Although it is a dangerous business to select a passage from a Shakespeare play and hold it up as a mouthpiece of the poet, there are nevertheless a few key passages that seem to express the bard's own thoughts on the creative process. In Act V, Scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, Theseus, King of Athens, offers a mini-dissertation on the surprising similarities between lunatics, lovers, and poets. Of the poet's art in particular, he says: "Such tricks hath strong imagination, / That, if it would but apprehend some joy, / It comprehends some bringer of that joy."
Dictionaries, even the Oxford English Dictionary, offer little help at understanding Shakespeare's distinction between apprehend and comprehend. If we read the lines, however, in the context of Theseus's full speech, the following distinction emerges: To apprehend is to perceive some force or feeling that transcends our ordinary human faculties. To comprehend, by contrast, is to create some rational or artistic framework for making sense of, and thus "containing," the very force or feeling which seems to defy description. Thus, in the poet's case, an apprehended feeling of unbounded, free-floating joy is comprehended, through the device of poem-writing, into a single, concrete bringer of that joy.
In The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (Baker Academic), Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall seem to translate (unconsciously) Theseus's distinction into the realm of theology. Too often, they argue, theology attempts to put into concrete words and images an experience that is finally too large for us to take in—and not just quantitatively (there is too much of God for us to grasp), but qualitatively as well (as Uncreated Creator, God is wholly other than his creatures and cannot be contained in logical categories). When we try to force the essence of the eternal, omnipresent Creator into our own structures of thought, we often find that we have not so much explained him as explained him away. At this juncture, one might expect Boyer and Hall either to treat theology as a branch of subjective poetry—beautiful, perhaps even awe inspiring, but incapable of expressing universal truth—or to give up on putting into words (comprehending) that glory, majesty, and holiness of God that we can only barely apprehend.
Thankfully, they resist both options, instead offering a different distinction that maintains both the otherness and mystery of God and our capacity, through theological exploration, to reliably know his nature. Too often, modern theologians, especially pluralists, think of God as an "investigative mystery." If we are to understand him, we must amass scattered clues and then figure out how they might fit together. The Bible and traditional Christianity, in contrast, present God as a "revelational mystery." God has revealed himself to us through the Law and Prophets, the Old and New Testament, and Christ himself. We haven't been left to search in the dark. Still, because the God who reveals himself is beyond our comprehension, the mystery remains and cannot be fully contained in doctrinal statements.