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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What is Meant by a "Mystery of the Faith"?

What is Meant by a "Mystery of the Faith"?

By Jim J. McCrea

In the past, priests and catechists talked about "the mysteries of the Faith," which we do not hear discussed much in those terms any more.

This phraseology was commonly used when there was a greater sense of the supernatural - a greater sense of transcendence in the Church - and when the Mass evoked the feeling that the liturgy transported us to a higher world.

What do we mean by a mystery of the Faith?

There are mysteries such as the Trinity, the union of a human nature with the person of the Son within the Trinity, the Eucharist, the Mass, divine providence, and the coincidence of the justice and the mercy of God.

It is commonly believed that a mystery means that we have no idea how such a thing can be - that, for example, we cannot know how three persons can exist in one God. However, from a logical perspective, we can know how such can be, as in the Church accepted explanation here of how three persons can exist in one God and how Jesus can be God and man at the same time.

To accept mysteries of the Faith is not to accept irrationalities (and many unbelievers charge us with that when a mystery of the Faith is misunderstood). We can (in most cases) show that they logically fit together. I propose here how Jesus can fit into the little host, and I offer my solution here as to how the existence of evil is compatible with the omnibenevolence and the omnipotence of God.

This does not mean that they are not mysteries. There is a very important aspect in which they cannot be grasped by the human mind on this earth. They are knowable in one respect and unknowable in another respect. They are what are termed intelligible mysteries.

They are unknowable in the sense that we cannot know them as they are in themselves. But, at the same time, they are knowable because they can be understood by analogy.

What does this mean?

Let us look at God as God. God as God is a mystery. In this life, we do not know Him as He is in Himself (except perhaps partially by mystical illumination, not by our natural intellect). But we can know Him by analogy. When we say He is intelligent, knowledgeable, good, loving, powerful, beautiful, etc. we are applying what we experience as intellect, knowledge, goodness, love, and power, etc. to Him by analogy.

How does this work?

With analogy, two things are partly the same and partly different at the same time.

Let us look at the attribute of goodness that we apply to God.

We call both a person good and an automobile good. But they are good in entirely different ways. A person is good for love and an automobile is good for transportation. There is a sameness between them in that they have an identical metaphysical attribute of goodness, but a difference in that the modality or type of goodness is different.

It is the same with God. He has an identical metaphysical property of goodness with the person or the automobile, for when we say that God is good we are using a meaningful term. But the modality of God's goodness is infinitely different from the modality of goodness of the person or the car (or anything else we can know on earth). We cannot know that modality in this life. We do not know what God's goodness is in itself.

But because of the identity of metaphysical goodness that runs through all things that are good, when we say that God is good we literally and truly apply that attribute to Him. Similarly, when we say that God is intelligent, knowledgeable, powerful, loving, and beautiful, we say what is literally true, even if we cannot know the modality of those attributes in God. We are applying those terms to Him by analogy.

It is in the analogues that we have literal knowledge of God, but it is in the modalities that He is mystery.

It is the same with other teachings of the Faith such as the Trinity and the union of a human nature with a divine nature in Jesus.

We say that God is one being in three persons because the persons are distinguished from each other by their relations of origin alone. The Son is distinguished from the Father by the mere fact that He is begotten by the Father. In all other respects they are the same. By extension, the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit by the mere fact that He proceeds from the Father and the Son. If the persons are considered in themselves, apart from their relations, they are identical, hence they are one God. However, that analysis uses analogy. With that analogy, we can solve the riddle. But the Trinity is a mystery because we do not know to what the analogues apply in themselves. We do not know the modalities. We do not know the nature of God in itself (as explained above), and we do not know what it means for the Father to generate the Son in itself. But to say that the Father generates the Son is to say what is meaningful, because it is based upon the analogue of "generation" which we can know (the Nicene creed talks about the Son being begotten by the Father as "Light from Light")

Similarly, Jesus is God and man at the same time because a human body and soul were united to the person of God the Son, so that this body and soul is literally a part of Him (Jesus' body and soul have the person of God the Son instead of a human personhood as we do). In this life, we do not know that in itself. We cannot know, in itself, the union of a human body and soul to God the Son in that that body and soul is literally a part of Him. That is a mystery. But we do have literal knowledge that that is true because we know what "union" is and what "being part of" is. Those are analogues that literally apply to Jesus.

The same type of reasoning applies to the Eucharist and the compatibility of the existence of evil with the goodness and power of God.

This combination of knowability and mystery satisfies two deep needs of the human heart.

We want our Faith, on one hand, to be logical, rational, and intelligible; but, on the other hand, if reality were strictly confined to what we can know, it would be the most stifling of prisons. Happiness can only come by having something to look up to.

** End note - in heaven, the blessed there will see the modalities of those mysteries, or what they are in themselves, for their consciousness will have an extra dimension. But they will not be completely comprehended. There is a depth of penetration to them that the blessed cannot achieve. Only God can completely understand all things.