We leave the house before sunrise. In June and July, first light brings with it the deer flies. To avoid their bites, Joy and I gulp down a cup of coffee, throw on our walking gear, and hit the wooded roads in the dark.
Dawn breaks behind us on the last stretch of our hike, so our strategy for avoiding insect bites begins to fail us. The deer flies usually target our dog Gracie first. So, Joy will often run ahead to get Gracie back inside.
As Joy turned left to ascend our driveway, she looked back at me and shouted, “Turn around!”
At first I thought, “Are you kidding! These deer flies are gnawing my arm off!”
And then, I looked back. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, but a wispy fabric of thin clouds was already glowing pink and red. The sun seemed to be shining from within those clouds.
Wow. That’s about all I could muster at the moment. Wow.
It occurred to me that this is one of the ways that we encounter God. God as mystery. From within all things. Different from but not distant from. After the fact, I will try to articulate what I’ve experienced. But my words will never be fully adequate to the encounter.
Churches that follow a liturgical year (like my own Episcopal Church, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Roman Catholics) set aside one day a year to dwell on the Divine Mystery. We call it Trinity Sunday. And that’s where we blow it. We would do ourselves a favor by calling it Mystery Sunday instead.
The Trinity is a mystery before it is a doctrine. But it’s not a mystery in the sense that a detective story is a mystery. Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple will solve this sort of mystery. Bring it to a close and tie up all the loose ends.
The word “mystery” means something else entirely when we’re talking about the Triune God. Who God is exceeds the bounds of finite human reason. Faith is not fundamentally about arriving at the right concepts. Instead, faith is about encountering and surrendering to an inexhaustible, unfathomable mystery.
The Trinity is certainly a doctrine. The central doctrine for Christians. And I will be among the last to deny the importance of thinking about God. Nevertheless, theology is, as Anselm put it, faith seeking understanding. Faith is recklessly abandoning ourselves to the love that relentlessly pursues us. Yielding to how that love shapes our comings and goings on this planet.
Our truest thinking about God emerges as a reflection upon our experience of being loved. Our words and our concepts are important. But they never adequately capture the depth and the breadth of infinite, eternal love.
Scripture teaches us that God is love. Consequently, everything that God does is an expression of love. The universe that we inhabit—into which we are intimately woven—issues from the Divine love.
Most of us were taught that God created all things out of nothing. And while I have no quarrel with this, I recognize that it can lead to a misconception about how God relates to life on Earth. We might think of God the Maker as over there. The created universe as over here. To borrow an image from Diana Butler Bass, God is so distant that God needs an elevator to get down to us from heaven.
For instance, the late 18th, early 19th century English clergyman and philosopher William Paley offered a proof for the existence of God. He argued that God is like a great clockmaker.
If you or I stumbled upon an intricate apparatus like a clock on a deserted beach somewhere, we would have to conclude that it could not have possibly assembled itself or come to be through mere chance. It points beyond itself to a clockmaker. But the clock is not intimately connected to the maker. An observer merely infers a distant maker from the clock.
Let’s think about creation using a different example. Think about artists. They pour themselves into their work. Writers like Anne Tyler and Charles Dickens. Composers like Nina Simone and Beethoven. In their fiction and in their music they convey something of themselves, something of their interior lives to their readers and to their listeners. If we know how to read. How to listen.
By analogy, God pours God’s self into the creation. Longleaf pines and fireflies, wood ducks and grumpy toddlers glimmer with the divine love. A love that does more than pull them out of the hat of nothingness. A love that sustains them and reaches out beyond them to the rest of creation.
We encounter God’s love for us not only in the interior chambers of our hearts but from the depths of all that surrounds us. If we know how to look. How to listen. How to touch. How to smell.
God’s love inhabits every being. Every star and every proton, every kitten and every aardvark, every rose bush and every mockingbird. Every human being. Creatures are not merely products of God’s handiwork placed on a celestial shelf.
Saints like Hildegard of Bingen and poets like Mary Oliver perceived the mystery at the depth of this world. Hildegard writes, “The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.” Oliver feels the embrace of that Word in wild geese, foxes, and blooming flowers.
When doctrine takes the central place in our faith, Christians end up acting as the thought police and as moral hall monitors. Heaven and hell become the promised reward and the threatened punishment used to control how people think and how people act.
Placing mystery at the center of our faith makes the Christian narrative a love story. That story defines each of us as the beloved and teaches us to love with abandon.