Monday, October 22, 2012

God, that known unknown

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

On October 5th and 6th, another session of "Atrium of the Gentiles" took place in Assisi, an initiative of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture, that focused on the question of God. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Council and famous biblical exegete, conducted a provocative dialogue on "God, that unknown."

With the "Atrium of the Gentiles" an effort is being made to get believers and nonbelievers to talk to each other. The Atrium was the space around the Temple of Jerusalem that was accessible to the Gentiles (the heathen) who otherwise could never enter the temple. Now they are looking to remove the prohibitions so that everyone can get into the temple.

In this regard, allow me a reflection that has accompanied me throughout my life as a theologian: thinking about God beyond religious (metaphysical) objectifications and trying to interpret Him as an always unknown Mystery and, at the same time, always known. Why this way? Einstein gives us a clue: "the man whose eyes are not open to the Mystery will go through life without ever seeing anything."

Indeed, wherever we turn our gaze, towards the large and to the small, outward and inward, upward and downward, on all sides, we find the Mystery. The Mystery isn't the unknown; it's the known that both fascinates and draws us to know it more and more and, at the same time, causes wonder and reverence in us. Because it's always there, constantly offering itself to our knowledge and attempt to know it, we sense that our thirst and hunger to know it is never satisfied. But, as soon as we get it, it escapes from us towards the unknown. We chase it endlessly and it still remains a Mystery in all knowing, creating an invincible attraction and irresistible fear and reverence in us. The Mystery is.

My basic thesis is this: In the beginning was the Mystery. The Mystery was God. God was the Mystery. God is Mystery for us and for Himself.

He's a Mystery for us to the extent that we never end up grasping him either by reason or through intelligence. Each encounter leaves an absence that leads to another meeting. Each knowledge opens another window to new knowledge. The Mystery of God is not the limit of knowledge but the limitlessness of knowledge. It is love that knows no rest. The mystery doesn't fit into any scheme nor is it imprisoned in any doctrine. It is always yet to be known.

The Mystery is an absent Presence. And also a present Absence. It manifests itself in our absolute dissatisfaction that tirelessly and vainly seeks satisfaction. In that moving between Presence and Absence the human being is made, tragic and happy, whole but unfinished.

God is a mystery in Himself and to Himself. God is a mystery in Himself because His nature is mystery. So, God as Mystery knows Himself and yet, his self-knowledge never ends. He reveals Himself and retracts on Himself. The knowledge of His nature as mystery is always entire and full and, at the same time, always open to a new fullness, always remaining a Mystery, eternal and infinite, to God Himself. If it weren't thus, it wouldn't be what it is: Mystery. Therefore, it's an absolute Dynamism without limit.

God is a Mystery to himself, that is, however much He knows Himself, His self-knowledge is never exhausted. He is open to a future that is truly future. Therefore, to something that has not yet happened, but might happen as new for Him. With the incarnation, God began to be what He wasn't before. Therefore, in God there is a becoming, a self-making.

But the Mystery, because of intrinsic dynamism, reveals itself and communicates with itself permanently. It gets out of itself and knows and loves the new that manifests itself in it. What will be revealed is not a reproduction of the same but always different and new for Him too. Unlike enigma that, once known, disappears, the better known Mystery is, the more it seems unknown, that is, as Mystery that invites to more knowledge and greater love.

Saying God-Mystery is expressing dynamism without residue, a life without entropy, an irruption without loss, a becoming without interruption, an eternal coming to be that is always being, and a beauty always new and different that never fades. Mystery is Mystery, now and forever, from everlasting to everlasting.

Before the Mystery, words drown, images weaken and reference points die away. What behooves us is silence, reverence, adoration and contemplation. These are the appropriate attitudes towards the Mystery.

By assuming such an understanding, all walls are demolished. There will be no more Atrium of the Gentiles nor will the temple exist anymore because God has no religion. He is just the Mystery that links and re-links everything, every person and the whole universe. The Mystery penetrates us and we are immersed in It.

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