Mystery & Humility

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The great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Étienne Gilson, wrote these words about the world’s greatest minds trying to make sense of God:

“The divine Being eludes the grasp of our concepts. There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to Him. Every denomination is a limitation, but God is above all limitation, and therefore above all denomination no matter how exalted it may be” (Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 1936, 56.).

His statement is not at all controversial. God “eludes the grasp of our concepts.” Do any of us really believe we know everything about God? Do we believe any of our categories or concepts are sufficient? There is so much mystery in play anytime human beings speak or even think about God.

We’ll all acknowledge this. But in my experience, our acknowledgement of the mystery of God does not usually come with the humility that ought to accompany such an acknowledgement.

If God is indeed mysterious, then why are we not more humble about our limited perspectives?

Gilson says that every denomination is a limitation. Isn’t that so? Denominations are not inherently bad. But they are inherently limited. At the heart of every denomination is the insistence that God is like this, not like that. Differentiation is good, categorization is helpful, and absolute truth exists. To be human is to be limited. To form a denomination is to embrace specific limitations. This is not the problem. The problem is our tendency to take the box we draw around our denomination or camp or position and then insist that the box accurately represents God is his fullness.

There is mystery when we talk about God! Does this not require us to be humble in our statements about God? Should we not acknowledge the limitations of our perspectives? Should we not be open to hearing others speak about God in ways that sound foreign to us?

Many of our denominations are good. None of them is sufficient.

Think of the people who are part of your church. You worship and serve regularly with people who hold a variety of views about who God is and what he does. God is bigger than what any one of you thinks about him.

But what about the person in your church with whom you have firm theological disagreements? Or the person in the other church or denomination whose theology you can’t accept? Is it true that “there is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God?” I’m not suggesting we treat wrong as right. I don’t endorse going against God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. I’m suggesting that our understanding of God is limited, and that perhaps we should view each other in this light.

“There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God.” – Étienne Gilson

Gilson goes on to say that “the only adequate expression of God would be God.” I love that. Anytime we break down some part of God and try to explain him, we’re inherently mistaken—not necessarily through inaccuracy, but through incompletion.

Flannery O’Connor said this about writing fiction: “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” (Mystery & Manners, 73). She quotes John Peale Bishop: “You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.”

In other words, we have a tendency to want to summarize art, but it doesn’t work like that. She says: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making a statement about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully” (96).

When speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” – Étienne Gilson

What Flannery O’Connor says about art also (mysteriously) applies to God. As Gilson says, when speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” This is okay, because this is the way God has designed it. What’s not okay, however, is when we discard the humility that necessarily accompanies mystery. When we do this, we’re not being theological, or helpful, or godly, or biblical, or faithful. We’re being jackasses.

Mark has been serving in pastoral roles for over 15 years. After a decade in various teaching and administrative roles at Eternity Bible College, Mark now works with Ryan as an associate pastor in Sacramento, California. His books include Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music and the New York Times bestseller Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, which he co-authored with Francis Chan. This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. There are costs associated with running the blog. These links help to cover overhead.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this Mark, it is really helpful! I personally am challenged by your call to “humble [my] statements about God” in regards to the “person in your church with whom [I] have firm theological disagreements… Or the person in the other church or denomination whose theology [I] can’t accept.”

    Any tips for how to get angry or frustrated with the types of christians who would disagree with a post like this? That is to say someone who believes their way is better than all others and sees humility as a weakness and mystery as something unbiblical? Someone who wants to write off anyone who would disagree with them? I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated with this type of person (or this attitude when it surfaces in others and myself), and also find it very hard to speak truth to them. I also am tempted to just write them off myself, and sometimes wonder if that would be best for my own sanity!

    • Kevin, obviously I’m not Mark, but your dilemma is one I completely relate to. It’s hard not to get embroiled in contentious debate with people that you feel are “obviously wrong” and will not give ground. I’ll give you an abbreviated version of what works for me. Take it or leave it.
      Perspective and humility. If there is one thing God has pounded into me over the years it’s that it’s ok to be open to the possibility that 1) I don’t know and 2) I could be wrong. Be at peace with that. If I today were to approach the me of 10-15 years ago I would probably find it almost embarrassing about the stuff I was dogmatic about. To say God has changed my mind and mindset is an understatement. So I then realize that the best way to approach my old self would have been to first have an authentic relationship that lends credibility to any conversations about anything important. The same holds true with others. It’s not worth a conversation that won’t stay civil if there’s no credibility that garners an open mind to your ideas.
      Then listen to them. Many times you can understand why someone believes what they believe by listening to them. And ask questions. Don’t give all the answers and be that guy. Ask them contemplative questions. At first they might be questions to help you understand where they are coming from. Then ask questions that create contemplation about their position and yours. This should be done in a non attacking manner, and the questions should be phrased in that way.
      Be ready to walk away in peaceful disagreement. It’s ok to disagree. We all do about something. If you really care about them and this specific position is that important then the authentic love for them should continue to give you credibility.
      Finally, for me, I have come to the conclusion that nobody has cornered the market on all of God’s truth. I’m undoubtedly wrong about something theological even today, I just don’t know what yet. But the desire of Jesus is unity in the Body of Christ. I can disagree and still be unified with true believers. We can still live on mission together for God’s glory. In fact, I think doing that is even more of a testament to the love that God wants us to display to a world that needs Him.
      Yeah that’s the abbreviated version that’s been working for me. Sorry it’s not actually short.

      • Well said, Seth! I especially like the part about approaching the me of 10-15 years ago. I can more easily guess how I would have reacted to the approach I plan to give today. That will help temper my reactions to responses I anticipate receiving from a person similar to the dogmatic past-me.

    • Sorry for the super delayed response here, Kevin. Good question. And good answers from Tony and Seth. I really don’t know the answer. That’s obviously what we’re trying to do with jackasstheology.com, and I’ll saying that just naming it like this has opened a lot of healthy conversations with people on the web and within our own church. Something about using this terminology has invited a lot of conversations about the difference between a jackass and someone standing firm on the truth. It has brought the biblical emphasis on love and unity to the forefront, and it’s been really cool to see people respond to that.

      The craziest part of it for me is that a lot of what I’m writing is directed at me now (to some extent) and to me not too long ago (to a large extent). I’m not sure all of what has helped to soften me, but I think mainly it’s been loving relationships with people who I could clearly see took Scripture seriously and loved Jesus above all else. When you have a real person talking to you who obviously values Scripture pushing for love and unity, it’s disarming because you can’t claim that they’re just trying to get people to like them. That invited me to take deeper looks at Jesus in the gospels and at the rest of the Bible and see how much love and unity are emphasized.

      But I really do believe a ton of it is just the Holy Spirit working in each of our hearts. We have to be faithful to love and pray and be patient, but the Spirit does the real work in his own time.

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