The Mystery of God and the “Unknown Unknowns”

When thinking about the mystery of God–whether contemplating His nature, His character, or the facets of His will–one quickly finds himself muttering Rumsfeldian quotes. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, talking about military intelligence, (in)famously observed,

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

God is not completely unknown to us. He has revealed Himself to us in nature, in the human conscience, in history, through the Scriptures, and ultimately in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet God remains a mystery–there are “unknown unknowns”. Part of the problem with saying that God is mysterious is the ambiguous meaning of the word “mystery” in the English language. In The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable, Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall give a very helpful and nuanced discussion of the word.Boyer, Mystery Boyer, Mystery They distinguish between five different meanings of the word “mystery”:

1. An intriguing puzzle: this is the type of mystery that we attempt to solve. In fiction, detectives such as Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes solve mysterious crimes. In the real world, scientists and other researchers attack these types of puzzling mysteries on a regular basis.

2. An unknown plan: this is the type of mystery that is revealed. The biblical authors typically had this meaning in mind when they spoke of mystery. In Matthew 13, Jesus uses parables to teach about the “mysteries of the Kingdom”. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul declares, “Behold I show you a mystery” as he taught about the instantaneous translation of the saints at our Lord’s return. Both instances are examples of unknown truths–mysteries–now being unveiled by divine revelation.

3. An overwhelming reality: this is the type of mystery by which one is awed. Boyer and Hall call this “quantitative inexhaustibility.” In this situation we suffer not from a lack of information, but from an excess of information. For example, we affirm that God is infinite–that His power and wisdom are limitless. But we quickly must admit that we have said more than we understand.

4. A bewildering dilemma: this is the type of mystery that does not lend itself to rational thought, much less explanation. Consider the mystery of suffering, or the inexplicable, incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust. This type of mystery appears irrational or non-rational, and leaves us bewildered.

5. Boyer and Hall finally present a fifth type of mystery–“unclassifiable superabundance.” This type of mystery goes beyond an overwhelming reality (Definition 3). We can grasp an overwhelming mystery, but we cannot comprehend it. A superabundant mystery cannot even be grasped. We simply do not have the intellectual ability to begin. The cognitive capacity is not there. When we contemplate the mystery of God (in this sense), we are dealing with unknown unknowns.

This does not mean that the mysterious aspects of God (Definition 5) contradict or conflict with what has been revealed about His nature, character, and will. We do not have to abandon rational discourse about God nor do we have to settle for a vague mysticism that reduces to a non-rational spirituality. The mystery of God transcends rational discourse but does not invalidate it. We will have to acknowledge our limitations with humility.

Despite the mystery of God–His “unclassifiable superabundance”–we still have reason to hope. God is not silent. He has spoken with the intent that we would know Him, love Him, and have a relationship with Him. Boyer and Hall put it this way:

“[E]very faculty [reason, emotion, and will] may approach God. But every faculty must approach God as God–and this means that every faculty should expect to be overwhelmed and undone by a supremacy that cannot be mastered….Reason, too, comes before the mystery legitimately, but she comes as a petitioner seeking her Lord’s bounty, not as a judge demanding a satisfactory explanation.” (14)

God may have unknown unknowns, but He is not unknown to us.

This blog is cross posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com

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