OHPT: Theology and Mystery (Chapter 4)

Chapter 4 is “Theology and Mystery” by William J. Wainwright. Wainwright is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Philosophy with University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. His research focused on the philosophy of religion and theology in the 17th and 18th centuries. He definitely has “philosophy of religion” credentials, as evidenced by the books he has authored.

I was excited to read this chapter, because I think mystery is one of the strengths of religion. Religion embraces mystery and accepts mystery-as-mystery in a way that science or philosophy do not. Wainwright goes so far to say that mystery is “central to Christian reflection and Christian worship” (79). So not only is religion good at mystery, but mystery is important to religion itself. (At least, the Christian religion.) In this chapter, Wainwright seeks to find a way to preserve the mystery that is central to an Ultimately Other Being Who is God, and the ability of Christians to say anything (and thus known anything) meaningful about that God. Too much mystery and all the claims of Christianity become arbitrary. Too little mystery and religion gets to a position where it should cede authority to science, the field that does empiricism much, much better.

The balance of mystery and knowability is an important one to find for preserving the value and meaningfulness of any religion, so I was eager to read what Wainwright had to say.

Wainwright begins by defining the four types of mystery he thinks are relevant to Christianity: 1). something unexpected (sparking feelings like wonder, surprise, astonishment, etc.); 2). doctrines that are “incongruent or formally inconsistent with common notions” (81); 3). doctrines that seem absurd or unbelievable because we lack certain information; 4). something that is “beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible” such that we cannot describe it in conceptual/linguistic terms (82). Wainwright focuses on the 4th definition as what he thinks is the kind of mystery central to the Christian tradition.

Wainwright takes some time to unpack Anselm’s claim that God is “[a being] which greater cannot be thought”, as an example of a doctrine that illustrates the 4th definition of mystery. Wainwright focuses his critique on questioning why being “greater than can be thought” is a good quality. Aka, why the property of being “mysterious” must equal “a perfection”.

… a thing might be too complicated or too hidden for our intellects to comprehend it. The true nature of the physical universe might be an example. It doesn’t follow that its impenetrability to finite intellects is a good-making feature of it.

Wainwright 84

I found this idea fascinating, in part because I’ve long been troubled by, or felt the need to problematize, my tendency to epistemophilia. Epistemophilia is the excessive striving for knowledge, or the general belief that more knowledge is always better. Wainwright is actually tackling the exact opposite assumption: if Christianity preserves a place for mystery at its core, can/must we also assume that that mystery is good, that intellectual impenetrability is, in fact, better than intellectual comprehensibility? Can we assume that mystery is a perfection of God?

I find this whole question and what it implies to be fascinating.

Wainwright suggests this perfection could be a second-order perfection, one entailed by God’s other perfections (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence). However, he says this second-order perfection does not logically follow, or at least we cannot guarantee that a perfection is in a causal relationship with another perfection simply due to the fact that the first is a perfection. He mentions the case of repentance, which he calls a perfection. Repentance only follows sin, therefore a perfection can follow an imperfection, even a sin. It cannot exist without the prior sin.

I got caught up thinking about how Wainwright is approaching and defining perfection. Let’s allow that the repentance he mentions above is, indeed, a perfection. But surely it’s only a perfection for humans. If God were to repent, that would mean She sinned, which would mean She would not be perfect. So repentance for God is not a perfection.

It seems as if there are two different systems of perfection at work in Christianity: one for humans and one for God. In other words, there are perfections for imperfect/finite beings and perfections for the Perfect/Infinite Being of God. I’d even go so far as to say there are different perfections for individual imperfect/finite beings — what is a perfection for one person is not a perfection for another, based on the distinctness of their history, personality, tendencies, and situations. I’m not totally convinced, therefore, that Wainwright’s example of repentance as a perfection acts as a good counterargument to the idea that second-order perfections can’t be assumed to be perfections.

Aka, if mystery is a second-order perfection dependent on God’s other perfections, since the Christian God doesn’t have imperfections, I don’t see anything illogical or erroneously assumptive in saying the second-order properties that follow from perfections are not, themselves, perfections. If those first-order perfections produced imperfections, I would assume they are not perfections — especially when the second-order things produced are a product of a whole set of perfections that would ensure the perfectness of the second-order perfections. Aka, I could see how God’s omniscience could enable Her to manipulate humans for evil purposes, but Her additional omnibenevolence would prevent Her from producing that particular evil. The whole set of first-order perfections work together to create/ensure all second-order qualities are perfections.

I just realized that I half agree with Wainwright. First-order perfections do not necessarily only lead to second-order perfections, but the Christian religion has constructed a God whose full set of first-order perfections work together and work on each other such that all second-order qualities are only perfections, not imperfections.

So my original point remains — there are different perfections for different kinds of beings (perhaps different individual beings) and the second-order qualities can only be judged according to the set of first-order qualities assumed or constitutive of the individual being.

Also, I think Wainwright would need to provide an example of when a perfection produced an imperfection for his point to be more salient. But enough about that…

(Quick note: I’m very glad he dismissed the “faith is supposed to be nonrational” argument. Nothing flies more in the face of one of the best qualities of the human than demanding we be nonrational to attain the highest truth, to claim that rationality is a weakness. One of the reasons I no longer profess to be a Christian is its rejection of or its failure to live up to the demands of rationality.)

While I won’t go through all the moves it took for Wainwright to get there, he ends up defending mystery not as a quality of the relationship between God’s nature and the intellectual capabilities of humans, but as a quality of God’s own Nature. This means that if God is mysterious and has perfect knowledge, She is mysterious to Herself. Wainwright wants to preserve this argument for God’s mystery, so he ends up claiming that while God has perfect propositional knowledge of Herself, Her own nature is “an object of amazement, wonder, and awe, which are the felt aspects, as it were, of a perfect experiential acquaintance with the depths of [Her] own being that necessarily elude even [Her] own compete conceptual comprehension” (95). So Wainwright is borrowing from the earlier definitions of mystery and bringing more of them together to explain God’s inherent mystery.

I’m not thrilled with the way Wainwright switched which definition of mystery he ended up using (it feels a bit like moving the goalposts), but it is a bit tidy. Christianity requires a sense of mystery, and I think Wainwright has demonstrated a decent, though not always internally consistent, way of defending what that mystery would look like under inspection.


The more I think about the definition switch Wainwright made at the end, the more I’m ok with it. If perfections are different for different beings (like I’m claiming), then the kind of mystery God is could be different for different beings. The mystery of propositional knowledge may be a perfection for humans, but not God. The mystery of awe and wonder may be a perfection of God. So God’s mystery can be a perfection (and thus an inherent characteristic of Her nature), but the way that mystery manifests is different for different beings.

This certainly works within my framework of how I think it makes sense to think about mystery as one of God’s perfections. I’d need to read through the article again to see if it holds for what Wainwright is arguing, and the claims he is making that I may have rejected.

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