“Theology by its nature is a mystery discerning enterprise” by Thomas Weinandy

“I believe that a distinction between problem and mystery is relevant to how theologians ought to approach issues of faith and theology.

Marcel and Maritain were well aware that, arising out of the Enlightenment, there grew the mentality that intellectual advancement consisted in solving problems that had hitherto not been solved. The former ‘mysteries’ of the physical universe were being resolved by approaching them as scientific problems to be decoded and unraveled.

The scientific and physical laws of nature became transparent and unmistakable. The new enthusiasm and success of the scientific method was the major contributing factor to this mentality.

Science became the means of resolving all kinds of problems and issues concerning nature and how nature worked. All this was done in a concise, rational, mathematical, and experiential fashion.

It was equally eminently practical. Scientific knowledge could solve a host of practical problems, and everyone gloried in its success. This mentality is illustrated in the contemporary belief that technology, one of the fruits of science, can solve almost any problem.

In the realm of science and technology this mentality, that intellectual advancement consists in solving theoretical and practical problems, may be legitimate. However, I want to argue that this mentality, to disastrous effect, has coloured how many philosophers and theologians approach questions of faith and theology.

Many theologians today, having embraced the Enlightenment presuppositions and the scientific method that it fostered, approach theological issues as if they were scientific problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be discerned and clarified.

However, the true goal of theological inquiry is not the resolution of theological problems, but the discernment of what the mystery of faith is.

Because God, who can never be fully comprehended, lies at the heart of all theological enquiry, theology by its nature is not a problem solving enterprise, but rather a mystery discerning enterprise.

This can bee seen already in the early stages of God’s revelation of Himself to the Jewish people. God manifested Himself to Moses in the burning bush (see Exod. 3).

Moses, in the course of the conversation, asked God: ‘What is Your name?’ Since names, for the Israelites, both revealed the character of the person so named and allowed for the knower of the name to call upon the person so named, Moses in asking God to tell him His name, wanted to know God as well as have the power to call upon Him.

God must have chuckled (It was obviously an ‘impassible’ chuckle!) to Himself as He replied to Moses: “I Am Who I Am’ or “I Am He Who Is.’

God did reveal to Moses His name and so Moses now knew more about God than he knew before. He now knew that God is ‘He who is.’

However, Moses must have quickly realized that, in knowing God more fully, God had become an even greater mystery than He was before. Previously Moses in calling God, for example, El Shaddai— God of the Mountain– may not have known a great deal about God, but the little he did know was at least somewhat comprehensible. God was He who dwelt on the mountain, which was the home of the gods.

However, Moses now knew much more about God. He actually knew that God is ‘I Am Who I Am,’ but what it means for God to be ‘He Who Is’ is completely incomprehensible. Moses, nor we today, can comprehend that God’s very nature is ‘to be,’ that He is the One who is the fullness of life and existence.

Here we learn a primary lesson concerning the nature of revelation and theology. The more God reveals who He is and the more we come to a true and authentic knowledge of who He is, the more mysterious He becomes.

Theology, as faith seeking understanding, helps us come to a deeper and fuller understanding of the nature of God and His revelation, but this growth is in coming to know what the mystery of God is and not the comprehension of the mystery.”

–Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 31-33.

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