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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The Renaissance in Christian Philosophy

I’ve written a guest post for the excellent blog of the Harvard Icthus Journal, the Fish Tank, on the renaissance in Christian philosophy over the past forty years.  Please check it out and share your comments or questions there.  Here’s the intro:

The last forty years have witnessed a renaissance in philosophy done by Christians and applied to important topics in theology and religion.  One reason this is remarkable is that Christian philosophy of religion had nearly been vanquished in the decades between 1920 and 1960, due to the dominance in academic philosophy of the movement known as logical positivism.

This movement and its related “verification principle” insisted that only statements that were either true by definition (all bachelors are unmarried males) or empirically verifiable (helium is lighter than air) could be considered meaningful.  This meant that theological beliefs like “God is love” or “Jesus is Lord” (which couldn’t be empirically verified) were literally without meaning—something akin to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”  Thus philosophical work on religious topics was marginalized and unable to gain a hearing in journals, books, or academic conferences. (continue)

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Recommended Blog – Harvard’s The Fish Tank

I’ve just become aware of this theology blog, which is the blog of the Harvard Icthus: A Journal of Christian Thought.  The content of the journal itself is available online, and the newest issue has some interesting-looking articles like “A Christian View of Propositions” and “An Apologetic for God’s Existence.”

One of the recent posts I especially liked, “Commanded to Love,” makes the excellent point that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor in Scripture can’t be used as a blanket justification for any and all behavior—in this case, homosexual behavior.

The author describes a recent film called The Constant Process about a lesbian Episcopal priest named Susan Russell.

In the film, to defend her position on homosexuality, Susan Russell referred to Mark 12:28-31,  in which Jesus declares the two greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Yet I am unsure as to how loving another person somehow translates into condoning any particular behavior. After all, we are called to love murderers, adulterers, liars, and thieves; that does not mean that murder, adultery, lying, and thievery are not sins. In fact, it would seem that practicing love includes condemning these sins.

1 John 5:3 tells us that love for God is “to obey his commandments.” When we consider this in the context of loving others, it appears that we should assist each other in obeying God’s commandments. In other words, when Christians sin, other Christians should point it out and try to help correct the behavior of their brothers. Hebrews 10:24 tells us to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Jesus even provides a guideline for how to go about doing so in Matthew 18:15-18.

If loving each other means helping each other obey God’s commandments, then our arguments over gay marriage and homosexuality ought to focus on God’s commandments concerning homosexuality. It is a moot point to use the commandment to love each other as justification for any position on homosexuality . . .

Good point.  Unfortunately, many people see “love” as a free pass for any personal choice.  But true love often calls for opposing what is harmful.  “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6).

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