Secrets, Lies, and Mysteries

Many people these days are annoyed with God because he seems to be involved with a lot of secrets and lies.

The BIG secret that has troubled humanity for as long as we have thought about it is, in the words of a famous book by a famous rabbi: Why do bad things happen to good people?  Lots of books have been written on the topic of this big secret, including an entire book of the Bible (the Book of Job), which ends with God more or less telling Job that it’s a secret, and how dare he, little, puny Job, ask great big God, who, by the way, made the earth and the heavens and set the stars in the sky, to divulge his secrets, in which case they wouldn’t be secrets any longer.

God has many other secrets, like what the songs of the whales mean, how to cure cancer, is there life elsewhere in the universe, what is happening to the honeybees, how to move faster than the speed of light, [and how did Roy Halladay pitch a perfect game last night against the Marlins]?  Some of God’s secrets seem important to us; some seem trivial.  Some we expect him to reveal; some seem unlikely to be uncovered.  Some, like dinosaurs and Stonehenge, are secrets from the past; and some, like peace or the end of the world, are secrets of the future.

People would be upset with God if he only kept secrets, but they would get over it eventually and learn to live with a God who keeps secrets better than anyone else.  What really annoys people is that they suspect God lies.

To begin with, there is the BIG lie: a lurking suspicion that God is not really God; rather, he is a made-up story, being manipulated by men behind curtains in Rome and Lynchburg, and anywhere a church like this stands.  It might be truer to say that people don’t so much think God lies as they think believers lie.  And all the other supposed lies flow from this one:  that God is love, that humans are in the habit of doing something called “sin”, that prayer matters, that our hymns do not fall on deaf ears, that Jesus was the Son of God and came into the world to save us.

More and more these days there is a sense that most religion, and certainly the Christian religion, such as it is, are systems of secrets and lies.  You can see this partly in the way the word “myth” has shifted in meaning.  It used to be understood that a myth was a story, the facts of which might be debatable but the essence of which was a truth so deep that we didn’t have any other way to talk about it, and that religion was the guardian and caretaker of these important stories.  Nowadays, when something is called a “myth” it is usually derided as “just a myth,” meaning it is most fundamentally untrue, and religion is the perpetuator of these lies.

In this rendering, Scripture is no longer a complex quilt of truths to be discerned from ancient stories and texts of various kinds; it is a web of lies that supports the delusions of people who are willing to live with a bunch of secrets.

And so God is a subject of secrets and lies.  That his church has been manifestly shown to be an institution plagued by harmful secrets and willful lies has not helped this situation.

But this reality surely comes as no surprise to God.  One burden of the Scriptures has been to show that thus has it ever been: God’s people, prodigal by nature, constantly disappoint him, as they disappoint themselves, and are called to repent and reform.  That this pattern of human behavior is plainly neither a secret nor a lie, does little in the face of skepticism about God.

The Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, if you will, shows us early-on God’s assertion of himself: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.”  And throughout so many of the early stories we see God at work, uncovering this secret for his people and declaring that all other gods, carved as they were in wood and stone, are nothing more than lies.  We Christians have inherited this basic claim, that the Lord our God is one Lord, alone in power and majesty and might and glory.  And into this landscape comes the Christian doctrine that although God is one: the singular, unrivalled divinity in the universe, God is nevertheless known to his people in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  If this is not confusing to you, then you are clearly ready for the AP course in religion.  Most, of us, however, are at least a little confused by how God can be both three-personed and yet one.  It seems a contradiction in terms.  And the question it seems to beg is this: is this claim about the trinitarian identity of God a secret or a lie?

In either case, one could imagine that somewhere in the Vatican, or in Dan Brown’s study, there is a file cabinet with a locked drawer that contains a folder marked “Trinity” that has drawings, schematics, and at least a few paragraphs of explanation that either unlock the secret or blow the lid off the lie.

But there is another option, and it is this option that the church has long asserted about the truth of God’s triune nature and identity, namely that it is neither a secret nor a lie, but that it is a mystery.  Long before there were detectives whose sole job was to solve them, there were mysteries.  Real mysteries are not puzzles waiting to be solved, they are, rather, a category of truth that is evident to us and yet beyond our comprehension. 

It is a reflection of modern over-self-confidence that we tend to assume that any mystery is either a secret waiting to be unlocked or a lie being perpetuated for somebody’s gain.  Can we really not imagine truth in the universe that is beyond our comprehension?  At the moment we are baffled by a hole that we dug in the bottom of the sea bed in the Gulf of Mexico; if we can’t even figure out how to plug that hole to stop an oil spill of our own making, can we really be so sure that the rest of the universe is available to us to be understood?

Our modern resistance to mystery in the world is paralleled by our confusion about knowledge and wisdom.  We have forgotten that there is a distinction between the two, assuming that a wise person has extensive knowledge of the secrets and lies that assault the truth.  But many more generations have known that real wisdom lies in the acceptance of mystery, and the willingness to live with and reflect upon the mysteries of life without needing to try to solve them.

From the pages of the New Testament, on the lips of Jesus, we hear that God is to be known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Do we understand this?  We remember that the Holy Spirit brooded over the face of the waters at the beginning of time.  We have no trouble conceiving of the God who made the world, who led his children out of captivity, and to whom Jesus prayed in the garden as a Father (even if we stumble a little on the overly gender-specific language), and we accept the claim of that heavenly voice that Jesus is the beloved Son of God.  We know that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to lead us into all truth.  But none of this means we understand it.

The ancient wisdom of the church was never to de-code or explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, it was, rather to reflect on it and rejoice in it: to realize that God is fabulously complicated, and that God nevertheless wants us to know him, even if it is hard for us to bear.

In our own day and age, the mysterious truth that our God is one Lord, but three persons, brings an important, ancient reflection back to mind: that God’s very nature, the essence of his being, is communal.  God does not exist in the splendid isolation of a remote heavenly throne room, where he occasionally naps on his throne, when not hurling thunderbolts of judgment down to earth.  God’s nature is to relate, to dialogue, to dance, to commune.  Aloneness is not God’s thing.

Perhaps this is why Adam’s needy demand for a helper does not fall on deaf ears in the Garden of Eden.  Perhaps this is why Noah is told to build a big ark, for all the animals and his family.  Perhaps this is why Moses is allowed to have the help of his brother Aaron.  Perhaps this is why Abraham is not sent on pilgrimage himself, he is told to bring his wife and family with him.  Perhaps this is why Ruth will not leave Naomi’s side.  Perhaps this is why Joseph is restored to the fellowship of his brothers and his father.  Perhaps this is why another Joseph, centuries later, is an essential part of the Holy Family.  Perhaps this is why Jesus tended to call his disciples in pairs, and sent them out two by two.  We are made in God’s image: aloneness is not God’s thing, and when we follow God, it is unlikely to be our thing either.

The truth at the heart of the mystery of the Holy Trinity is that God wants us to know him, even if he knows that he is beyond our comprehension, just as he wanted to show himself to Moses even though he knew it was beyond Moses’ ken to perceive more than the divine backside.

And the crucial thing that God is able to show us is that he is not a lonesome God: he is always relating, always discussing, always dancing, always communing.  Which we infer means that God does not mean any creature that he made in his own image (you and me) to be a lonesome creature, rather he means for us to be in relationships, to be in dialogue, to be dancing, and to be communing with one another.

The truth is that the alternative to showing us his triune self would be to keep it secret, or worse, to lie to us.  And despite the suspicions of our age, and the secrets that God does keep from us, he does not seem to want to be defined by secrets and lies.

God is, however, entirely willing to wrap himself in mystery.  God’s mysteries are not waiting or even available to us to be solved and revealed in a 90- minute TV special.  God’s mysteries, are however available to us to ponder, to think and talk and pray about, to behold in something like the same way that the beauty of the night sky or the scent of honeysuckle remains a mystery to be enjoyed.

May God grant us the wisdom to know the difference between secrets, lies, and mysteries.  May he give us patience with his secrets, confidence that he will never lie to us, and wisdom to ponder the mystery of his triune self, without the need to try to figure him out!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Trinity Sunday 2010

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 30, 2010 .