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Revelation and Mystery

September 16, 2010

Dave Reinhardt just completed his M.Litt. at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews and is beginning research for his PhD.

There was a question hanging in the air last week at the 2010 Institute for Theology Imagination and the Arts conference.  As various presenters evaluated the work of David Brown, many were attempting to trace through the implications of David’s argument about the nature of God.  The argument goes something like this: God truly wants to make himself known to humanity and is, therefore, generous when it comes to revealing himself to humanity.  Given such generosity, it can be expected that revelation should be possible through things like the natural order and various forms of art.  His argument raises the ‘hanging’ question mentioned above: How can we know for certain when and through which means God has revealed himself?  And, even if we determine that he has revealed himself in a particular way, what specifically can we know about him through that revelation?

Those who came to the conference hoping to leave with clarity about David’s criteria for determining the specifics of revelation surely left disappointed.  Not so those who came realizing that mystery is inseparable from any theology concerned with the study of a God who is Triune and who, at a particular point in history, took on flesh.  If the goal of theology is not the acquisition of unassailable knowledge about God, but the progressive pursuit of coming to a more complete and true knowledge of who God is and being formed in his likeness, then embracing a certain amount of mystery might prove helpful in this pursuit.

Prof. Trevor Hart, in his response to David, reminded us that we are unable to ‘speak fully about reality’ and, rather than seeing this as cause for despair, maintained that ‘intelligibility and mystery belong together’.  As an artistic example, he highlighted the potential in poetry, with its reliance on incomplete but useful metaphors, to make us more receptive to the mysteries of God.  There are limits to metaphors, but they communicate meaning in spite of (and, perhaps, sometimes through) their limitations.  Cannot something similar be said about the incarnation of Jesus Christ?  It was to this question Trevor seemed to be leading us.  In an act of humility, God, in some respects, ‘made himself nothing’ and was ‘made in human likeness’ (Phil. 2.7).  And yet, while limited and incomplete from the standpoint of knowledge about God, in the incarnation God made himself known in a manner not unlike a metaphor: in a true but incomplete and mysterious way.  However, while metaphors merely contain an element of truth, in the incarnation truth itself can be known personally.

As we continue to strive toward a more complete knowledge of God through a theological exploration of the arts, how can we become more comfortable with the tension between intelligibility and mystery?  Can art, like poetry, really make us more receptive to the mysteries of God?  If we see the incarnation as a true revelation of God, how might starting from this revelation and working outward inform our pursuit of determining when and how God has revealed himself through other means?

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