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God, the mystery of the world

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 31 July 2017

I have been reading the marvellous novels of Richard Ford: the Frank Bascombe quartet. They are unlike Updike in their lack of explicit sex, but like Updike in that they plot the progress of the unmoored middle-class American male floundering around in a nation dedicated to their happiness. There is a lot of disconnection and plenty of dread and angst. Frank Bascombe is Updike's Rabbit Angstrom.

The theological that exists in these novels exists in disguise. Most of the references to Christianity and the Church are negative but every now and again Ford strikes theological pay dirt. One such occasion occurs when his lodger, an African candidate for the ministry who attends the local seminary, says the following: "Einstein believed in God…There is a clear line of logic. You should come to the discussions." Frank replies that he is "afraid of using up mystery."

This is extraordinary because Frank knows that this sort of rationalism is no basis for faith but rather the enemy of it. Such arguments are examples of evidence gleaned from the natural world or from human rationality that are imposed on a tradition that knows them not. Frank declares that he is on the side of mystery.


Commenting on the staff of a Liberal Arts college at which he teaches a semester he muses: "Real mystery – the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book – was to them a thing to dismantle, distil and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves." The spirit of these academics is alive and well in our universities and even in our seminaries. It is all too common for academics to live off the deconstruction of texts, the attribution of all human action to the pursuit of power or identity politics or cultural construction. These are the modern enemies of mystery and art that cannot live without it.

Frank is a short story writer, failed novelest, successful sportswriter and finally real estate agent who protests at the reduction of mystery. This mystery is not the kind that exists at the edge of knowledge, as if gaining more knowledge would resolve it. This mystery is not the knowable unknown like the frequency response of inner hair cells in the mammalian cochlea (please excuse the personal plug). It is an openness to questions that lie at the heart of our humanity, who are we, why are we here, what is the point of human life? These questions will not be assuaged by the limp and idealistic and anodyne answers of our day: "to make a difference", "to leave the world a better place".

Of course, evidence is important when you are writing history, researching a physical mechanism, diagnosing an illness or analysing the world of politics. However, in even the most exact science, we are aware of approaching mystery, since explanation exists in an endless regression. We never reach a final reduction. The very real personal danger of studying and working in natural science is that it is assumed that all is mechanism and thus all can be explained. It seems that the goal of natural science is to chase mystery out of our lives. I suggest that those embarking on a scientific career should do some theology first in order to define what their subject is capable of and what it is not. In this way, many scientists would escape hubris.

Frank is right when he says that mystery is the only reason to read or write a book. We could extend that to the production of any work of art. For what does all art do but to approach the unspeakable, the ultimately mysterious?

Israel had a word for God that was unspeakable. Whenever readers of Scripture saw the tetragrammaton YHWH in a text they read "lord" or "the name". When God appeared before Moses out of the burning bush and Moses asked his name, God replied "I am who I am" a pun on the word YHWH. Thus, the person of God was recognised to be hidden in deep mystery or, as some would have it, in "unapproachable light." This finally robs the atheists of their target.

While it is appropriate to acknowledge that to have to do with God is to have to do with mystery, a reality that we cannot by our own powers approach, our considerations cannot end there. The opening of the first Letter to John illuminates the point:


"We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life -"

The evangelist reports an experience. But this experience does not dispel the mystery of God, it does not nail him down and reduce him to rubble. Rather, it is as though God has passed us by in the person of Christ and we are left with radiance. In the gospels Jesus was handed over to men and women who pushed him out of the world, only to find that his presence persisted. He had escaped from their hands. He also escapes from the elaborate books of the atheists who similarly want to push him out of the world and who are dismayed that men and women still believe. He will also escape from the moralists who want to set everything in concrete for eternity and the fundamentalists who look for evidence.

The experience of God is not an exclusive option of the religious. We all encounter grace in our lives, those experiences that are pure gift that release us from our burdens and fill us with joy and wonder. These experiences are mysterious, we do not understand where they come from. It is tempting for Christians to limit these experiences to the experience of Christ. The Church points to Christ, as does the quotation above, not exclusively, but as the prime example of the experience of God after which all of the other experiences are a pattern.

Having said the above, we must recognise that our unsought experiences of God, by definition, cannot be appropriated. Any attempt to summon them up will fail because they are connected to mystery and like the Spirit, they have a life of their own and will blow where they will. In an increasingly "can do" world this is anathema because we have little use for patient waiting.

It is the function of Christian worship to put us in the way of grace. While a disciplined and beautiful enactment of the Eucharist should be the solid foundation of worship, we seem to be on less certain ground with preaching. I have found that I am more effected by a sermon that may be halting in delivery, slightly disordered but which betrays the preacher's struggle to be faithful to the text and faithful to God. The clever, the amusing, the sentimental and the slick have no place in preaching. After all, the preacher is dealing with mystery, dealing with things unspeakable and hidden. If the readings do not shake the preacher to his or her bootstraps then the congregation will not be shaken. The sermon may be entertaining, even scholarly and wise but it will not be the Word of God that creates things out of nothing. To preach is to be terrified because we are dealing with the ultimate mystery.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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