Knowledge and Mystery

When I was first studying philosophy, I overheard a conversation between an eccentric old philosophy professor and one of the other seminarians. It fascinated me. This old gent said that Our Lord defended the study of philosophy in the Gospels on that occasion when the disciples of Saint John the Baptist came to ask Him if He were the Christ:

“And John called to him two of his disciples, and sent them to Jesus, saying: Art thou he that art to come; or look we for another? … (And in that same hour, he cured many of their diseases, and hurts, and evil spirits: and to many that were blind he gave sight.) And answering, he said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to the poor the gospel is preached: And blessed is he whosoever shall not be scandalized in me.” (Luke 7:19-23)

By deductive reasoning from the sensible data they perceived, John’s disciples would judge — as Jesus encouraged them to — that the words of Isaias were being fulfilled, from which they might rightly conclude that Jesus was the Messiah. Rather than give them a Yes or a No, Jesus forced them to think.

I greatly valued the insight I got from overhearing that conversation in the refectory.

If Our Lord was giving us the ingredients we need to defend the study of philosophy — or at least of logic — He was more immediately showing His value for the faculties with which we ply that art. Without sense knowledge (“what you have heard and seen”), the inner senses of imagination and memory, and the spiritual faculty of the intellect, what Jesus tells the disciples of John is utterly meaningless.

The Son of God makes it clear that our eyes and ears work. By them — along with our other senses — we know reality; and when we conform ourselves to that reality, we walk in the truth. Further, recalling that Jesus cites the supernaturally revealed text of Isaias, we may reason with the data of revelation and with naturally acquired knowledge at the same time — something properly called theology. The result is knowledge of God and of divine things.

In contrast to the confidence that the Author of human nature shows in man’s knowing faculties, stand modern philosophers like Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, etc. (their name is Legion), who deny, in whole or in part, man’s capacity to know reality as it is. To use Kant’s language, we can only know the phenomenon (our perception of a thing), but not the noumenon (what really exists — in German, das ding an sich: the thing in itself).

In brief, modern epistemology, the theory of knowledge, is very wrong-headed. (That’s the disease. To learn about the cure, see my Aristotelian Epistemology and Leo XIII’s Thomist Revival.)

We orthodox Christians are not nominalists, who say that ideas are merely names we give to things, names which do not correspond to reality and the natures of things. Neither are we idealists, who seal up reality in some remote heaven of ideas which keeps them inaccessible to our intellects. We are classical realists, who believe that there is a reality, that we can know it, and that we can speak about it intelligently (and intelligibly) to others.

But to say that we can have an adequate knowledge of reality is not to posit that our grasp of reality is total, or complete. Only God fully comprehends reality. For us, there are many unknowns, and there are many mysteries, even in the natural order (cf. The Problem of Change: A Mystery of The Natural Order, by Brother Francis).

What is a mystery?

Coming from the Greek word, μυστήριον (musterion), the word means a hidden thing, a secret. In ancient pagan religions, a mystery was something that a new member of the sect had to be initiated into through rituals. New Testament authors use the same Greek word to speak of God’s hidden counsels that He has revealed to us: “Howbeit we speak wisdom among the perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, neither of the princes of this world that come to nought; But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory” (I Cor. 2:2-7).

The Catholic Encyclopedia further explains:

In conformity with the usage of the inspired writers of the New Testament, theologians give the name mystery to revealed truths that surpass the powers of natural reason. Mystery, therefore, in its strict theological sense is not synonymous with the incomprehensible, since all that we know is incomprehensible, i.e., not adequately comprehensible as to its inner being; nor with the unknowable, since many things merely natural are accidentally unknowable, on account of their inaccessibility, e.g., things that are future, remote, or hidden. In its strict sense a mystery is a supernatural truth, one that of its very nature lies above the finite intelligence.

Theologians distinguish two classes of supernatural mysteries: the absolute (or theological) and the relative. An absolute mystery is a truth whose existence or possibility could not be discovered by a creature, and whose essence (inner substantial being) can be expressed by the finite mind only in terms of analogy, e.g., the Trinity. A relative mystery is a truth whose innermost nature alone (e.g., many of the Divine attributes), or whose existence alone (e.g., the positive ceremonial precepts of the Old Law), exceeds the natural knowing power of the creature.

That there exist supernatural and even natural mysteries we cannot comprehend ought to keep us humble and full of wonder. It should make us, in other words, like little children, which Someone has said is a rather good thing to do.

The same Vatican Council (the first of that name) that vigorously defended man’s natural capacity to know truth — including the existence of God — by the use of his reason, also anathematized those who said that all the truths of the Faith are naturally knowable.

A supernaturally revealed mystery is not an oxymoron, a brain-teaser, or a conundrum. It is a “hidden thing,” to be sure, but a thing about which we may certainly know something. Otherwise, the Word of God Himself got it wrong when He said: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

The Catholic religion and its notion of revelation is not gnostic. Ours is not an esoteric mystery cult. We know truths that have been revealed as part of a public revelation, one accessible to all of good will. Certain things we know absolutely and with great clarity. Certain other things lie beyond our knowledge. Where the mystics, the saints, grow in knowledge of Divine truth by their holiness is not in the realm of doctrine or theoretical knowledge. They grow, rather, in experimental knowledge of God (or, technically, quasi-experimental knowledge). By the ascetical and mystical life of prayer, contemplation, and conformity to God’s will, they go beyond the dogmatic utterance and delight in its inner essence. They “taste, and see that the Lord is sweet” (Ps. 33:9).