Guest Blogger Joseph Porter on the Inevitability of Mystery

It’s my pleasure to welcome guest blogger Joseph Porter to Cloud of Witnesses.  Joseph is a rising sophomore at Harvard College and Features Editor of The Harvard Ichthus, an undergraduate Christian journal at Harvard. He blogs at The Fish Tank (the blog of The Harvard Ichthus) and Deus Decorus Est.

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What do the Atonement, the Incarnation, the Trinity, Christ’s marriage to the Church, and the Resurrection of the Dead have in common?

The obvious answer is that they are pretty important Christian concepts. The less obvious answer is that they are mysteries of the faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, Ephesians 5:31-32, and 1 Timothy 3:16, inter alia).

What does it mean for God to become Man, or to be three Persons? The most honest response I can give is “I don’t know.” God gave us the Bible, a collection of texts concerning God’s pursuit of mankind and our various responses – not an instruction manual for formulating Christianity within the framework of twenty-first century analytic philosophy. Of course, every once in a while, we may sit down, scratch our heads, and figure out a theological question or two. More often, however, we are left with mysteries.

As a Christian, I confess that mysteries sometimes bother me. Why do I believe in Christianity if I cannot even understand it completely? Am I “copping out” intellectually? It certainly is easy to feel that way when good answers to important questions are elusive – or (for now) non-existent.

But mysteries, if you think about it, aren’t all that mysterious.

Shouldn’t we expect mysteries? Shouldn’t we expect it to be the case that we don’t understand everything perfectly? Shouldn’t we expect to be . . . human? After all, if mysteries did not exist, we would know everything. We would be omniscient – gods, even. But it is obviously not the case that we are omniscient or divine. For us, mysteries are inevitable.

We are embodied creatures whose understanding of the world is derived largely from our senses. How we think about things is fundamentally limited. We see, hear, smell, taste, and touch a four-dimensional world. That is it. We struggle in vain to imagine imagine anything but a four-dimensional world – even though our world may not even be four-dimensional. Even within the confines of my four-dimensional worldview, I can’t imagine the echolocation of dolphins or the sound-color synæsthesia of my friend Gio. Echolocation and synæsthesia are, in a sense, mysteries to me; I can ascertain certain facts about them (e.g., how they may correspond to certain neurological states of affairs in delphine brains), but little more. Obviously, that is hardly justification to deny their existence! But God is far more different from me than dolphins or synæsthetes. Thus, I should not only accept a mysterious God, but expect a mysterious God. A God Who is not mysterious – Who is somehow circumscribed by our impoverished imagination – is no God at all. Asking God to explain Himself fully would be like asking a dolphin to explain echolocation. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Of course, this isn’t just true from a Christian perspective. The fact of the matter is that every belief system – including metaphysical naturalism – has mysteries. (Trust me, quantum mechanics is mysterious.) If someone tells you that his belief system has no mysteries, he is either God or a liar.

The difference between Christianity and some other belief systems (such as the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) is that Christianity is operating with entities and substances that really should be mysterious. God may not exist, but if He does, we surely cannot understand Him completely. Belief in God is belief in the Transcendent – and the Transcendent is, well, transcendent. When God declares that His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:9), He is saying something rather obvious. How could God’s ways not be higher than our ways?

The real mystery, to me, is the current popularity of the idea that “Science” will someday answer all our questions – the idea that there someday will be no mysteries. Even if modern physics didn’t have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, this much trust in human reason would still be woefully misplaced. After all, according to the scientists, we are glorified apes who arose from random processes and are ultimately no different from any other organism. If that is the case, what grounds can there be for idealizing our cognitive faculties? If anything, we should be astounded by the (relatively feeble) capacity for abstract thought we actually have. In a way, the most interesting thing about biology is biologists – organisms capable of studying themselves systematically. That minds arose from mindlessness – that truly is a miracle. (In fact, I have difficulty imagining that our current capacity for abstract thought could have developed without divine intervention. I am boggled when I think about the sheer brainpower that went into something like Gödel’s incompleteness theorems or Debussy’s Clair de lune. I concede that prehistoric Man probably benefitted from basic arithmetic – but whence the leap from multiplication tables to this?)

For me, reality ends up being much less mysterious with God than without Him. I may not entirely understand the Trinity (for example), but I see no reason why I should be able to understand it entirely. Moreover, I see no real rationale for believing that the conjunct of spatiotemporally bound matter and energy we call the “universe” could have come into being on its own. In the eyes of science, at any rate, the universe remains very much a mystery; as (agnostic) Robert Jastrow writes, “Science has proven that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks, what cause produced the effect? Who or what put the matter and energy in the universe? Was the universe created out of nothing, or was it gathered together out of pre-existing materials? And science cannot answer these questions.”

In the end, I must agree with Chesterton: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

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