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Smile in the Mystery

God does not fit into the boxes I made.

Published on:
June 4, 2020
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5 min.
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Invisible the hope grows in the black where nobody knows; we smile in the mystery, in the night where nobody sees.”

John Mark McMillan repeats this bridge in the title track of the album “Smile in the Mystery.” The line represents a prevalent theme throughout the album: celebration and embrace of a mysterious God who has made himself known to us. Yet, for many Christians today, McMillian’s words are easier sung than practiced. Most Christians in the West do not find themselves smiling in the mystery. In my own tradition of Evangelicalism, we have pounded our theological fist demanding rational, logical, empirical answers from our triune God. 

We want reason to grow in the light without letting mystery grow in the dark. Our capacity for wonder has been squashed by rationalism.

Famed philosopher Charles Taylor refers to the phenomena as an embrace of disenchantment. The German word for “disenchantment” that Taylor uses is “Entzauberung.” Literally translated, the word means “de-magicification.” The deconstructive project of Entzauberung deprives the Christian faith of sacrament, mystery, and wonder. In part, it’s comforting because enchantment and wonder take control from our grasp. By nature, mystery proclaims that meaning is found outside of us. It can impose itself upon us, “taking us over and bringing us, as it were, into its field of force.” Even more, it tells us meaning, purpose, and identity are found in the collective, rather than the individual. Our Wonder, then, is best when it is communal, glorifying God when the people of God look corporately in awe at the mystery divine revelation. 

By nature, mystery proclaims that meaning is found outside of us.

Taylor’s language of disenchantment suggests a time in which we were once enchanted, a time in which the collective wonder of the church was our apologia

The rise of modern, post-Enlightenment philosophy brought with it the supremacy of epistemology—the science of knowing supplanted the beauty of relating to an already-revealed God. Before, the people of God boasted the divinely revealed mysteries of the faith as the locale of true beauty. (Many Non-Western practices still do). Dating back to the earliest formation of the church, the church fathers did not formulate doctrine in an ivory tower of rationalism, but rather in the crucible of heresy, debate, and persecution. The ecumenical councils affirmed and defended these great mysteries such as the Trinity, the Incarnation of God, and the Hypostatic Union. 

Perhaps no tradition in the Christian church embraces mystery more than the Eastern Orthodox Church. Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his text The Orthodox Way, explains that for Eastern believers,

“[M]ystery” [is not] merely that which is baffling or mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or darkness of God. [Our] eyes are closed, but they are also opened.

Bishop Ware believes that ascribing to the disenchanted view of the God of the West—a God who may be understood exhaustively through the resource of reason—actually limits our experience and understanding of all God is. Even the West admits that God transcends our full comprehension. An Eastern embrace of a mysterious God willing to make himself known releases us to truly wonder at the majesty of God. 

I desired a modern example from my own Protestant tradition that embraced wonder in their cultural moment. I soon found my answer in the African American church.

The Roman Catholic Church also has historically embraced the mysterious aspects of the Christian faith. Wonder and awe swelled within me as I walked through the cathedrals of Western Europe filled with grandiose architecture, statues, paintings, and ornamentation. Every aspect of a cathedral boasts of God’s greatness. Within such a presentation of God’s transcendence, the sacraments express his radical immanence: Christ’s body and blood locally present (as Catholics believe) for the believer to physically make a part of themselves. Every Sunday spins around the wonder of God’s holy-otherness, his closeness, and our ability to partake in God’s work in the world. 

In my undergraduate studies, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic embrace of mystery challenged me to understand Christianity apart from the constructions of Western, Protestant thought. However, it always felt disconnected; I am not Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. I desired a modern example from my own Protestant tradition that embraced wonder in their cultural moment. I soon found my answer in the African American church.

It is no coincidence that the African American community, dehumanized by the philosophy and thought of the Enlightenment, would reject the project of Entzauberung. Specifically within the church, African American slaves interpreted scripture radically differently than Christian slaveholders who held modern rationalism as the highest Christian virtue and used it to justify their oppression of other humans. Dehumanized slaves held to a very real, tangible, raw practice of Christianity—one which affirmed their dignity and worth. 

Slaves interpreted scripture through their black experience in contrast to the Christianity of the oppressive slaveholders. The divine encounters of black interpreters are not theoretical, but embodied: They are entranced, they leap up, their mouths are opened, they are touched and physically transformed. As Maria Stewart notes, the access between God and the black body was one that neither law nor master could thwart. The black body could be enslaved, but their wonder could not be chained. 

While white Christians sang of God’s wonder, black theologians on the plantation were practicing a tangible, wonder-consumed, faith.

I don’t mean to suggest that white, evangelical theologians in colonial America did not possess any sense of wonder. However, like the bridge in McMillian’s song, it was easier to sing “in awe and wonder” than truly believe and practice smiling in the mystery. Studying the experiences, theology, and narrative of the black church in America was revelatory to my narrow vision. While white Christians sang of God’s wonder, black theologians on the plantation were practicing a tangible, wonder-consumed, faith. 

I started my education as an inheritor of white, evangelical theology. Yet, as I studied the vast, multi-ethnic, multi-traditional faith of those mentioned in this essay (and many more), my desire for mystery grew greater and my hand clenched around rationalism and the divine predictability and slowly loosened. My monochrome, disenchanted Christianity turned to an awe-inspiring, technicolor faith—one where God does not fit into the boxes and patterns I sought to establish. Even more, this embrace did not compromise my evangelical roots, but rather revealed far greater depths to my understanding of Christ, scripture, evangelism, and the Holy Spirit’s work. 

Make no mistake, this is frightening. A predictable, pattern-following God is much easier and safer to worship than a God who acts out of love, and whose acts of justice are beyond our narrow perspective. I believe that is why so many Christians today are afraid of divine wonder. However, whether we accept it or not, the God of Christianity is certainly the latter. It is only when we, as the body of Christ, can embrace wonder and hold in an open hand the things we do not understand that we are freed to worship in new ways. In this re-enchantment, we open ourselves to the deepest sense of wonder and truly may “smile in the mystery.”

Amar Peterman
Amar Peterman is a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary, focusing his research and writing on American religious history. He is also a Fellow at Neighborly Faith and Research Intern to scholar Asma Uddin, studying the relationship between Christians and Muslims in the United States and the future of religious pluralism. Amar holds a BA in Theology from Moody Bible Institute. You can follow his work on his website and on Twitter: @amarpeterman.

Cover image by Jr Korpa.

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