When Appeals to Mystery Mask Intellectual Laziness

Unknown-4Appeals to mystery by so-called emergent Christians was rampant when postmodernism was all the rage. The knowability of God was swallowed up by the mystery of God. “We can’t know anything definitive about God, He (or She, or It) is wrapped in a shroud of mystery,” we were told. God is “beyond the veil” of human knowledge. As a result, we were to embrace the mysterious as we worshipped a God of our own experience and, all to often, our own image.

The fad that was postmodernism has largely passed (see my post here for thoughts about what comes next). Yet, so often, as I teach philosophical theology at a seminary, I hear students appeal to mystery. Often, the appeal is at the front end of enquiry.

“Wait,” I say. “We can go farther. We’ve just begun!”

Yet, the student piously smiles and invokes the 5th amendment. “Mystery!” Mystery! Mystery!”

I sigh and press on. I’ve long suspected that appeals to mystery often conceal something more hideous. As the philosopher Jonathan Kvanvig puts it, “rampant and facile appeals to the mysteries of the faith when paradox threaten is [sic] just anti-intellectualism in sophist drag.”[1] I concur. Anti-intellectualism in sophist drag!

It is no secret that the evangelical church suffers from anti-intellectualism. It is the Trojan horse of the church. I see this lack of intellectual virtue manifest itself often when attempting to push students to wrestle with the many knotty issues that arise when doing philosophical theology. So often, the appeal to mystery is just code for “I really don’t want to pursue this line of thinking, it is too hard for me.”

I’m not saying that all appeals to mystery mask intellectual laziness. What I am saying is that we should not appeal to mystery on the front end of enquiry. If after we’ve wrestled with (say) the problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom for a while, considering in turn Calvinism, Molinism, Arminianism, Open Theism, and Process Theism, we must appeal to mystery to understand (say) the will of God (for the Calvinist), or the mind of God (for the Molinist and the rest), then this seems most appropriate and well put. We don’t appeal to mystery out of ignorance, but because we’ve plumbed the (historically well-trodden) paths of human exploration and reached our end.

At the end of the day, there is plenty left to mystery with it comes to philosophical theology. Mystery can be found when considering the primal sin, the incarnation, the trinity, divine providence, the problem of evil, and more. My plea is this: don’t appeal to mystery too soon. Plumb the depths of the question. Follow the rabbit hole as far as you can. See where others have trod and explore their reasons for doing so. Then, when you’ve come as far as you can, you’ll have learned a great deal about God. You will enter the company of many scholars and theologians who have gone before you and like them, fall on your knees and worship the great God who is immense, knowable, and mysterious.

p.s. This is also why “The church needs philosophers and philosophers need the church.”

[1] Jonathon Kvanvig, Destiny and Deliberation: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), xv.

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