Defining Doctrine Protects Divine Mystery

The Western Church is often accused by outsiders of being overly definitive. Even other traditional churches, such as our separated Eastern brethren, consider us to be too tied up in theological formulas. To be fair, Roman Catholics do place a much greater stress on dogmatic definitions than, for example, the Greek Orthodox. The Eastern churches emphasize the mystery of God; the utter unknowability of the Divine. Scholasticism has been found intolerable by the Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and even many Catholics alike. Dissenters sometimes think that we make doctrinal definitions because we don’t appreciate mystery. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Catholics attach such a great importance to precise theological formulas not for their own sake, but specifically to protect the mystery of God’s revelation. In other words, we have to be exact, systematic, and yes, even argumentative, in order to allow for legitimate wonder and awe to flourish. There can be no mysterious grey areas without the proper utilization of pure black and pure white. We do recognize, appreciate, and celebrate the mystery of God, so much so in fact that we are willing to put in the necessary intellectual work to make sure that this mystery is preserved, promoted, and allowed to captivate our minds and hearts in a way that only mystery can. The wonder we cherish is not a wonder of undirected confusion based on the acceptance of every idea offered to us: that would be wandering, not wondering. Agnostics have a sense of wonder, it could be said, but certainly not the same kind of wonder as believers.

No, our wonder must be built upon the ability to accept some propositions and reject others, a discerning process which leads us in a particular direction, though our destination always remains beyond our reach. As believers our wonder is based in truth, a truth which offers us definitions and doctrines that we can understand, at least to a degree. That understanding we grapple with does not take away our amazement, but leads us to a richer and more authentic experience of that which is truly amazing. Catholics are the most imaginative people in the world, and also the most rooted in reality. For us, imagination is not something which takes us away from reality, but something which gives us a glimpse into reality that can only be found by the faculties of the spirit. In his book Imagination in Place, Wendell Berry put it this way:

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Fundamentalists of both science and religion do not adequately understand or respect imagination. Is imagination merely a talent, such as a good singing voice, the ability to make things up or think things up or get ideas? Or is it, like science, a way of knowing things that can be known in no other way? We have much reason to think it is a way of knowing things not otherwise knowable. As the word itself suggests, it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable.

An artist, for instance, is usually motivated by some interior inspiration for his work, be it a musical piece, a painting, a poem, or some other work of the imagination. He has real ideas behind his work; points he is trying to make, points which are likely difficult to make explicit. Perhaps he himself has no desire to try to make them explicit; he is content to let his art speak for itself, and to allow those that experience it to dwell in the beauty and mystery it elicits in them. However, if those who approach his artwork begin to speculate about its intentions, its characteristics, and its purposes—in other words: they begin to define it for him—the artist may feel the need to intervene. If his work begins to be interpreted incorrectly, ignorantly, and in a way which may deter his intended audience from the understanding he originally wished to instill in them, he may feel compelled to interrupt them, to give them some framework by which his art ought to be understood, and, if his would-be interpreters are persistent and confused enough, he may just have to spell it out for them in plain language. Why? To protect the mystery.

To say something is a mystery does not necessarily mean it lacks right and wrong answers, and certainly does not mean it in unanswerable. A story told badly cannot be mysterious. Imagination requires reasonable first principles, otherwise it devolves into senselessness. Give a child a blank piece of paper and ask him to write a story, and who knows what you will end up with. Depending on the child, you may get a meaningless combination of non-sequiturs, which may not even make any sense to the author when it is all said and done. It may even be offensive and inappropriate. If you don’t define at least a certain amount of the story, the story may never come together at all. By defining those parameters, those non-negotiables, however, you may bring about a new level of understanding, and may even discover something beautiful.

The current mystery which secularists are trying to destroy by re-definition or un-definition is the mystery of marriage. A perfect marriage is indeed unattainable in this life, and when we try to theorize what it would consist of, we find that it is hard to describe, or at least hard to understand and live out. But that doesn’t mean we can’t describe what it is fundamentally, and what it is not. We do not have to tell the world everything that marriage is, but we have to tell the world something that it is. The spiritual union created in marriage will always be a mystery, but it will always be a mystery that exists only between one man and one woman.

Sacramental marriage will always be an institution of imagination and fruitfulness; one which transcends the material and temporal world and creates new faith and love, new lives and souls. Counterfeit marriage (including same-sex union, divorce, and cohabitation) is utterly unimaginative; devoid of mystery. In its depravity it begins and ends in itself, laying waste to its proponents, its participants, and the societies it effects. A religious society (the only kind that can create culture, as opposed to mere association) can retain its mystery only when it rests on definitions. A secular society built upon the absence of definition is ultimately built on sand.

Thomas Aquinas, for example, worked diligently to construct the most detailed, systematic, and comprehensive philosophical work on theology the world has ever known. His articulation of transubstantiation, for example, did not take away any of the mystery of the Eucharist; it highlighted the mystery and protected it from distortion. He used such precision in his arguments not because he relished in formulas and definitions, but because he lived in such great wonder and amazement at the divine mystery. He was so specific not because he was unimaginative, but because he was a mystic. If we all thought about the faith we confess and the world in which we live with the same precision and clarity that Thomas did, we would not live in a world of reductionistic definition, as some on the theological left would have you think. Our lives would be filled with more imagination, wonder, and amazement than we could have ever expected.


  • Dusty Gates

    Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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