This sentence saved my faith from suffocating certainty: “The mysteries of the faith are degraded when made into objects of affirmation or negation, when they ought to be the object of contemplation.” — Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
My early life in a faith community was often confusing, because my questions were sometimes praised and other times met with consternation. Confronted by people who insisted that I must believe things about the Bible itself that seemed absurd or affirm abstract summaries about an unfathomable God, I kept finding myself feeling like an outsider. Eventually, I figured out when to keep silent. In the silence, my doubts fermented but somehow also became a kind of homing beacon, leading me to authors and friends in an uncanny way that I still look back on with wonder.
I remember the day I stumbled across Simone Weil. I was at a friend’s dorm room looking through her shelves and I pulled out a paperback of hers, the title of which I don’t remember. Within a few months I had read several of Simone’s books, even though I barely understood half of what I was reading. She was, herself, a mystery worth contemplating.
Some years after first reading the saving sentence, I realized that I didn’t need to affirm or reject the mysteries of the Christian faith—the story of creation, the doctrine of the trinity, what happened on the cross or in the tomb. Nor did I have to come to conclusions about issues that have been debated for millennia by well-meaning, faithful followers. The more broadly I read, the more presumptuous it felt to dismiss the views of these saints. It was obvious that I would never be able to debunk their conclusions or deny them the meaning they found in their experiences, and why would I want to? Apologetics and finding fault with heterodox perspectives is a highly esteemed pastime in the circles I once moved, but for reasons I still don’t understand, I’ve always found it distasteful.
Eventually, the truth of the sentence that saved my faith sunk in and I realized that it was enough to contemplate these mysteries. In fact, I discovered, it was not only enough but actually much better to contemplate them than to merely confess them as true. Besides, I couldn’t help but ask: “How are they true, what does it mean that they are true, and how do I know that they are more true than other mysterious truth claims?” I’ve come to see that an overemphasis on a confessional approach tends to “degrade” the mysteries of the faith.
Merely confessing the mysteries creates a strange and divisive kind of orthodoxy, based solely on affirming propositional statements. When I began to have doubts about miracles and atonement theories, for example, I began, for the first time, to think deeply about them. They were transformed from abstractions (that I affirmed so that I could keep belonging to my tribe) into meaning-rich narratives that I had to wrestle with to understand if and how they informed my life. Belonging is a powerful human need. We’ll say almost anything to remain within the safety of our tribe. But it’s not always very helpful in the necessary process of integrating one’s faith into the “inward parts.”
I also began to see how the mysteries lose their power to transform when we come to conclusions about them. To draw a conclusion is to create an analytic distance. It’s an enlightenment kind of “knowing,” which is very different than biblical knowing—the latter being intimate enough to sometimes be used as a euphemism (wink wink, nudge nudge). In the end, I’ve come to believe, transformation is about proximity to God, not strategy or analysis. We’re not saved by our words or thoughts but by abiding and enduring.
When we affirm a particular denominational confession of the faith, whether the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Sixteen Fundamental Truths of the Assemblies of God or any other set of propositions about God, we often make artificial barriers between believers and lose the blessing of diverse voices. The reason there are so many denominations is not so much because there are many false doctrines, but rather because there is such a wide variety to the human experience.
Even when the only voices available to many believers were white, straight, male, Eurocentric theologians, we still divided into hundreds of denominations. Now, thanks to the internet and the proliferation of books from diverse perspectives, all of us are able to access the blessing of much greater diversity in the form of dozens of ethnic, cultural and gender perspectives to help us explore the vastness of the Incarnation.
When the mysteries of the faith are summarized or given a facile explanation, they lose their symbolic power. Myths, poems and even semi-historical narratives, for example, tell truths that can only be expressed in story and metaphor. By the time well-meaning apologists are done trying to prove the reasonableness of the faith, all the poetry gets sucked out of it and it becomes little more than propaganda. Meditating on these truths told “slant,” as Emily Dickinson recommended, on the other hand, is like fertilizing the soil of one’s imagination, which happens to be the source of one’s fruit, the sweet and the bitter.
Maybe the worst result of all, from my perspective, when affirmations and negations are valued over contemplation and learning through practice is a fear-based, certainty-seeking, defensive version of Christianity that grows up in the place of a living, covenantal trust. A faith based on certainty is not only oxymoronic but also leads to arrogance, especially from those who wield religious authority.
The statement about belief from Weil, in a passage from her book Gateway to God, proposes a way of believing that is active, vulnerable and based on trust in the goodness of God: “When I say I believe, I do not mean that I take over for myself what the Church says on these matters (God, Trinity, Incarnation, Redemption and Eucharist) but that through love I hold on to the perfect unseizable truth which these mysteries contain, and that I open my soul to it so that its light may penetrate me.”
To contemplate the mysteries, then, is to make oneself vulnerable to the light that they contain. It’s to accept that they are “unseizable” and only experienced through love.
The Incarnation (the doctrine that Jesus was somehow God enfleshed), for example, is a mystery that Jesus made more mysterious by claiming that the least and the last are in some way a unique incarnation of his own life (Matthew 25). To contemplate the Incarnation is to remain open to being surprised by the presence of the Christ in the least likely places. Similarly, the Trinity is an impossible metaphor, useless when explained. It cannot be rationally affirmed or denied. But it can be contemplated as a poetic evocation of a relationship beyond our experience.
All the mysteries of the faith are like the parables of Jesus, stories that disrupt our easy answers, and our self-justifying explanations. To decide that one understands such things is to settle for a comforting delusion and to close oneself off from the depths of the divine diversity. To acknowledge that everything, even the simplest flower, is beyond one’s comprehension is the beginning of wisdom and humility. The seeds of transformation are planted in the soil of such humility.
Contemplation means attending to the depths of fathomless realities and waiting for them to reveal something of themselves. Merely giving a thumbs up or thumbs down about such things is absurd, presumptuous and dismissive—which I must say, feels close to an apt description of much of the contemporary theological ethos.
The value of contemplation is not a modern, or reactive idea. An early church father, Gregory of Nazianzus said that you should never teach theology to someone who hasn’t first learned the art of contemplation because it’s too easy to mistake the ideas for the reality toward which they point.