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Mystery is a gift

Heresy may have caused Orthodoxy to become formalized and explicit, but it didn’t create what Christians believe. Two common misconceptions about orthodox doctrines like the ‘Trinity’ are that they were “invented by Christian bishops under pressure from Constantine in the fourth century”, or that these “…formulations were trying too hard to peer into mysteries of God that should be adored rather than understood”, says Roger Olson. Ironically, the opposite is true.

Something heresies have in common is that they make Christian faith “too simple, too rational, too comprehensible to finite and fallen human thinking.” Orthodoxy on the other hand, is not irrational, it’s suprarational. These mysteries are above or beyond reason alone. Orthodoxy “doesn’t claim to explain the mysteries of the faith. It only claims to express the mysteries correctly and protect them from being reduced to finite dimensions of thought as if God were an object that could be studied and comprehended like something in nature.”

There’s a story involving the 5th century bishop of the Hippo, Augustine. On a sunny day, his eyesight bleary from spending the morning working out his thoughts on what would become his famous writing De Tinitate, or “On the Trinity”. He decided to take a break and get some fresh air as he walked along the seashore…

It was in this moment, as the frothy tide rushed out, that a little boy caught St. Augustine’s eye. The freckle-faced child had a determined, furrowed brow. He was clearly up to something, running back-and-forth, back-and-forth, between the sea and a tiny hole in the ground.

“My son,” St. Augustine called over the crashing waves, “What are you doing there?”

The boy held up the pink shell he was using to move water, “I’m trying to fit that great big ocean into this tiny hole,” he yelled, pointing assertively at the sand.

St. Augustine smiled, charmed by the child’s innocence, his bright eyes, the way sunlight shone in his curly hair. He then followed the boy to kneel beside the tiny hole, watching him spill out a few meager drops.

“My child,” the bishop of Hippo broke the news gently, turning the boy’s skinny shoulders to face the sea. He then spread his own arms wide, “You could never fit this great, magnificent ocean into that tiny hole!”

The child didn’t flinch, but responded quickly: “And you could never possibly understand the Holy Trinity.” Then in a flash, the boy disappeared.

Over the centuries, several have pondered this story. Was this child an angel? Was it Christ himself? Should the vision be taken literally? You can’t understand the Trinity, full stop? And yet, like the Ocean, we understand quite a bit, but we are also discovering new things and new life every day. We will never plumb the depths of God. If we think we've figured out God, then we can be sure that it's not God that we're talking about. Alternatively, we can draw from this well and find nourishment continually and interact in a way that is reasonable to a point.

If we find ourselves or others engaged in a project of making mysteries too simple, we’ve gotten off course. If we seek understanding and trust that there are good gifts and a coherence to God’s revelation to us, then we can enjoy the gift.

Heresies regularly try to pull God down to a level I can use and am comfortable with for my purposes. Orthodoxy, however, lifts us up to a new vantage, to undiscovered truth and unimagined beauty.

In 1884, Edwin Abbot, an English schoolmaster published a novella called Flatland. It is long remembered for its illustrative ability, contrasting two-dimensional space with three-dimensional space, allowing us to see things we couldn’t before. It has been used in other places since. Here is an example.

In this analogy, Heresy is a closed system making the world simple, neat, understandable in two dimensions. Orthodoxy, is a world of three dimensions; mysterious but not without direction and limits. Let's keep exploring.

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