48 Living with mystery – beyond words


Mystery is one of those words that is incredibly useful when talking about the Christian faith.  Or perhaps I should say that it is particularly useful to Christians who do not want, or expect, their grasp of the faith to be tightly defined by words and concepts.  It is a word that allows flexibility, room for movement and the prospect of change and growth.

As part of my personal background in the church, I can mention here that I spent ten months studying the Orthodox church in Greece in the 1960s.  It was not an easy period to be in Greece as the country was going through some difficult political upheavals.  In charge of the government were a group of army officers, claiming the hand of God for their ultra right-wing political ideals.  This political scenario had the effect of preventing me making contact with some otherwise important individuals for fear, on their part, that association with a foreigner might endanger them in some way.

Nevertheless, the exposure to Orthodoxy was an important part of my Christian formation.  Many of the theological debates of the West, such as the debates between Catholic and Protestant, simply never travelled east.  The theological controversies they live with tended to be much older – the debates of Ecumenical Councils for example.  These Councils belong to the first eight centuries of the Christian era.  None of the English speaking Orthodox theologians that I met were able to make much sense of the things that divide Christians in the West.

The word ‘mystery’ is of course a Greek word.  Its root is a verb, which means to be silent.  Behind the word is the memory of a very different way of doing religion, the so-called mystery religions.  In these pagan mysteries, the worshipper was initiated by seeing a drama enacted in a context of highly charged emotion.  There is a lot we do not know about these mysteries as they were secret, even then.  But the Orthodox took from these pagan mysteries one central thing.  They understood that worship was about participation in the transcendent through seeing a sacred drama.  The typical Orthodox church is filled, top to bottom, with lights, paintings and icons.  The drama in the Orthodox liturgy is of course the representation of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  The worshipper is a witness and participant in this drama.  The receiving of the elements enables the worshipper to be every Sunday, in some way, a contemporary of the Gospel events.  Time can be collapsed in this way so that all that is contained in the ‘saving’ events of the Passion and Resurrection can be made accessible in the here and now.  This is one of the undergirding insights and principles of Orthodox worship.  This idea may sound novel even to those who have studied Orthodoxy but it is my subjective reading and understanding of what I saw in Orthodoxy at its very best.  But as with everything else, the day to day reality of Orthodoxy was often rather grubby, with over-politicised bishops and some poorly educated, even ignorant clergy.

To return to the word with which I started – mystery.  It allows a Christian to admit that there is a lot that they simply do not understand and certainly cannot put into words.  It allows for an approach to faith which honours silence and beauty.  These are things that do not require articulation in logical structure or concepts.  The Western approach to theology, in contrast, likes its theology wrapped up in tightly defined packages.  This would be true in both Catholic and Protestant circles.  Definitions of God are so much easier to police and heretics easier to spot if you have your faith defined in statements that are logically coherent.

Why do I write about mystery in a blog that is dedicated to the subject of Christian abuse?  The answer is that talking the language of mystery allows us to escape the tyranny of words.  Many Christians, in defending their theological positions, batter other Christians with the accusation that they are not using the right words.  We spoke in an earlier blog about the energy with which some Christians defended the doctrine of ‘substitutionary atonement’  In the doctrinal definitions that are compulsory for Christian Union leaders to sign there are strict words that define the ‘correct’ position to hold.  I am not here arguing for words to have no place in Christian doctrine.  I would want, however, to maintain that theological definitions are only useful up to a point.  Beyond that point we all have to live with approximation and even guess-work as to the nature of reality.  When Christians accuse one another of not using the right words, then there is often a failure of love and imagination as well as an inappropriate use of power to enforce the will of one person over another.

‘No one has seen God at any time.’  This statement undergirds what we mean by mystery.  Mystery implies a tentative seeking after truth in order to find a reality that goes beyond words, concepts or formulations. In a church that fully understands mystery, there will be fewer witch hunts to enforce orthodoxy and intolerance towards those who think differently.  Let us learn deeper tolerance and better ways of listening to others.  In this way there will be less reason for Christians ever to want to shout others down for holding ‘incorrect’ beliefs.  Ecumenism, true ecumenism, might be a pilgrimage towards truth, bringing the insights we already have but recognising that we will together discover much that has not yet been revealed.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “48 Living with mystery – beyond words

  1. I have seen people destroyed by words, they are deadly, very deadly tools in the wrong hands. St John says, “God is love” ( 1 John: 4-8), if that is so then we have a lot to hope for. Love is the greatest mystery there has ever been. It brings peace. I hope, I pray that my fellow victims will come to know that peace. Peace, Chris Pitts.

  2. Another quotation, if you’ll forgive me? In John Spong’s book ‘Why Christianity must change’, he says this: ‘The time has come for the Church to invite its people into a frightening journey into the mystery of God and to stop proclaiming that somehow the truth of God is still bound by either our literal scriptures or our literal creeds’.

  3. On Friday afternoon we had the lovely annual service for the Women’s World Day of Prayer. This event which has a long history is a global and crucially an interdenominational expression of (often lay) women’s spirituality which both men and women are welcome to attend. Each year Christian women of a different country are tasked with producing a service for use around the whole world, and this year it was the women of Egypt.

    We had a most beautiful service lovingly prepared and hosted in the Methodist chapel. The theme was “Streams in the Desert”. The spiritual theme of water, as you also suggest with your picture here.

    I see this blog as recognising and naming the wasteland, wilderness or desert that is so much of institutional Christianity, especially the parts that tip into serious abusiveness. I see you sending your writing into that desert as a stream of living water hoping to reach those who are crying out for thirst to have their suffering acknowledged and released. Escaping the tyranny of definitions and allowing space for the mystery is such an important part of it.

    I thought of you all very much during the WWDP service, when we sang this great new hymn by Jan Berry (tune as in “What a Friend we have in Jesus”)

    In the questions without answers,
    in the truth we seek to find,
    God is calling us to journey,
    leaving certainty behind.
    In the thirst for peace and justice,
    in the struggle to be free,
    God is off’ring living water,
    freshly poured for you and me.

    In the energy of living,
    breaking bounds of church and place,
    God is naming all things holy,
    making earth a sacred place.
    In the shaping and the sharing,
    in the finding common ground,
    God is off’ring living water,
    flowing out to all around.

    In the cross of loving mystery,
    In the mix of tears and joy,
    God embraces and enfolds us,
    with a hope death can’t destroy.
    In the silence and the waiting,
    in the anger and the prayer,
    God is in the living water,
    depth of life for all to share.

    With regard to worshipers witnessing in and participating in a liturgy which collapses time into eternity, you remind me of the fascinating work of Margaret Barker and her temple theology research, which suggests how the Hebrews of the first temple were doing something very much like that, especially for example in their great festival of the atonement.

  4. James – a good quote, ‘frightening journey into the mystery of God’. I shall ponder that one. I heard Spong speak in Edinburgh four or so years ago. Haiku, I love your hymn. I love the line ‘in the mix of tears and joy’. It would seem that tears are never far away when reality and mystery are touched. Joy is also present in many expressions of tears. I have a blog post at the back of my mind on the topic of tears. I shall quote the 11th cent Greek father Symeon who said ‘never take communion without tears.’ There is something to be unpacked here ……!

  5. ” God not bound by literal scriptures or creeds”
    I’m presuming that James knows of no road map for the soul like ‘divine tradition’ or inspired text? I simply ask then from the position of a rank outsider; how do we know that God is Love? I ask that question also for all the people from whose ranks I am proud to have come.

    Chris Pitts

  6. hi Chris
    I think yours is a very real question, “how do we know that God is Love”? People may have lots of different answers, and one person might have several answers. My number one answer is that I see Love most clearly in Jesus, and he tells me he gets it from God.

  7. Thanks haikusinenomine, Cosmic answer! I like it, Solid man solid!
    Dylan once said “You should never try and figure out a happening just dig it”
    Chris Pitts

  8. Chris, it’s perhaps dangerous to comment further on your superb question, in view of the fact that Haikusinomine has given the perfect answer! However, I think ‘God is love’ shows when we consider creation. How could we have such a messy world? How could we have a world in which people are free to abuse others? Only because love, by definition, can only be freely given. If it’s not freely given, it’s not love but something else. I do find guidance in the Bible, but only if I START from the position that God is love. St Augustine said that any interpretation of the Bible that spread hate was illegitimate and that if there are several possible interpretations, we are required to choose the most compassionate one. If only everyone would approach the Bible that way.

  9. Thanks James, Thank you for seeing the importance of this question.
    The love of God cannot be less than human love is, it has to be so much more! I still feel a bit of a Eunich in relation to experiencing it but, one day maybe?

    Sincerely, Chris

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