Westminster Abbey in London is one of the few places in the world that doesn't disappoint. The main part of Westminster is the cathedral: an enormous, basilica-style monastery of Gothic architecture that leaves one with a breathtaking vision of the height and depth of, if not God, at least of the worshipers' concept of God.
With the sheer amount of space between the floor and soaring vaults, from the back of the nave to the altar, as well as the complicated artistry on every wall and window, you find yourself awed by everything that speaks of the unimaginable greatness of God. You have a peculiar sense that God is very present and yet not altogether accessible. This is not an unpleasant experience; on the contrary, you realize that your idea of God has probably been domesticated and confined.
We might refer to such an experience as mystical, although the term is commonly associated in the Western mind with something that is highly subjective and meant for only the few. This is, however, a stunted definition. In ancient Christian theology, mystical refers to the wonder of the Christian story, the fulfilling of the Father's plan of redemption in Christ, which Paul refers to as the "mystery" (1 Tim. 3:16).Mystical also applied to a number of central elements of our worship of God.
Ambrose of Milan, the 4th-century bishop, declared that our very faith "is the mystery of the Trinity," as is the Lord's Supper and our Lord's baptism, which is our own baptism. John Cassian taught that Scripture too contains the mystery in the form of words, which describe the works of God that are disclosed to human minds only by grace. Because God himself is mystery, we should expect to find throughout the divine text depths and hidden realities that exceed our knowledge. None of these mysteries should be regarded as problems. The distance between creature and Creator is not something to be overcome or removed as if it were an obstacle to growth in the Christian life.
In fact, many of the earliest Christians (especially Greek Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries) contended that the way of spirituality is traversed by entering into a wonderful darkness that is everlasting and infinite. Paradoxically, only as the darkness grows will our knowledge of God grow.
Christians seem caught in a crossfire between the God who is incomprehensible and the God who has revealed himself. On one hand, the apostle Paul prays for believers that "… the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better" (Eph. 1:17). Likewise, the Gospel of John places a strong emphasis on why Christ has revealed the Father: "… that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father" (10:38). "No one has ever seen God," says the introduction to the Gospel, "but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (1:18).
At the same time, the church has always recited these words of the psalmist—"[Your] knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain" (Ps. 139:6; cf. Job 36:26)—and these of Paul: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord?" (Rom. 11:33-34).
Like many important points of theology, the knowledge of God and the unknowable God have produced a balancing act that historic Christianity has sought to preserve. As a result, Christianity has struggled since the 3rd century to avoid what theologian Jaroslav Pelikan called a "tyranny of epistemology" in its understanding of God and God's revelation to us. Simply put, this tyranny occurs when Christians think of God as a great field of investigation, a problem to be solved. Ephrem the Syrian, a poet from the 4th century, spoke to this struggle when he wrote:
Let us not allow ourselves to go astray
and to study our God.
Let us take the measure of our mind,
and gauge our thinking.
And as for our knowledge, let us know how small it is, and
Too contemptible to scrutinize the Knower of all.
In a fascinating, little-known book titled The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa attempts to present an anatomy of Christian spirituality, which he says is a movement from light to darkness. Gregory was a late-4th-century theologian best known for his biblical commentaries and his defense of Nicene orthodoxy. As a theologian, he was very aware of those in his day who claimed to have a rational knowledge of God that violated the very essence of God. Such people asserted that if you know descriptions for God's essence, you could intellectually grasp the being of the Divine. In response, Gregory wrote, "How can our mind, which always operates on a dimensional image, comprehend a nature that has no dimension?"
His Life of Moses is a commentary on the Book of Exodus, chapters 1-20, with a special focus on how Moses was changed from an Egyptian secular ruler to God's exemplar of virtue. Like many during his era, Gregory fully embraced the notion that the only way to the virtuous life was by imitating great holy men in the Old Testament and in the Christian past. For Gregory, the stages in Moses' life that led him to the top of Mount Sinai provided a blueprint for how the soul was mystically transformed into the likeness of God. This meant "beautifying one's own soul with what is incorruptible, unchangeable, and shares in no evil at all."
Stages In The Christian Journey
As Moses went through stages in his ascent to God, so must we. The first stage Gregory calls "the way of light." This involves our detachment from the love of things and the purification of the soul. One of the hallmarks of early Christians' spirituality is that they took the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 very seriously, especially the one that says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (v. 8). Only by purifying ourselves can we become recipients of divine knowledge. Gregory's expression may be foreign to us, but we would do well to think of acquiring knowledge about God not through purely rational means, as Protestants are wont to do, but by making ourselves a worthy receptacle that can hold such knowledge.
The second stage is illumination, characterized by an awareness of moving from the sensible to invisible realities. One would think that Gregory means progression to greater clarity; however, this is the stage of Moses' journey in which he entered the cloud. If you have ever been in a thick fog, you'll know that it dampens all sights and sounds around you. The cloud blocks all outward appearances, compelling and accustoming the soul to look within. Here we find the image of God and thereby a knowledge of God. But we must not confuse this knowledge of God with knowledge of God as he is. There is only an awareness of God's presence.
The third stage comes from Exodus 20:21, which depicts Moses entering the darkness and seeing God in it: "… Moses approached the thick darkness where God was." What can this mean? In Gregory's words, "Moses' vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses climbed higher and became more perfected, he saw God in the darkness."
Drawing on the language of paradox, Gregory states that Moses saw God, but not with his eyes, "because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility like a kind of darkness." In other words, God cannot be seen by virtue of who he is, for just as John 1:18 states, "no one has ever seen God." The term darkness takes on new meaning, not as mere blackness but rather the kind of darkness you experience when you go deep down into the ocean or high enough in the sky that you leave the atmosphere.
This darkness expresses that the divine nature remains inaccessible because God is infinite; that is, there is no bottom to or end of his being. A writer known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius expresses the wonder of God's depth when he writes, "Trinity! Higher than any being… Where the mysteries of God's Logos / Lie simple, absolute, and unchangeable / In the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence."
It should be obvious, then, that no finite mind can plumb the depths of God. As Gregory puts it, "How can one arrive at the boundary sought for when there is no boundary?" This is the kind of effect Westminster Abbey can have on the worshiper.
Here is where Gregory of Nyssa makes his most noteworthy contribution to Christian theology: that the Christian life must first be defined by seeking God without end, and "that true satisfaction of the soul's desire consists in constantly going on with this quest and never ceasing in the ascent to God." This is a joyful conclusion, since it ensures that one can always progress in holiness because spiritual progress is one of infinite growth. For the Platonist, all change is regarded as a defect or loss; in Gregory's system, the process of changing may be redeemed by perpetual growth in the good. It is this sort of movement that describes our transformation "from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV). However much the Christian is transformed into the likeness of God, God remains ever beyond, so that the soul must always push forward in anticipation in this life and in the one to come.
Virtue In Darkness
How, then, is this last stage of darkness useful for developing virtue? The discovery that drawing nearer to God is a movement into eternal darkness might not sound like good news; in fact, it may be terrifying. Yet there are two approaches to pursuing virtue that we can take following the example of Moses' quest.
The first relates to the Divine Being. Moses learns of the things that must be known about God—namely, that none of the things learned by human comprehension can be ascribed to him. Theologians call this kind of knowledge "apophatic theology." Our knowing God consists of what he is not. This has been a special theme of Eastern theologians going back to Origen of the 3rd century. One certainty of an authentic knowledge of God is how imperfectly we know him.
Second, we must pursue the virtuous life. It begins by emulating those whom God has used to fulfill his purposes of good. This notion dates back to Plato and Plutarch, who wrote of the many "lives" of great men worthy of admiration and imitation. In this same vein, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, "Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages… derived more benefit from the character of Socrates than from his words."
A similar emphasis is found in the Bible: Job is an example of "steadfastness" (James 5:11, ESV); Abraham a model of faith (Heb. 11:11); Jesus sometimes ended his parables with the words, "Go and do likewise" (cf. Luke 10:37); and Paul encouraged the Corinthian Christians to "be imitators of me" (1 Cor. 4:16, ESV). We likewise find this pattern expressed in the early church, in texts such as The Life of Cyprian and especially the famous Life of Antony.
You can't teach virtue by means of words. As 5th-century church historian Palladius wrote at the beginning of his history about distinguished male and female ascetics, "Teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct: cheerfulness, courageousness, bravery, goodness…which generates words like a flame of fire." There was nothing at all abstract about virtue, being found in living examples. Only in this way can we begin the task of moral instruction and spiritual progress.
One primary result of virtue is that of seeing God. Again we remember the beatitude, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." Just as the twin notions of knowing God and the unknowable God cannot be separated, we find the same paradox here. Christians are destined to see the living God who cannot be seen. At one point in Exodus, God says to Moses, "no one may see me and live" (33:20).
Mystical understanding works like this: It's always a mixture of knowledge and ignorance, possession and quest, immanence and transcendence. So, how is it possible to see God? Again we turn to Gregory, who speaks of Moses atop Mount Sinai: "His eyes sharply penetrated the divine darkness and in this way, he was able to contemplate the invisible."
The divine darkness is not the kind of blackness we experience stumbling into an underground room with no lights. This darkness is a positive reality that helps us to discover God, and hence is called "luminous." Although it sounds like a contradiction in terms, a luminous darkness is one filled with God's presence, and by faith, the soul can begin to perceive God in darkness. In fact, the closer that God comes to the soul, the more intense the darkness becomes; it is then that all other things of this world are cleared away. The soul looks up to the Lord and never ceases to desire him. The emphasis in this kind of spirituality falls on "seeing" rather than "knowing."
What we discover, in the end, is that the intellect by itself can never lead anyone to the virtues of the soul. Mere rational knowledge—even about God—does not provide growth or movement toward sharing in the life of God. Some scholars have suggested that Protestantism is built on a Gnostic scheme of a knowledge that saves. This is too extreme. Yet Protestant Christianity's special emphasis on knowing God and God's revelation in a very cognitive sense suggests that its spirituality is too closely tied to a way of knowing God that is best represented by the fact that the sermon, not the liturgy, stands at the center of most Protestant worship services.
A balance between knowledge of God and the unknowable God must be preserved, lest we remake God in our own image, according to our conceptions. Gregory's warning to Christians of his time is a timeless wisdom: When we question God in terms of his being, then it is time to keep silent (as Job was told to do in chapters 38-42); when it is a question of what God does (his actions), then it's time to speak and use words to tell of his deeds.
Ancient writers like Gregory remind us that the door to joyful mystery must be opened. Knowledge, even the knowledge that comes from Scripture, is not undermined but humbled, as it is placed before the vast depths of God. Because God is eternal and infinite, there will never come a time when we've exhausted all that God has to give us; we'll never plumb the depths of the Almighty, but will always find ourselves going deeper in and higher up.
D. H. Williams is professor of patristics and historical theology at Baylor University. He is the editor of Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation: A Sourcebook of the Ancient Church (Baker Academic).
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Previous Christianity Today articles about the mystery of God include:
Reverence for the Mystery | God does not have to answer to us for his ways. (March 3, 2009)
What's the Good News? A Mystery Revealed | Nine evangelical leaders define the gospel. (February 7, 2000)
Incarnating Mystery | Michael Card argues that a proper view of Christ is a key to creativity. (July 10, 2000)
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