Reveling in the Mystery
Westminster Abbey in London is one of the few places in the world that doesn't disappoint. The main part of Westminster is the cathedral: an enormous, basilica-style monastery of Gothic architecture that leaves one with a breathtaking vision of the height and depth of, if not God, at least of the worshipers' concept of God.
With the sheer amount of space between the floor and soaring vaults, from the back of the nave to the altar, as well as the complicated artistry on every wall and window, you find yourself awed by everything that speaks of the unimaginable greatness of God. You have a peculiar sense that God is very present and yet not altogether accessible. This is not an unpleasant experience; on the contrary, you realize that your idea of God has probably been domesticated and confined.
We might refer to such an experience as mystical, although the term is commonly associated in the Western mind with something that is highly subjective and meant for only the few. This is, however, a stunted definition. In ancient Christian theology, mystical refers to the wonder of the Christian story, the fulfilling of the Father's plan of redemption in Christ, which Paul refers to as the "mystery" (1 Tim. 3:16).Mystical also applied to a number of central elements of our worship of God.
Ambrose of Milan, the 4th-century bishop, declared that our very faith "is the mystery of the Trinity," as is the Lord's Supper and our Lord's baptism, which is our own baptism. John Cassian taught that Scripture too contains the mystery in the form of words, which describe the works of God that are disclosed to human minds only by grace. Because God himself is mystery, we should expect to find throughout the divine text depths and hidden realities that exceed our knowledge. None of these mysteries should be regarded as problems. The distance between creature and Creator is not something to be overcome or removed as if it were an obstacle to growth in the Christian life.
In fact, many of the earliest Christians (especially Greek Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries) contended that the way of spirituality is traversed by entering into a wonderful darkness that is everlasting and infinite. Paradoxically, only as the darkness grows will our knowledge of God grow.
Christians seem caught in a crossfire between the God who is incomprehensible and the God who has revealed himself. On one hand, the apostle Paul prays for believers that "… the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better" (Eph. 1:17). Likewise, the Gospel of John places a strong emphasis on why Christ has revealed the Father: "… that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father" (10:38). "No one has ever seen God," says the introduction to the Gospel, "but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (1:18).
At the same time, the church has always recited these words of the psalmist—"[Your] knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain" (Ps. 139:6; cf. Job 36:26)—and these of Paul: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord?" (Rom. 11:33-34).
Like many important points of theology, the knowledge of God and the unknowable God have produced a balancing act that historic Christianity has sought to preserve. As a result, Christianity has struggled since the 3rd century to avoid what theologian Jaroslav Pelikan called a "tyranny of epistemology" in its understanding of God and God's revelation to us. Simply put, this tyranny occurs when Christians think of God as a great field of investigation, a problem to be solved. Ephrem the Syrian, a poet from the 4th century, spoke to this struggle when he wrote: