“THE INFINITE GOD AS A MAN GROWS IN SPACE AND TIME” (Hymn of the prefeast of Christmas)
In the previous blog, Mystery: Beholding a Glorious Wonder, I began to explore the notion that both science and historic Christianity share a fascination with the notion of mystery: that in the universe there are things which both reveal truth to us while simultaneously revealing that there is mystery (things we do not or cannot know) which lie beyond what we can grasp. Certainly Patristic writers and ancient Orthodox poets and hymn writers constantly expressed awe regarding the mystery of the incarnation and of the death of the Son of God. They were comfortable with the fact that there are many things we cannot know and they did not feel the need to offer a systematic explanation for everything in the universe. St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) writes:
“If, for instance, any one asks, ‘What was God doing before He made the world?’ we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself. For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions [in reply to it]; so, as by one’s imagining that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made all things.” (Irenaeus- Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3164-69)
Indeed there are questions we cannot answer, and mysteries we cannot explain. Irenaeus emphasizes that even if we could imagine discovering the origin of matter, that won’t disprove the Creator. We can discover scientific truth about the universe without it in any way threatening our faith in the existence of God.
His question resonates with a modern question that might be asked of physicists: what existed before the Big Bang? Physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser says:
“If we keep going back, we quickly reach a time when energies were beyond what we have tested. So, whatever happened between the “beginning” and about a trillionth of a second after the bang relies on theoretical speculation. … This is where science meets the poetic imagination. And the best part is that it may be true. If only we could test it one day.”
Science does recognize mystery – and today physicists certainly recognize that there are some things we cannot know about the universe. Some of what we cannot know may be due to our lack of instrumentation, but some things we now realize are uncertain and cannot be known.
There are legitimate questions we can ask about God or about the universe before the Big Bang, but the answers to these questions will remain in mystery because we cannot answer them.
St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) writes in the 7th Century:
“They do not understand the principle of that wisdom which is revealed to all; that we should know and praise God through His creation and that by means of the visible world we should understand whence we came, what we are, for what purpose we were made and where we are going.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15155-58)
Maximos believed the physical world could tell us much about our physical selves – where we came from and where we are headed. That in fact is the purpose of the visible world. But these answers would not tell us everything that can be known about humanity or about the universe. There still is mystery in the beginning of the universe whether we look at it scientifically or through the lens of Scripture. The Mystery of the Incarnation, which is central to Christian belief, challenges our thinking both scientifically and theologically. But then so too our scientists have found mystery in the known universe.
“’Dark matter is telling us there are fundamental things that we don’t understand about physics,’ says Van Waerbeke (University of British Columbia). ‘Maybe we are at the beginning of a complete revolution.’” (DISCOVER, “The Year in Science: Top 100 Stories of 2012 Issue: 8) Mapping the Dark Cosmos”)
Mystery doesn’t mean we are wrong, but allows us to marvel and keep seeking for the truth. In fact, we rejoice in mystery throughout the Christmas season in the Orthodox Church, as we see in this Hymn for the Nativity of Christ:
I BEHOLD A STRANGE, MOST GLORIOUS MYSTERY!
HEAVEN – THE CAVE!
THE CHERUBIC THRONE – THE VIRGIN!
THE MANGER – THE PLACE WHERE CHRIST LAY,
THE UNCONTAINABLE GOD WHOM WE MAGNIFY IN SONG!
At the end of the Second Century St. Irenaeus comments that mystery involving God should not surprise us for we encounter mystery in our daily lives in common things. He writes:
“And there is no cause for wonder if this is the case with us as respects things spiritual and heavenly, and such as require to be made known to us by revelation, since many even of those things which lie at our very feet (I mean such as belong to this world, which we handle, and see, and are in close contact with) transcend out knowledge, so that even these we must leave to God. For it is fitting that He should excel all [in knowledge]. For how stands the case, for instance, if we endeavour to explain the cause of the rising of the Nile? We may say a great deal, plausible or otherwise, on the subject; but what is true, sure, and incontrovertible regarding it, belongs only to God. Then, again, the dwelling-place of birds–of those, I mean, which come to us in spring, but fly away again on the approach of autumn–though it is a matter connected with this world, escapes our knowledge.
What explanation, again, can we give of the flow and ebb of the ocean, although every one admits there must be a certain cause [for these phenomena]? Or what can we say as to the nature of those things which lie beyond it? What, moreover, can we say as to the formation of rain, lightning, thunder, gatherings of clouds, vapours, the bursting forth of winds, and such like things; or tell as to the storehouses of snow, hail, and other like things? [What do we know respecting] the conditions requisite for the preparation of clouds, or what is the real nature of the vapours in the sky?
What as to the reason why the moon waxes and wanes, or what as to the cause of the difference of nature among various waters, metals, stones, and such like things? On all these points we may indeed say a great deal while we search into their causes, but God alone who made them can declare the truth regarding them.” (Irenaeus- Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3140-52)
Most all of the mysteries which Irenaeus believed could not be explained by science, have today been explained. But science has also uncovered many more mysteries. Irenaeus was not upset by the fact that there are things which we cannot explain or understand about the world, nor about God. He was not afraid to admit that science (even in his day) offered explanation for things and that nature itself could be studied by science. He was comfortable with a sense of mystery both theologically and scientifically.
Mystery is not the equivalent of ignorance, but is approached with awe and a desire to know the truth. Science can raise challenging questions for theology, and theology can raise questions which science cannot answer. The appreciation of mystery is one thing that makes us human. Being human allows us to appreciate mystery. Both theology and science have recognized the value of mystery in relationship to the universe. Mystery opens the mind to possibilities beyond what we can see to truths that are still to be revealed.
You can find links to all the blogs I have or will post during this year’s Christmas season at 2012 Nativity Blogs.