The Mystery Revealed

A guest to my class on world religions was asked to address the subject of mystery. Being an academic who had spent his life studying the desert fathers I thought a good way to begin the discussion would be to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate notions of mystery. My request that he do this fell flat, as he indicated he had never considered the issue. I had just finished teaching a section on Zen and felt it was important to say what the Christian mystery is not. Having spent 20 years in Japan it would not have occurred to me to presume to teach on the role of mystery without distinguishing its legitimate form and function. My experience with this guest speaker, however, seems to typify a growing phenomenon.

The Church in the U.S. is being inundated with various forms of meditation and prayer (sozo prayer, prayer walks, prayer labyrinths, Christian yoga, etc.). The Bible College where I previously taught mandated use of a book in which images of the Buddha were used to promote meditation – equated with Christian prayer and meditation. Spiritual Formation classes in this college, required by the accrediting association, utilized the works of Richard Foster and Thomas Merton along with forms of prayer and meditation borrowed from eastern mysticism. With the great interest in meditation, the pursuit of various spiritual disciplines and pervasive teaching on spiritual formation, it is imperative to describe the function of mystery in an orthodox Christian understanding. Likewise, it seems important to distinguish between Christian and Gnostic or Buddhist notions of mystery in which the ineffable is the center of the religion. A faith focused on revelation through the Word made flesh is not without its mystery but this mystery is of a very different order than that of the mystery religions.

The place to begin to sort out biblical mystery is to distinguish Jewish religion from the idolatrous religions which surrounded it. While mystery as absence or nothingness is reified and deified in idolatrous religion, Judaism begins and ends with the fact that God has spoken. The usual approach to this, the Jews understood God as transcendent and the idol makes what is properly transcendent immanent, I believe is exactly wrong. The regular theophanies or appearances of God in the Old Testament (walking in the Garden, appearing to Abraham and the Israelites) ensured that God is near. As in the case of the theophany at Sinai, the problem was that God was too near – the Jews preferred not to approach the holy mountain but sent Moses as their representative. The problem of idolatry was not that the idol took that which was transcendent and made it immanent. In fact, as was the case at Sinai, the Jews sent Moses to deal with the presence of God and in the meantime fashioned a golden calf as a means of displacing the God who was suffocating them with his presence. The idol functions to displace God and to put him at a distance. In this sense an idolatrous mystery is an impenetrable absence and negativity (the apophatic as divine). To the degree that the Church, both east and west, has presumed to define the limits of what can be revealed and has set off that which cannot be penetrated the danger is that it is actually the nothingness of the idol that is being deified.

When the Jews finally get this right, it does not dispel mystery but there is the presumption that mystery is not impenetrable. As Huston Smith has described it, what distinguished the Jews was (and is) their passion for meaning. A way of understanding this passion is in terms of a connectedness or engagement – finding meaning with God, creation, human existence, history, morality, justice, suffering, and Messianism. The ground of this connectedness is to be found in God (as person) and in the fact that he has spoken – revelation. This revelation brings meaning to what otherwise was obscure. The Jewish quest for meaning was rooted in their understanding of God as working in history to redeem humankind. The Jews are struggling against a disconnectedness (with all of the above) that can be equated with idolatry.

The very ground of idolatry rests upon the notion that mystery cannot be penetrated by ordinary means. The idol, in its depiction in Scripture, does not make the transcendent immanent; rather the idol is a marker of that which is unattainable (and presumed to be absolutely transcendent). The phallic image in Ezekiel does not offer access to sexual ecstasy but marks what is inaccessible. So too with every idolatrous image – the idol itself does not contain what it offers it only marks an absence. Paul’s conclusion that the idol is nothing is not far from the idolater’s own view of the idol, except that for the idolater it is a reified and absolute nothing (thus the sophisticated Hindu need not resort directly to idols to worship his gods). Here east and west converge in the understanding that nothingness and death are absolute (and it is precisely this mysterious absolute that is undone in Judeo/Christian revelation). The Old Testament picture of how God’s presence is made an absolute absence gets at the danger of worshipping a complete mystery. The image of humans created in and reflecting God’s presence, turned into the image of the idol, contains an infinite reflexive absence.

The Hebrew word for idol (tselem) is the same word referring to the divine image in which humans were created. The meaning of God’s image (as that in which humans were made) cannot be abstracted or removed from God’s relational presence (within the Trinity and with an opening of the Trinity to relation with creation), as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself. God’s image born by man, as evidenced in Christ, has its telos in being united with God. The first couple bore the image inasmuch as they recognized themselves as the children of God (seeing themselves through the eyes of God).

In idolatry, the function of divine perspective is reversed and shattered as the idol now becomes the image (the image as Paul notes in Romans 1 is not divine but is human). Humankind has become the originator of the gaze or perspective once filled by the presence of God (now there is a loss or refusal of the divine perspective). The ambiguous role of the idol in Hinduism and Buddhism fits with the biblical perspective of the image as itself a reflection or a point of reflexivity. Do Buddhists worship the image of Buddha or do Hindu’s worship the image of Kali? The image reflects back on the worshiper, much like a three-way mirror, so that that the reflexive-refracted effect is the appearance of an infinite depth in the absence of any real presence. The disruption of the idolatrous scene by the prophets illustrates the point that the mystery of idolatry is to be found in the vacuum of absence and alienation which it creates.

The divine perspective is blocked and will be introduced by God’s prophets onto the idolatrous scene, not as a unifying subjectivity but as an objective gaze. The prophets interpret idolatrous worship as an absolute separation within the gendered symbolic relation of male and female (the female idolater lusting after the impossible male symbol of the idol – a reification of alienation and absence). Where the original image is one of male/female unity, the idolatrous image is one of absolute male/female separation. The Bible equates idolatry with an ever-heightened desire which denies the possibility of its own satisfaction (e.g., Is. 57:5; Jeremiah 13:26;16:11-12). What the prophets interdict into the system is another gaze – a looking the idolater aimed not to see. The idolater, by assuming the subject position before the object of the idol is left unaware (?) of her own objective exposure in the eyes of God. The watcher that is made aware he is being watched – the voyeur caught at the keyhole – is thrown into the object position in his own sight. He suddenly sees himself through the eyes of another.

The idol is not personal – not open to relationship and the separation it marks is both inter- and intra-personal. In terms of the original image in which there was no gap in perspective and image and thus no male/female gap, this space is a false space creating the (false) foundation for idolatrous representations. So, the idolatrous scene with the male idol and the female idolaters (adulterers) represents and reifies failed (alienated/separated) inter- and intra-personal relations. In this sense, idolatry simply illustrates the alienation inherent in the Fall and carried about in our inner alienation.

In Romans 7 Paul describes the fallen relation to the self in terms of a spectral relation in which the “I” (ego in Greek) becomes the object or bearer of the image. The ἐγὼ/ego is not subject to growth and change (any more than the image of the idol) as it is an object fixed as part of a formal structure. As Lacan describes it, “I am nothing of what happens to me” (Ecrits: Selection, 22). Everything that one is lies within the static object relation to the self. The agonistic self-relation of the ‘I’ to itself is an obstacle to life and a kind of living death (Rom. 7:24). This imaginary apprehension of the “I” as an object is on the basis of a false word (the misconstrued law or the knowledge of good and evil). Paul describes this spectral form of thought as desire working through a split in the ἐγὼ, and it is misdirected in that it presumes the law (or the idol which the law has displaced) contains wholeness and life and as a result it is simply a work of death (Rom. 7:7, 10). In Paul’s depiction, the split “I” demonstrates how the law/idol holds out a fullness of being – promising life (wholeness or completeness as the object cause of desire) but ending only in an agonistic struggle to the death (7:16-20). In a Derridian type explanation, idolatry reinforces a binary separation and yet it can only function as a system (a binary) if there is the possibility of surpassing difference and attaining an absolute sameness (the contradiction not only of idolatry but of any finite striving for the absolute). If mystery is generated as a part of the alienation and darkness, Christ cannot be said to be a mystery in this sense but is the one who dispels and overcomes mystery. Christ steps directly into the idolatrous/alienated scene so as to disrupt one sort of mystery so as to disclose another.

Paul sees his ministry as one of disclosing mystery: “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Co 2:7). He maintains that this is primarily the way he and the other Apostles should be regarded – as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Co 4:1). The mystery of the Gospel, as Paul describes it, works opposite to the mystery religions. These mysteries, like that of Romans 7, create an absence or ignorance and then make this absence absolute. They would presume to ascend into the heavens or to descend into the abyss. According to Sophocles, “Blessed is he who sees this and then goes under the earth. He knows the end of life, but he also knows the beginning given by God.” The Greek and Hellenistic mystery religions had nothing to do with history and time but the escape of both. Paul is describing the movement of history and how the incarnation and cross is the key to this history.

“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; (Ro. 10:5-9)1

God is not absent but in Christ he has been revealed and is near. The mystery religions made an absolute division between those inside and outside (the mistake of the Jews as well) the mysteries and the initiate must not speak of his secret knowledge. With Paul, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all” (Ro. 10:12). As Paul explains it the mystery has now been revealed: “that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery” and “when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” which is “to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:3–7). For Paul, Jew – Gentile alienation was the prototype of all forms of alienation and the mysterious outworking of God’s plan to unite these people is the prototypical dispelling of all alienation (Jew/Gentile, free/slave, male/female). The mystery revealed in Christ is the overcoming of alienation and being united in Christ: “being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Colossians 2:2). The mystery of the will of God summed up in Christ (Eph. 1:9) is an open mystery in that all can enter into it and participate in the Trinitarian unity it entails.

In this way, we can make an absolute distinction between idolatrous mystery and the mystery of Christ. The unfolding mystery of God revealed in Christ is one which draws the world and God’s image bearers together with one another and God through Christ. Idolatrous religion is about that which is “absolutely transcendent” and thus unattainable so that the religion is focused primarily on the presumption that only a final ecstasy on the order of death is able to penetrate the mystery so as to attain unity. Being united with the One (the Nirvana Principle) is synonymous with the obliteration and death of the self. The process of pursuing this mystery – isolation, an inward turn, silencing the mind etc. – is by its very nature alienating and separating and the only unity attained is with absolute nothingness (as explicitly stated in Zen).

While God is certainly beyond human imaginative capacities and is thus a mystery, this mystery is always combined in Scripture with the revealing Logos. God is not beyond the capacities of this Word, so to speak of ineffability is only a pointer to human finitude but is not an indicator that one must abandon language to enter the mysteries of God. Paul, in Ro. 8, pictures creation and the Creator as containing an infinite depth of communion and communication. The communication of life in the Spirit through the Son resonates with all of creation as creation’s “groaning” (8.22) and the Christian’s “groaning” (8.23) is pictured as an inter-Trinitarian communion in which “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (8.26). Paul indicates that it is the Spirits ability to know the mind of those who cry out to God in prayer which enables him to intercede. “He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8.27). The tacit knowledge of the heart participates in a prayerful dialectic within the Trinity as “we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us” (8.26). The passage from the limit of human capacities to Spiritual intercession is not a move beyond articulation and unknowing into experience; rather it presumes an infinite depth to communion and communication which accounts for human experience.

The fact that the Logos is brought together with mystery means that theology and mysticism are not opposed nor do they constitute separate realms. However, the mystery of God is not absolute (God has spoken in Christ) and doctrine and theology are not static realms; rather there is an unfolding of the mystery of God in Christ through history. As Vladimir Lossky has stated it in defense of the Eastern Church, “There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.”2 Where these realms are made separate and where the mystery is considered ultimately impenetrable this would seem to indicate a delimitation of the work of the Logos and the Spirit to communicate the hidden nature of the Father. The work of theology is never done, if it is understood that the hidden mystery of God is continually being revealed to us. On the other hand, the work of theology cannot commence if this mystery is forever sealed in an alternative realm.

1 All quotations are from the NASB.

2 Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Kindle Locations 77-78). James Clarke & Co. Kindle Edition.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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