Recently I attended a symposium on Interreligious Dialogue. The keynote speakers were all excellent, with a single exception. One speaker suggested that one of the problems with Christianity is that it still contains too many elements that are unacceptable to the critical mind. Christianity, he said, should either expunge or simply ignore those elements within it that cannot be understood and explained satisfactorily in purely rational terms; for example, original sin, Jesus’ death as an expiation, the virgin birth, and the concept of the resurrection.
“Who can believe these things?” he argued. “Intelligent people, critical minds, will invariably reject those beliefs!”
G.K. Chesterton once said, “Learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again.” He should counsel this man. Perhaps the worst temptation any theology can succumb to is the temptation to reduce mystery, to ignore, expunge, or tone down those parts of its tradition that cannot be explained or conceptualized rationally or given satisfactory expression in critical language: “If I can’t think it, picture it, or speak about it rationally, then it’s either myth or nonsense!”
The end result of this is that God gets reduced to the size and shape of our own intelligence and imagination, not a very happy or long-range prospect. Any God who isn’t more intelligent, more powerful, and more enterprising than we is not worth believing in, nor is any religion that doesn’t go beyond our imagination. Faith, if it is to have any depth and sustain us for long, has to ground itself, precisely, in something beyond our own imaginations and our own powers.
God, by definition, is ineffable. Right off the top, that already tells us that everything we can imaginatively picture or rationally say about God is inadequate. There’s a Christian dogma to that effect. In 1215, the church defined dogmatically that all our concepts and language about God are more inaccurate than accurate, more inadequate than adequate, and speak more about how God is different from us than similar.
In the light that, what’s to be said about those things within our faith that we can’t picture or explain rationally? Happily, we should state precisely that they are beyond us, mysteries, wondrous realities that make God worth believing in.
We need to be humble about language. All talk of the sacred is limited by our imaginations and our language. We are finite creatures trying to picture and talk about the infinite; an impossible task, by definition. We have no way of picturing the infinite or of adequately speaking about it. The finite mind runs out of room at a certain point; for example, “What’s the highest number that can be thought of?” The infinite can’t be conceived and God is infinite.
Knowing that, doesn’t weaken my faith: I believe deeply in the reality behind our religious language, namely, the existence of a Trinitarian God, the goodness of that God, the divinity of Christ, the need for salvation through divine sacrifice, the fact of the resurrection, and the promise of God as the only real basis for hope, among many other things. But I’m under no illusion that our language about those realities (including the language of scripture, the creeds, and the dogmas of the church) is meant to be taken literally, like a video-tape. Rather that language puts me in touch with those realities, it lays out some boundaries within which I should stay if I don’t want to stray from the truth, and it stretches my intellect and heart beyond their normal resting places; but it doesn’t give me video-taped images or rational pictures of the reality of God or of spirit. I’m well advised not to take that language too literally, even as I’m equally well advised not to ever throw it away. It’s inadequate, but it’s all we have.
I like Annie Dillard’s comment on this:
“The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as if they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it at any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
Never assume that religious language is anywhere near adequate; albeit it’s useful. No theology, however good, gives you a picture of God. Good theology helps you know something that you can’t think or picture. The heart knows things that the mind cannot picture and our experience is full of a richness for which we never find adequate words. Thank God for that. That’s the heart of faith.