I recently spoke with a friend who had just seen the Grand Canyon for the first time. Articulate and eloquent as she is, she recognized that what she’d beheld was so awe-inspiring, so jaw-dropping that words couldn’t begin to do it justice.
To celebrate a special anniversary, my wife and I flew to Alberta and drove south from Jasper to Banff on a highway through the Rocky Mountains. Years before, I had seen mountains in Germany and Switzerland, but I had never been as close as this road took us. Initially I prattled on about how impressive the mountains south of Jasper were, but the further we drove—past ever higher mountains, with peaks disappearing further and further into the clouds—the less I said. Before we got to Banff, all I could do was gape in awe. My wife had seen these mountains before: she knew what we were going to encounter. She smiled the whole trip, recognizing that sooner or later, the words would stop and wonder would overwhelm me. Together we reveled at what God had allowed us to see and experience.
You don’t need to travel to the Grand Canyon or drive through the Canadian Rockies to have this kind of experience. Try to describe a beautiful sunset or the joy of a young child playing with a puppy or the delight of a delicious taste of food. We can’t pile up words enough to communicate what is right before us. It’s “there,” but we can’t do it justice. We can experience it, but we can’t explain what we’re experiencing.
Something similar happens when we step back and reflect on how we relate to God and God’s ways toward us. We want to have a solid grasp on what we should believe and practice, and we want to pass that on by teaching and preaching to others. But do we ever pause to wonder whether we’re trying too hard to explain what can’t be explained?
I believe those of us who have been raised in the tradition of Western Christianity can learn from our fellow Christians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition how to pause and savor the mystery of our faith.
For the past 1,500 years or so, until the early 20th century, we in Western Christendom didn’t know much about the Orthodox despite sharing with them the Scriptures, the Nicene Creed, the ancient church, and the wisdom of the Church Fathers (a group of ancient Christian theologians). But as the Roman Empire in Western Europe came to an end (sometime in the 400s), communication between the two halves of Christendom broke down. Misunderstandings (and misrepresentations) arose, and a breach occurred, with mutual denunciations in 1054 and then the Fourth Crusade of 1204, when crusaders sent from Western Christendom sacked and destroyed Constantinople, the major center of Orthodoxy. That breach has never fully healed.
The Western and Eastern segments of Christianity went their separate ways without much communication—and even less understanding—between them. The Roman Empire in the East (known to us as the Byzantine Empire) continued for another thousand years, until the mid-1400s. Orthodoxy flourished in the Byzantine Empire and among the peoples it evangelized, but by the late 1400s, Russia was the only Orthodox people group who had not been swallowed up by hostile empires. That changed in the early 20th century when the communist revolution in Russia led to oppression of the Orthodox. Many of them fled to Western Europe and, eventually, to North America. As their scholars began teaching and writing about Orthodoxy, we in the West finally had the opportunity to learn about the faith they had taught and practiced since Christian antiquity.
The Orthodox approach to the Christian faith has been different in some significant ways from the general patterns shared among Protestants and Catholics. In spite of the many disagreements that exist between Catholics and Protestants—and between different Protestant denominations—Western Christians share some fundamental starting points and ask the same kinds of questions even though we come to some sharply different answers. Orthodoxy has a different starting point and asks different questions than we in the Christian West do. And when you ask different questions, you get different answers—still rooted firmly in the Scriptures and the heritage of the ancient church, but coming from different perspectives that offer insights into the Christian faith we share.
One such perspective is revealed in the Orthodox approach to dealing with the mysteries of the Christian faith. We in the Christian West try as hard as we can to explain and articulate as much as we can of who God is and how God relates to us. “Mystery” for us is what’s left over after we have done our darndest to say everything we think we can. We know we can’t really explain it, but we give it our all. And once we’ve exhausted ourselves in the attempt to understand—whether in a discussion or in teaching a catechism class or in preaching—we may acknowledge that there’s still something more that is beyond our knowledge.
Western Christians are obsessed with trying to understand, grasp, analyze, know, explore, and explain the Christian faith. That’s a significant reason why Western Christianity now has more than 40,000 denominations: We argue for and divide over a variety of explanations of doctrine or practice. Almost all those divisions are a result of differences over those explanations. For us, “mystery” is to be solved.
Not so for Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy, mystery is to be celebrated. From the Scriptures that portray the unfathomableness of God (Job 11:7; Ps. 145:3; Ps. 147:5; Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33), to the Church Fathers’ insistence that God’s ways are beyond our abilities to explain, Orthodoxy sees the mystery of who God is and how God deals with us as beyond explanation. So they don’t try to explain it. This doesn’t make them careless about doctrine, of course, but they don’t believe that we Christians, no matter how sanctified or learned about the teachings of Scripture, are up to the task of explaining God and God’s ways. An Orthodox person might respond, “Celebrate the mysteries? Yes! Explain them? Are you kidding?”
Make no mistake: Orthodox Christianity teaches and proclaims the faith and has done so through long centuries of repression. The fact that the Orthodox have managed to hold on to and continue to practice the faith as they have received it from their ancestors back to Christian antiquity is an indication that their approach has worked. They have followed the apostolic summons to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). At the same time they have assiduously avoided attempts to “explain” God or God’s grace to us. That is mystery to be celebrated, not solved—to be gratefully received in faith and wonder, not analyzed by argument and reason.
With this approach, the Orthodox have never had an argument or church split over baptism or the Lord’s Supper. (In Western Christianity, we have had scores of them, with a host of different explanations and lots of splits.) Because Orthodox Christians recognize that God is the one acting in the sacraments, and God’s ways are beyond our comprehension, they don’t attempt to explain the eucharistic declarations “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” or what Scripture means when it calls baptism “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). How that is accomplished is up to God, who is faithful. What God promises, God will do. Faith is believing those promises, not trying to explain them.
To Western Christians, who are so used to trying to explain what Scripture says, this may all sound naive or strange. But though the Orthodox communion of roughly between 200 and 250 million people is distinguished through various national churches, it is not divided in teaching or practice.
Kallistos Ware, a revered contemporary leader within Orthodoxy, summarizes this approach to the mystery of faith: “God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” In this he follows the lead of the Church Fathers. Irenaeus of Lyons (second century) said, “God cannot be measured by the heart, and he is incomprehensible by the mind.” In the fourth century Gregory Nazianzen taught, “The divine nature cannot be apprehended by human reason, and we cannot even represent to ourselves all its greatness.” Meanwhile Gregory of Nyssa (also fourth century) declared, “He who transcends the universe must surely transcend speech.” Awe and wonder are the appropriate response to God and God’s glory; lots of explaining words, not so much.
How God deals with us in grace is also beyond our intellectual grasp, according to Orthodoxy. We can celebrate it but not comprehend it. “As his greatness is past finding out,” Irenaeus taught, “so also his goodness is beyond expression.” This encompasses all God’s mercies toward us, as John of Damascus (eighth century) confessed: “All the things of God are above the natural order and beyond speech and understanding.”
I am not suggesting that we Western Christians need to scrap all our attempts at understanding doctrine or the sacraments. But perhaps we need to rein in our propensity to explain or understand what must, after all, remain beyond our grasp. If words can’t do justice to the Grand Canyon, the Canadian Rockies, a sunset, or a child’s joy in playing with a puppy, maybe we Western Christians, who delight so much in explanation, can back off a bit. Maybe we can drink in anew the wonder of who God is and rest secure in God’s love for us.
Perhaps the next time you are in a Bible study or listening to a sermon, take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line on it. On one side, write “explanation” and on the other, write “mystery.” For every word you hear that fits with explanation (“comprehend,” “explain,” “understand,” “instruct,” “figure out,” “grasp”), make a mark; do the same on the “mystery” side (“wonder,” “mystery,” “awe,” “beyond us,” “amazement”). Then count them up and see where we really put our emphasis. Perhaps you’ll discover that we would do well to make more room in our piety, our preaching, and our teaching for sheer delight in the mystery of God and God’s ways.
If, as Irenaeus taught, “The sublimity and greatness of God is beyond the power of expression,” we can give ourselves over to less feverish attempts to explain God and make more room for wonder, silence, and praise, joining our Orthodox brothers and sisters in celebrating the mysteries of God.