Why there are no theological problems

Jacques Maritain somewhere makes a distinction that I find helpful between a ‘problem’ and a ‘mystery’. A problem admits of a solution – ‘can you prove Fermat’s last theorem?’ ‘is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?’ ‘does the Higgs boson exist, and if so, at what mass?’ – even if we don’t currently know the solution, it makes sense to look for a final answer which will lay the question to rest. A mystery, by contrast, can never be solved, only clarified; ‘what is beauty?’ might be a mystery: there is in principle no final answer, only a series of explorations (proportion; harmony; the sublime; …) which help us to think more clearly about the issue.

I propose (with no claim to originality) that the interesting questions in theology are all mysteries: we shouldn’t expect answers, so much as hints and definitions that serve to clarify our thoughts about the question. The same is true of most of the interesting questions in the humanities, I suspect: there are (as in theology) some historical questions that are in principle problems (‘Is the homeric corpus the product of a single author?’ ‘Did Hilary and Athanasius ever meet?’) – even if we have to conclude that the historical data will never be available to give a compelling answer, the questions remain problems: in principle they admit of final solution, even if we can never find it. But, ‘what is so special about Shakespeare’s plays?’ is a question that we might be justified in concluding we will never have a complete answer to; there will always be more to be said. (Incidentally, this is not straightforwardly an arts/sciences distinction; I know enough particle physics to regard the question ‘what is an electron?’ (or indeed a Higgs boson) as a mystery: we can model its behaviour mathematically with some accuracy, but it behaves sometimes as a particle, sometimes as a wave, most often as a dispersed probability function (whatever that might be) – its essence appears unknowable, even if its effects can be known.)

Can we ever make advances when we turn to mysteries? The answer is yes – otherwise the humanities would not be worth studying – but the advances are of a different kind. If I can’t hope to discover the whole truth about what makes Shakespeare’s writing so powerful, I can discover aspects of it – and benefit from them (even really trivially, any writer or, particularly, public speaker can improve enormously by studying his use of blank verse). If I can never define beauty exhaustively, I can always understand it a bit better, and give insights it what makes a thing beautiful (I remember the first time I read Ruskin, noticing a comment about parallel lines in the composition of a painting; a couple of days later, I was looking at one of my favourite landscapes, and suddenly saw how that hillside, and that hedgerow, and that roofline, and several other lines in the picture all ran in parallel. This is far from the only thing that makes the picture beautiful, but I understood something more then of why it gripped me.)

Theology often advances by proposing and accepting negative limits to its mysteries: here are some things that must not be said, some lines that cannot be crossed without embracing error. (I was marking essays on Chalcedon this week, which is the classic example: the hypostatic union happened ‘without confusion, without change,without division, without separation’: a series of exclusion clauses that announce that, whatever accounts of the incarnation might be proposed, they must lie on the right side of these lines.) This sort of negative elucidation demands the highest intellectual precision to be done well; the medieval doctors – St Thomas Aquinas; John Duns Scotus; … – are the great models, careful distinctions and subtle arguments deployed to discover with precision the limits of human knowledge.

At the same time, as theologians, we often propose models (here is my account of divine sovereignty, providence, and human freedom; there is yours of God’s triune life; …). At our best, I think we know that our models are just that: models, provisional and partial illustrations that might help us better comprehend this or that mystery. Theology becomes pathological when – as happens far too often in my own, Evangelical, tradition – we mistake the mysteries for problems, and think that our task is to solve them, to give answers that are complete and correct, to bring final resolution to the questions. And theology becomes irrelevant when, as happens far too often in mainstream academic theology today, an awareness of the lack of final answers becomes an excuse to stint on the hard work of careful logic, and to substitute empty rhetorical flourish.

The theologian must be humble, knowing that it will take her hardest intellectual efforts to do know more than bring a little clarity to a question. And she must be cheerful, knowing that, in the good providence of God, bringing a little clarity is itself a work worth doing.


  1. paulthebaptist
    Jan 10, 2012

    Thank you Steve. A helpful blog….

    • Steve H
      Jan 10, 2012

      Hi Paul, welcome to the blogosphere!

  2. Jon
    Jan 10, 2012

    Similar discussion happened in philosophy and was the cause of the famous “Wittgenstein’s poker” incident between Wittgenstein and Popper – the topic under discussion (if memory serves correctly) was “Are there any philosophical problems?”

  3. Rowena Wilding
    Jan 10, 2012

    Steve this is a really helpful post, which comes at a really opportune moment. Since beginning my training I’ve moved more and more to the extreme left in my theology, and have sat there proudly. But recently I’ve found myself feeling uneasy at how incredibly dogmatic a position it is. As dogmatic as the extreme conservatism I have been rebelling against. How wonderful to have a reminder that the more confident we are that we have a handle of the truth, the further away from the truth we must surely be! I’m still learning to have a light touch, and your words here serve as a beautiful and eloquent reminder that I didn’t get into theology so that I could know the right answers, but so that I could know the right questions. The phrase “empty rhetorical flourish” will haunt me for many years to come, I’m sure!

    • Steve H
      Jan 10, 2012

      Thanks, Rowena. I hope ministry is treating you well? I’m not sure I know where the extreme left is theologically (or rather, I can think of several places, occupied variously by Don Cupitt, Leonardo Boff, Jim Wallis, Alan & Ellie Kreider, Thomas Altizer, Marcus Borg, … – many of those are people and positions that I have a lot of respect for.)
      But, yes, dogmatism is far from the preserve of the evangelical wing, and is always a mistake.

  4. Keith
    Jan 10, 2012

    Interesting blog post!

    A quick question: how do you know, a priori, that a particular question is a “problem” or a “mystery”? In other words, how do you know if an answer is available or not?

    The reason I ask is because the distinction you’re making seems to be based not on knowledge about how answerable a question is but on other factors, like subjectivity, or the length of time a question has remained unanswered.

    For instance, the question “what is beauty” has been asked since time immemorial, and has yet to be answered scientifically. But can we be certain that it will *never* be answered? With current advancements in neuroscience, a scientific explanation for the sensation of beauty and its origins does not seem entirely far fetched.

    Ultimately, it seems that the real distinction you’ve highlighted in your post is between theories and hypotheses. If there is enough evidence to support a claim, it becomes a theory. If there is not enough evidence, then the claim remains hypothetical. (This is what you seem to be saying here “At our best, I think we know that our models are just that: models, provisional and partial illustrations that might help us better comprehend this or that mystery.”)

    I guess I’m a little intrigued that anyone would be satisfied with devising hypotheses that can never be tested. What if these hypotheses, unbeknownst to you, completely miss the mark? Wouldn’t you want to know that?

    • James
      Jan 10, 2012

      Hi Keith,

      I’m also interested in his answer to your question. I’d just like to remark on beauty and neuroscience. Neuroscience can only completely answer the problem/mystery of beauty if you take a reductionist philosophy that says that sorting out all the neurological mechanisms involved in beauty would answer the question. If there is more to beauty than just how my body physiologically reacts to something, then that will not answer the question. And my gut feeling is that the question “Is beauty more than just my physiological response to my surroundings?” is perhaps a mystery, rather than a problem. 🙂

      • Steve H
        Jan 10, 2012

        Thanks for commenting, Keith, James.

        As I understand the concept of a hypothesis, it is necessarily testable, and so, in Maritain’s terms, a ‘problem’ (Fermat’s theorem, or the 4-colour map problem were always in principle soluble, even when we didn’t have a solution).
        So how to make the distinction? James indicates one issue that might be relevant, but could not be a complete answer, which is subjectivity. I’ve blogged before (see archive for Nov 2008) about Richard Swinburne’s argument that mental events are necessarily opaque to scientific investigation; even with an exhaustive account of your brain chemistry, I cannot know what it feels like for you to experience beauty (and ditto you/me).
        To include theology – or the nature of the electron – means to move beyond subjectivity, however. With the electron, it seems reasonably clear that we have run out of any even remotely helpful analogues from our experience, and so are left with something simply unknown. Of course, perhaps that could change – a new experience of an interstellar event, or a computer-generated model that we could observe directly, or something – in which case I would be wrong in my intuition here. That’s OK; I don’t claim infallibility, just good reason for making the suppositions I do.
        And that’s where I get to with theology as well. God’s ways are not ours, as Scripture repeatedly asserts or witnesses to, and the incomprehensibility of the divine essence is standard doctrine (it’s a crucial part of the ecumenically-received doctrine of the Trinity, indeed). So I base my intuitions about theology on a considered account of the subject-matter of the discipline, and of how others have worked with that subject matter.

        As I tried to indicate in the OP, proposed elucidations of a mystery are in some way testable (this exploration of beauty is better than that one, and within the canons of aesthetics, that can be demonstrated with reasonable confidence), and are useful; I think this answers your last point, Keith?

  5. PastorBrian
    Jan 10, 2012

    Thanks for this, though I think the line between Problem and Mystery is a little more blurred. For example, the colour blue is defined as being a particular light frequency, problem solved? No, Why do we see that frequency as Blue? Is it a mystery? Science doesn’t think so.
    Theological questions have been answered in similar ways, as a recent blog – Why was Jesus baptised? It can be answered by several different models – see the blog. I do agree that to do so requires a lot of hard thought and the answer will not be to everyones satisfaction. Only to your own. Surely that is the defining factor? If the answer sustains your faith and, incidentally, can help others then it is right for that situation and no other?

  6. Keith
    Jan 10, 2012

    Thanks for the response, James – I guess time will tell!

  7. Keith
    Jan 10, 2012


    I think we’re more or less on the same page.


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