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. However, 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, and must be encountered first as mystery before they can be acquired 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 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?”
We are now in the Feast of Christ’s Nativity, His birth as a child and entrance into the human condition. That event is among the greatest mysteries of the faith, surrounded by paradox and contradiction. It can (as so much else) be reduced to a greeting card or a doctrinal fact. But such a reduction cannot save. “Peace on earth, goodwill among men,” is a greeting of paradox and contradiction.
If you would enter into the mystery, then, like Christ Himself, you must become small, weak, poor, misunderstood, and willing to be broken. You cannot know Him if you refuse to be like Him. This is the only path that is truly Christian. Outside the mystery, there is nothing to be known, nothing that will save.