also challenges the conception of God that many moderate Christians hold. The key is whether we refer to God as a mystery or simply as mystery, and the difference between those two formulations is crucial. The first implies that God is an entity, force, or being with some shape, but that his/her/its contours are beyond our capacity to fully comprehend and chart. The thing that God is, is a mystery to us, but God is something, some kind of thing that, if we had the capacity, we could describe. The second formulation suggests that God is simply the name we give to that which is beyond our capacity to understand. God is not a mystery but rather another name for mystery -- for the vast, unexplainable mystery of the world around as we swirl among billions of stars, as well as the mystery inside as billions of cells interact to create us.
If God is not a mystery but rather is another name for mystery, then the command to love God can be understood as simply another way of saying that we must strive to love the mystery around us and in us, rather than to be afraid of all that we cannot understand. We certainly encounter that mystery, bumping up against it daily. I can strive to deepen my sense of that mystery, and I can have reverence for it. I can have a deep love for the wonder that such mystery produces, whether the mystery centers on me, the nature of my relationship to other people, or the nature of my relationship to the world.
With this conception of God we are not striving to love what we cannot know, but coming to terms with the fact that we will never know and embracing our place in the world. To seek to always love God means, from this view, to seek always to accept our place in a Creation that will always be mystery, no matter how much science teaches us about specific parts of that Creation around us and in us, through physics and biology. To love God is not a command to stop seeking knowledge, but rather a reminder to have a sense of the limits of our knowledge and embrace that which is beyond knowledge. Nothing in this view demands that we reject science, but instead reminds us to be aware not only of what science illuminates but what is beyond its reach.
In the world before modern science, it’s not hard to understand why people attributed certain things to an idea of God as an entity, or force, or being. Such a concept could be used to explain why the rain fell, the lightning lit up the sky, and the thunder shook the ground beneath us. A God that could intervene in human affairs could be used to explain why people suffered in some instances and prospered in others. That we now have other ways -- natural science, philosophy, history, the social sciences -- to guide our understanding does not mean we need to scrap those stories our ancestors told. Instead, we can reframe those stories to find other levels of wisdom in them. The poet Muriel Rukeyser reminds us of the importance of this when she writes, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” [Muriel Rukeyser, “The Speed of Darkness,” in The Speed of Darkness (New York: Random House, 1968), stanza 9, lines 3-4.]
Even with the advances in science, in a deep sense the universe remains mystery to us, and we understand that mystery through stories. God is a term for mystery explored in story. To make such a shift in our understanding of God is not to lose faith, but to understand the dynamic nature of faith. If God is the name for what we cannot know, our love for God is an expression of our knowledge of our limits and of our commitment to living in the world within those limits. Our love for God reminds us of the need for humility. In this sense, God is a way of reminding ourselves that while we are a clever species, this cleverness has not only improved our lives but gotten us into considerable trouble.