Orthodox Christianity is deeply associated with the word “mystery.” Its theological hymns are replete with paradox, repeatedly affirming two things to be true that are seemingly contradictory. Most of these things are associated with what is called “apophatic” theology, or a theology that is “unspeakable.” This same theological approach is sometimes called the Via Negativa. This is easily misunderstood in common conversation. An Orthodox discussion takes place and reaches an impasse. Inevitably, someone will remind us that some things are simply a “mystery,” etc. But this “unknowableness” is actually a misuse of mystery and its place in the Church’s life. For though mystery, paradox and contradiction frame something as “unknowable,” they do so for the purpose of knowing.
To know is not the equivalent of mastering facts. Knowledge, in the New Testament, is equated with salvation itself (Jn. 17:3). But what kind of knowing is itself salvific? In the simplest terms, it is knowledge as participation.
Then they said to Him, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” (Joh 8:19)
O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. (Joh 17:25-26)
Christ is by no means speaking of knowledge as information. Instead, it is knowledge that “dwells” in them. Such knowledge cannot be gained by the simple sharing of information nor by the acquisition of a system of ideas. It is experiential, on the one hand, but in a manner that is itself transformative.
We experience things all the time. It is possible to say that we are changed by experience. But it is another thing to say that the experience itself now dwells in you and communicates a new life to you. At its very heart, this is the nature of revelation. And this is key within the life of Orthodoxy. What dwells in us as “knowledge,” is, in fact, Christ Himself as knowledge. Christ Himself is the revealer, the revealing and what is revealed.
It would be possible to “master” Orthodoxy as a system of thought. One could know a set of doctrines and teachings, and even be able to enter into discussion and argument. But this in no way actually constitutes true knowledge of Orthodoxy, much less Orthodoxy as saving knowledge.
The Orthodox faith is a making-known-of-the-mystery. And this is utterly essential. The Orthodox faith is not static content, but the dynamic reality of the living Christ. It is, properly, a revealed faith, and cannot be had in any other manner. And strangely, the mystery is as essential as the knowing. Only that which is hidden can be revealed.
It is a common mistake to treat the New Testament itself as the revelation of God, or the collection of the information newly revealed through Christ. We historicize Christ’s work as a set of teachings, an assemblage of theological information that we may now discuss, dissect and comprehend, rendering into nothing more than religion. However, the New Testament (and the fullness of the Church) have the mystery within them, but must first be encountered as mystery before they can be encountered as knowledge.
Paradox and contradiction, hiddenness and mystery are all inherent means of saving knowledge. Their presence within Scripture and the liturgical tradition are not mere styles of communication. They provide an access into a form a knowledge that cannot be communicated in any other manner. They are not mere screens shielding wonderful knowledge from our view, a knowledge that once revealed can then be shared without reference to the mystery. Because the kind of knowledge that is saving knowledge both causes and requires an inner transformation, it cannot be shared in a manner other than that through which it was first acquired. The single most important means of saving knowledge in the Tradition is the liturgical life of the Church. It is there that we sing the mystery. The hymns of the Church delight in paradox and contradiction. They urge the heart to enter into this mystical bounty. Those who have no experience of Orthodox liturgical worship can only wonder at this. Those who do, I daresay, understand exactly what I am saying.
We can say that it is not merely the rationalization of Christian teaching that is problematic, but even the efforts to make plain and straightforward and easily accessible what can only be known through mystery, paradox and contradiction. For this reason, it is true that most engagement in theological speech is done by those who don’t know what they are talking about. What passes for “theology” can easily be little more than one swine discussing pearls with another.
True theology is as much a matter of how we know as it is what we know. Further, everything about our own condition also matters in both what we may know and how we may know it. Saving knowledge cannot be isolated from the whole of who we are and how we are. The experience encountered in paradox and mystery is frequently a necessary condition for knowing the truth. We may very well come away with knowledge, and yet be speechless.
I studied Orthodoxy and the Fathers for over 20 years before I was received into the Church. But there were some things that I only began to know on the day of my reception. More than that, a slow process began in which everything I thought I knew was changed. The manner of knowing the faith as a communicant made the content of faith something other than what I thought I knew. Christ is quite clear that purity of our heart is essential in the knowledge of God. St. Silouan says that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. So it is always right to ask of ourselves, “What is the state of my heart as I approach this mystery?”
This draws me to the topic under discussion in my most recent article. The final end of all things is a mystery. Many aspects of it are hidden within paradox. It is of little value to simply decide what you think and declare an opinion. In many ways it is similarly in vain to simply repeat the doctrines of the Church as though you knew what they were talking about. The mysteries of God are not information to be acquired: they are saving knowledge. Thus, when we draw near to the question of the final disposition of all things, we rightly regard it as a mystery. It is a mystery that we are, in fact, encouraged to enter. The mystery is not there simply to say, “None of your business.”
When we see statements such as those found in St. Isaac of Syria that point towards a total apokatastasis of all things, it should not be an occasion for suddenly declaring him to be right or wrong. He is a Father of the Church. His work is an invitation to an encounter with Christ. Until we encounter Christ within the paradox of that mystery, we don’t know anything on the topic.
There is a story within the Scriptures that, like the ascent of Moses on the Holy Mountain (I have in mind St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses) also points towards the mystery of God with particular attention to the matter of judgment. Consider the story of the hospitality of Abraham (Gen. 18). Abraham entertains the three figures, described both as angels and “the Lord.” Indeed, the language shifts between singular and plural, presenting a paradox to any reader (and, we may assume, to Abraham as well). But the attention of the visitors turns to the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah and we read:
And the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” (17-19)
God chooses to share the mystery of the coming judgment with Abraham, “for I have known him.” The story continues with the conversation concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Abraham interceding for mercy. Abraham “argues” with God for the salvation of all. Abraham is the “friend” of God, from whom God will not “hide” His intentions.
In the paradox of God’s mercy and His love, together with the paradox of an eternal hell and the apokatastasis of all things, we are invited, like Abraham, to an encounter with God. It is both a place of deep mystery and of union with God. A pure heart requires that we stand with Abraham in the presence of God and argue on behalf of the unrighteous. As I have noted, in arguing for them, we argue for ourselves as well, for we dare not number ourselves among the righteous.
My intention in writing about this topic has not been to engage in theological argument, but to perhaps usher others into the confrontation with God. There is a reason that we read of such confrontations within the lives of the saints. They are not contentious souls, except when it comes to pursuing God. Following the lead and urging of the saints, we pursue God even into the judgment itself. Father Zacharias of Essex, commenting on the work of the Elder Sophrony says that in the fulfillment of our true calling in God:
Man becomes what Job prophetically desired to see, that is, someone who, in imitation of Christ, is stretched out between heaven and earth, putting one hand upon the shoulder of God and the other on man’s shoulder. It is precisely then that man, as he prays for the entire world, becomes ‘royal priesthood’ [1 Pet: 2: 5,9]. This Christ-like all-embracing love is the sign which bears witness to the restoration of the primordial ‘image’ in man…. From Christ, Our Way and Our Life
This prayer for the entire world includes even the unrighteous in hell. We do in our prayer what Christ has done in the fullness of His being. We do not pronounce on hell, but we pray there. It is the last measure of our union with Christ. It is the fulfillment of St. Paul’s cry to know the “communion of His sufferings.” It may very well feel like darkness and paradox, but it is also light and life.