Cafechurch, Faith, and Mystery

In a segment filmed for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN channel, author Brene Brown reflects on why she left the Roman Catholic faith of her youth, and how she has found herself back in the Episcopal church.

One of the key points she makes is that she originally “fell in love with the faith and the mystery piece.” However, over time her experience of church, “became less about faith and mystery, and more about politics and certainty.”

What does it mean for a church to live in “faith and mystery” rather than certainty? What is the relationship between “certainty” and “mystery” in a community of faith?

It’s tempting for a church to organise itself around certainty about particular theological positions: around who exactly (and it’s often worryingly exact) God is, and what the church is about, what the Bible is, and on and on along into a those multi-page statement of belief which ends up going into detail about the orders of angels and on and on and on.

It can very easily become something life-denying and deadening.

I understand the desire here. If the Christian faith is important to you, you want to use the best tools at your disposal to engage with it, and to protect it. You want something rigorous, that can stand up to the most serious challenges that can be thrown at it. You don’t want to be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” In 21st Century Australia, Christian faith is declining in popularity. From a world where Christianity was a default option if you wanted to get serious about life and meaning, we have moved into a time more reminiscent of Imperial Rome, where gods and goddesses and philosophies from every corner of the world jostle for attention. We want something we can put our faith in.

The alternative we fear is well described in by the Victorian Matthew Arnold’s poem On Dover Beach

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

When certainty is lost it can feel as though the great Sea of Faith which gave definition to the world, which provided a way of holding everything together, making sense of our experience in the light of eternal values, is like a tide running out. Our faith is then exposed as a sham. There is no joy, love, light in the world, which had previously been lit by Divine providence and love. Instead a dark plain, where only strife and death are the only possibilities.

However, I am here to tell you some good news! Don’t lose heart. The alternative to an increasingly anxious and ambivalent certainty doesn’t need to be ignorance and apathy, the dim evening in which all cats are grey.

I would like to suggest the idea of “mystery” as being a better way to go than either certainty or the receding sea. It isn’t complete ignorance, close enough to apathy as makes no difference. It is, instead, a kind of bounded knowledge. It is, in the first place, and admission to ourselves that we don’t – can’t – have all the answers, a certain theological modesty is appropriate. We can’t nail God down – as C S Lewis said of Aslan: He is not a tame lion.

It is more a matter of putting our confidence in something – in someone than in having a really good scientific theory. I know you’ve heard this a hundred times, and it always seems to lead to more of the sort of abstract theorizing of which you are sick to the back teeth. But bear with me.

I suspect that the problem is not so much the confidence with which a given theological position is held as much as the one-dimensional way in which it is held. It becomes an ideology, rather than theology. By which I mean an interlocking system of ideas which are held to completely answer any problem. The faith then becomes in the system, rather than in what the system points to.

Theology, said St Anselm in the 11th Century, is faith seeking understanding. What we have faith in is God, and God’s revelation of Godself through Jesus Christ – his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Not in theories about what it all means – important as these are.

This means that we can – we have to - practice generous orthodoxy. No-one has a stranglehold on the truth – but that doesn’t mean that there is in fact no truth. What is important is our orientation towards the truth. Just as science is an international community of practice devoted to a certain orientation towards reality, so should church be a community of practice, in its different way, towards ultimate reality.

The tools by which we do this are many. Discussion. Eating together. Prayer. Contemplation. And, yes, even theology. But once theology is seen as a conversation to which all are called to contribute, rather than a restrictive set of constraints used to exclude and to forbid exploration, even that can be life giving.

Fundamentally, the instrument through which we conduct our God-seeking experiment is ourselves. God revealed Godself in Jesus – the Word, made flesh. God cannot be fully described in two-dimensional words. Rather, God revealed Godself though a human being – the most complex thing we know of in the universe. Science wants to be able to describe the world through formal systems like mathematics, so that the knower can be separate from what is known. The formula for calculating velocity of a moving object is distance divided by time, no matter who does the calculating. It’s two dimensional. But knowing God is three (or more) dimensional.

It is final mystery that we are oriented towards. But it is not a mystery that is completely inexpressible. No human words can do justice to God. But, then again, we can certainly speak more or less well of God. No words are adequate, but some are clearly wrong. And because none of us has a stranglehold on the truth, it is far better to engage in the quest to speak more adequately of God with others. It’s easy to think I’m a saint if I live alone – but five minutes in community demonstrates quite how selfish I am. Rubbing up against other people helps us clarify our instrument, it reveals to us perspectives that we might have otherwise missed. And the Trinitarian nature of the Christian God suggests that there is something of fundamental value in community.

And that community of practice stretches further than the views expressed so confidently by the preacher, It stretches further than that portion of the human race who happen to be walking around on the surface of the planet right now. It has to include the perspectives of those who came before us – the “great cloud of witnesses”.

So, in the end, the problem with certainty, in Brene Brown’s sense above, is that it is like an attempt to render a three dimensional thing in a two dimensional drawing. Certainty is more appropriate to theorems than to things that can never be known in their entirety, never tamed, never pinned to a board like a butterfly and dissected. God is mystery – but not entirely unknown. But faith – the attempt to speak and live in the light of the God who reveals Godself through Jesus – is enlivening. Rather than perfecting a dead and deadening system, theology can be enlivening, drawing on the combined wisdom of the many, many people in all sorts of different cultures who have tried to think and speak adequately of God. And the church, if it is to have any future at all in this country, needs to be the place where we do that.

(A lot of the stuff about being a community of practice is from Lesslie Newbigin’s Gospel in a Pluralist Society. So if you’re interested in how this idea is developed in something longer than a blog post, check it out.)

(This was originally posted on Alister's blog at )