Living (Not Solving) the Mystery  

Posted by Kenny and Lora Payne

Mystery. The very word seems like an invitation. Paul speaks of mystery as if it is a marvelous thing – a way of entering into the purposes of God. For Paul this long awaited mystery is simple to state, if not to comprehend – it is Christ in you. (Colossians 1:27 NIV)

Those in the wake of the restoration movement in North America probably have a love/hate relationship with mystery. We crave to be engaged in the mystery that is God, yet we long to “solve” the mystery and settle into certainty. In Bible class as a child I gladly entered into the mysterious world of the Bible – hearing stories that quite simply baffled the imagination and pushed the edges of credibility. I was much like the little boy in the following story…

A child leaves Sunday school and is asked by his grandmother what he learned in class. He said, “The story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt.” When grandmother asked for details, the little boy continued. “Well, they got to the edge of the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army hemmed them in. So Moses called in the Israeli Air Force to lay down some cover fire and the Navy to send boats for a rescue.” Surprised the grandmother asked, “Is that really what they taught you in class, son?” The little boy replied, “Well, that’s not exactly what they said, but if I tell you their version you would NEVER believe it!”

I was taught that God most certainly was a wonder working God – but only back in those days. It struck me as strange that God suddenly changed his operational methods after so many centuries, but I could swallow it because my larger culture denied any activity on the part of God – in the unlikely event that God even existed. It was a bizarre experience to hear people try to explain how God loved to create everything from nothing, to send powerful wonder working prophets, to display his incomparable power in the life of Jesus and his disciples, and then to claim that God suddenly stop doing anything that was detectable by our senses. It made me immediately question whether we should even pray. I was told that God still works “providentially” – whatever that means – to answer our prayers (but just to be safe do not expect too much).

With the next breath I was told that I should read and believe my Bible. And on every page I bumped into outrageous claims about what God had done, was doing and was planning on doing in the near future. I was encouraged by Jesus to have faith, because a person with faith as small as a mustard seed could effectively say to a mountain – “Go throw yourself into the sea” – and it would obey. I was told by Paul that God can do more that I “could ask or imagine.” And I felt a yearning in my heart to develop a “holy imagination” that simply allowed God to be God without trying to get all the answers lined up and codified.

In our fellowship that was a difficult place to sit, because we tried diligently to chart and graph everything – to domesticate God to a size that anyone could understand. The only problem with all those efforts was that God refused to be domesticated. God is a wild, unpredictable and powerful God. All attempts to domesticate God simply end in idolatry. Better to take Scripture at its word and join the journey with the God who calls but is always a mystery to those who answer that call.

This entry was posted on Friday, March 6, 2009 at Friday, March 06, 2009 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

11 comments

thanks for your thoughts. I think you bring up an important thought for us to wrestle with especially for people pursuing a relationship with God in the restoration movement. Growing up there was a sense of read the bible, believe what God says and have faith that Jesus will save. And I think those points are very important and valid but the thing in question is the does this happen immediately or do are we the type of movement that "proclaims" these "truths" and lets a person wrestle with the ideas that we are sharing.

The wrestle with the mystery is something that our movement needs to engage with. I think Peter Rollins said it best when we have to have conception of God but in that same moment we have to lose that conception and realize that God is bigger than that conception. We live in the tangible mysteries that God has given to us and we wrestle with the ones that God lays before us that makes us pursue him even more.

Great points and thanks for sharing.

March 6, 2009 at 12:16 PM

Kenny, I think that describes much of the cognitive dissonance many of us feel in the Postrestorationist conversation. Which can make it hard to relate to God at times, because we want God to make sense, and that's not God's job.

March 6, 2009 at 1:46 PM

I’m new to the restoration movement, recently introduced to it by Adam Ellis. I’m curious about your use of the word “mystery”. Could you expand on that?

On one hand I’m disgusted by the over confident certainty of secularists who assume our ancient stories are rendered useless as it becomes more evident that they didn’t happen. But I’m just as concerned about the blatant dishonesty of pretending everything that was “mysterious” thousands of years ago is still just as mysterious today. I’m concerned that our appeals to mystery are attempts to manufacture gaps that don’t exist in order to hang on to modernity’s “god of the gaps”. I’m concerned that we could be manufacturing mystery and thereby producing another generation of Christians who assume believing in the bible means simply thinking the stories happened. There are plenty of mysteries still out there, and plenty of questions to ask. But I hope we as Christians could be humble enough to admit that many of these old gaps are closed, and POSTmodern faith must be more than declaring a truce between secularism and fundamentalism or agreeing to disagree. I hope something else emerges as we stop telling the stories in a literalistic way that feeds both of those twin byproducts of modernity.

March 8, 2009 at 1:10 PM

Mike,

I think that using mystery as a signifier for an uwillingness to think or push the edge of your imagination is inexcusable. An example of that is when someone claims that God is just shrouded in mystery and we should not even try to understand -"check your brains at the door."
I also think that any claims to have solved the mystery which is God is simply to settle for an idol which will cause a great deal of havoc for our faith.
I noticed on your profile that you enjoy reading Walter Brueggemann - Prophetic Imagination. He has a lot to say about how God is both revealed and concealed in Scripture. That is what I mean by mystery - we know about God from philosophical reasoning (from nothing, nothing comes; something exists, there must be a cause) but mostly from revelation (as a Christian I refer to the Bible). God's revelation is dpendable, but not complete in the sense of telling us everthing we might wish to know about God. The tension created between what we know of God through revelation (and I would claim - through experience with God) and what we do not know about God because it has not been revealed and we are not able to comprehend it even if it were revealed - that is where the mystery lies. Rather than solving the mystery (and moving on the my next project) I want to enter the mystery and live there.

March 8, 2009 at 4:14 PM

Thanks for responding Kenny. I have enjoyed Brueggemann.

I'm not sure how your response helps the little kid make sense of Moses or the inability for reality to live up to our mythical scriptures. I'm not sure how to phrase my question, but I've talked to Adam on several occasions about this, and I must say there is still something that feels disingenuous about the "well, it's a mystery" answer.

March 8, 2009 at 6:53 PM

Phil,

If I understand your concern correctly it has to do with the nistorical claims of Scripture (both those that Scripture makes and those that are made for Scripture by various believers). While I have always struggled with the "inability of (my) reality to live up to our mythical Scriptures" I keep trying to engage more fully with the commands of Jesus to live as one of his followers. While I have yet to command a mountain to go throw itself into the sea, I have seen some incredible things that God has accomplished. I am also passing these stories - both of Scripture and our live together - on to my kids.
Recently I read an interesting book called "The Reason for God" by Timothy Keller. I think it may be helpful to you. I ground my faith in the historical event of Jesus' death and resurrection. I think if that one thing "did not happen" then there is no point to faith. If it did happen, then it changes everything - especially concerning "what is possible."
Thanks for the conversation.

March 10, 2009 at 2:43 AM

Kenny,

Thanks! Your last comment helped me put a finger on the problems I've had with this topic. I'm not a Tim Keller fan, but please let me know if this is where he is heading...

What would change if that one thing did not literally happen? What if it was, like other sacred stories, a midrash on the importance of Jesus' message? Why would that mean there is "no point in faith"? Modernity has plagued us with the notion that a story must have literally happened in order to have any value.

Is there "no point in faith" now that we know the world wasn't created in 6 days or the whole world wasn't literally destroyed by a flood? Modernity's proof that those stories didn't literally happen is what now allows post-modernity to discover and live out their original deeper meanings.

Why do modern people have such a hard time with the idea of following a story (narrative, parable, myth) without making it to be literal, historical, measurable, and provable?

I love the idea of a "resurrection parable". To me, it does change everything, but not about what is metaphysically "possible". It means Christianity is believable, and "really" possible. It might mean the end of Christinsanity. It might mean the end of religious competitions. It probably puts a whole host of preachers out of work, but it also might put all the followers of Jesus to work.

The irony (mystery?) is that by allowing the stories to be exactly what they appear to be (sacred myths), it allows the deeper meanings to become real things we can do. They become the starting point to a life of "realizing our myths" (i.e. making their meanings happen in real life). So instead of that kid trying to grapple with why he can't part water like Moses, he might realize this myth's call to liberate the people who are being oppressed right in front of him. Maybe the kid will hear the gospel of Jesus as a "real possibility" and decide to build communities that resurrect broken lives.

March 10, 2009 at 8:29 AM

Mike,

While I do not take everything in Scripture literally - and I love parables - I don't think the resurrection of Jesus is presented in Scripture as a parable, neither is it intended to be understood in that way.
How do you read Paul's remarks in 1 Corinthians 15 with regard to considering the resurrection as a parable rather than a literal event in history that could be seen and discussed by witnesses?

March 10, 2009 at 2:13 PM

Kenny,

People rarely change their basic metaphysical views. Instead, they interpret experiences through those views. Paul is no different. As a Pharisee who believed in literal physical afterlife, Paul is interpreting Jesus through his own metaphysics. He isn't letting Jesus change his Metaphysics in any way, and I'm not at all sure he is asking anyone else to either. However, his writings do become seeds to the later narratives written about Jesus.

1 Cor. 15 makes it clear that Paul is connecting the dots between his own experience and the Jewish myths about a resurrection of the dead. I see this as a natural argument for a trained Pharisee in the 1st century.

I don't agree with Paul's metaphysics or many other aspects of his science. It makes no sense to assume being christian means adopting the metaphysics of the authors of ancient texts. That doesn't mean I don't agree with Paul. I just don't think that is what makes Paul important and I don't think that metaphysics is what Paul is asking others to accept (even in 1 cor. 15). His metaphysics just comes along for the ride (like it would for any author).

I suspect that Paul, like many Christians "experienced Jesus" long after his death in the stories about him, in one (or more) dream/vision, and also among his community of followers. It seems clear that Paul's 1st century Jewish understanding of the universe shaped his interpretation of these experiences. In fact, I can't really come up with any other possible option for Paul, given his time, place, and religious/scientific understanding. Can you?

The later Gospels are very symbolic (parables), even for literalists! The Gospels narrate Jesus' life into the Jewish tradition. Starting with an escape from genocide myth, to pair Jesus with Moses, and ending in an ascension myth, to pair Jesus with Elijah. It's clear from study of the texts that these stories are added to later versions of the story. It is common Midrash practice to retell a person's life though allegory to established Jewish myths. Almost every scene in the gospels alludes to another scene in Jewish mythology.

What makes you read the gospel stories as historical and are you open to viewing the similar stories from other mythical traditions as historical? How about the other stories with exactly the same details of miraculous birth, healing, resurrection, ascension, etc.?

March 10, 2009 at 6:24 PM

Mike,

I think the Book of Acts and the writtings of Paul are clear that Paul was an enemy of Christianity (despite some similarity of metaphysical worldview - that you pointed out)- seeking to counteract the influence of Jesus, whom he believed was a false messiah and blasphemer.
Something changed Paul and the scriptures tell us that something was an encounter with Jesus. While it was no doubt a visionary experience - for the people with Paul did not get the full vision - it was also a "public" event in real time, not something that was interior to Paul. Paul tells the story repeatedly to explain his conversion.
Paul responded to that vision with a changed life - dedicated to proclaiming the risen Christ. He then speaks of a physical resurrection awaiting those who have faith in Jesus. We are told through historical sources - not Scripture - that he later was executed for his faith.

Paul was, like all of us, a person heavily influenced by his culture in ways he could detect and in ways he never considered - yet it seems he was radically changed by Jesus. Part of that change included a mission to tell the entire world about a risen Savior who wanted to be involved with every person in every culture.

While I think you and I have some serious differences in understanding the story of Jesus, it seems that we agree that Jesus changes everything and that we want others to know that.

I know that I am a work in progress - there is more that I do not know than there is that I know, and I am grateful to you for responding to my thoughts and for expressing your own.

March 12, 2009 at 5:16 AM

Kenny,

Online discussions tend to gravitate toward differences, so I want to state that clearly we agree on so much, including the importance of Jesus and the things we can learn from the bible. It even sounds like we have similar "conclusions" (I don't like that word) and calls of action. I love so much about what you are saying and what this "movement" seems to be about.

Thanks for pointing to particular aspects of Paul's writings and life. That will help. I hear something very different in those passages. I'm fascinated to find out how we got to different points from those same texts. I hope this helps me develop (even change) my views.

First, let me clear up what I meant about Paul not changing his world view. I completely agree that he changed his life and mission, but I disagree that he changed any aspect of his metaphysical understanding. Before his conversion, he was a theist, he believed in afterlife, supernatural interventions, and resurrections of dead people. That was not changed by his conversion. He appears to have interpreted his experiences and the stories he heard through those previously held ancient metaphysical views.

You said, about Paul's conversion, that "...it was also a 'public' event in real time, not something that was interior to Paul". I'm struggling to see that in the scripture. The scriptural account claims that no other person traveling with him had this experience. It WAS internal to Paul. We should also note that the story grew between Paul's account and the more extravagant depiction of the account in Acts. That later account was not written by Paul, but crafted after his death by his followers. Acts is evidently dramatized as any sacred story told for decades then captured in narrative form would likely be expanded. It fits exactly what we might expect from an ecstatic dream/vision experience that is later narrated as a drama. This happens all through scripture with "dreams/visions".

You are right that we are told that Paul was executed for his faith, but it doesn't suggest he was executed for his metaphysical views (his executioners likely had the same views). Faith is not simply "belief". It appears he was more likely executed for his protests against the political powers. I suspect that his "faith" was his willingness to follow on the path of political subversive behavior and for saying things that the authorities didn't like (in similar fashion to Jesus). I can't find historical evidence that Christians were killed because they believed in the possibility of a physical resurrection or even in this particular resurrection. They were killed for disobedience to sociopolitical rules and laws. They were persecuted because of what they thought this resurrection story instructed them to do. This is where the claims of someone like NT. Wright fall apart. It is questionable to suggest (as he does) that the stories must be true since people were killed for believing them to be factual. Nobody got killed or persecuted for belief in God, physical resurrection or afterlife. Many people believed far stranger blasphemous things, but they were not killed or persecuted.

I don't mean to suggest that the resurrection story was not a great motivation and a prime "selling point". It still is today. As Paul says, their preaching attempts were "useless" without this resurrection scene. I agree! It is an important scene.

Thanks again for the dialog.

March 12, 2009 at 12:40 PM

Post a Comment