Mystery is indefinable. If we could explain it rationally, it wouldn’t be mystery. If our words could encompass it, it wouldn’t be mysterious. It’s harder to explain what mystery is than to identify what it is not. Mystery is not religion, and it is not theology. It is not God, nor is it an attribute of God. It is a state of being in which we recognize our own limits and the vastness of what lies beyond those limits. It can be perceived, but not by the senses. It can be known, but not by the intellect.
When I returned to God, I was fascinated by theology, and I still am. But the deeper I go into the mystery of God, the more apparent the limits of theology become. Theology is full of deep insights and profound speculations, but it is largely a product of the mind.
Theologians try to understand God. They use their minds to probe the nature of God, and when they find mystery, they often dismiss it. The greatest theologians, I think, are those who acknowledge the existence of mystery and the limitations of their own understanding. God is much larger than theology, or anything else humans do.
Theology can do a great deal of harm when it presumes to understand God’s intention in the world. Consider the damage done by our Puritan ancestors’ concept of the Wrath of God. Most Christians, even today, live out of a theology of sin and atonement that places our sins at the center of God’s attention. But who are we to make presumptions about God’s concerns?
Even to say that God is love and that God’s primary attitude toward creation is an attitude of love is a presumption. It’s one I make, but I make it remembering that it is a presumption. It’s based on the non-rational, non-sensible, non-logical knowing that is somewhere in what I call my soul, my essential being – but it is personal to me, and not a picture of God.
To recognize mystery is to live in the awareness of God’s presence, whether we call that presence God or not. Throughout human history, religious traditions have included those who seek that awareness and long to be transformed by it. Persons of any religious tradition or no religious tradition at all may seek that transformation that changes our lives and brings us into harmony with all that is.
Because theology operates on the level of the mind, it can (and often does) miss the connectedness and harmony that exist on a level not open to the mind. When we focus on understanding, we’re relying on reason and shutting out other ways of knowing. I can’t prove that I am part of a vast network of all that ever was or will be, that with all its flaws and failures is still fundamentally good. But I know it.