Defining Doctrine Protects Divine Mystery

The Western Church is often accused by outsiders of being overly definitive. Even other traditional churches, such as our separated Eastern brethren, consider us to be too tied up in theological formulas. To be fair, Roman Catholics do place a much greater stress on dogmatic definitions than, for example, the Greek Orthodox. The Eastern churches emphasize the mystery of God; the utter unknowability of the Divine. Scholasticism has been found intolerable by the Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and even many Catholics alike. Dissenters sometimes think that we make doctrinal definitions because we don’t appreciate mystery. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Catholics attach such a great importance to precise theological formulas not for their own sake, but specifically to protect the mystery of God’s revelation. In other words, we have to be exact, systematic, and yes, even argumentative, in order to allow for legitimate wonder and awe to flourish. There can be no mysterious grey areas without the proper utilization of pure black and pure white. We do recognize, appreciate, and celebrate the mystery of God, so much so in fact that we are willing to put in the necessary intellectual work to make sure that this mystery is preserved, promoted, and allowed to captivate our minds and hearts in a way that only mystery can. The wonder we cherish is not a wonder of undirected confusion based on the acceptance of every idea offered to us: that would be wandering, not wondering. Agnostics have a sense of wonder, it could be said, but certainly not the same kind of wonder as believers.

No, our wonder must be built upon the ability to accept some propositions and reject others, a discerning process which leads us in a particular direction, though our destination always remains beyond our reach. As believers our wonder is based in truth, a truth which offers us definitions and doctrines that we can understand, at least to a degree. That understanding we grapple with does not take away our amazement, but leads us to a richer and more authentic experience of that which is truly amazing. Catholics are the most imaginative people in the world, and also the most rooted in reality. For us, imagination is not something which takes us away from reality, but something which gives us a glimpse into reality that can only be found by the faculties of the spirit. In his book Imagination in Place, Wendell Berry put it this way:

Fundamentalists of both science and religion do not adequately understand or respect imagination. Is imagination merely a talent, such as a good singing voice, the ability to make things up or think things up or get ideas? Or is it, like science, a way of knowing things that can be known in no other way? We have much reason to think it is a way of knowing things not otherwise knowable. As the word itself suggests, it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable.

An artist, for instance, is usually motivated by some interior inspiration for his work, be it a musical piece, a painting, a poem, or some other work of the imagination. He has real ideas behind his work; points he is trying to make, points which are likely difficult to make explicit. Perhaps he himself has no desire to try to make them explicit; he is content to let his art speak for itself, and to allow those that experience it to dwell in the beauty and mystery it elicits in them. However, if those who approach his artwork begin to speculate about its intentions, its characteristics, and its purposes—in other words: they begin to define it for him—the artist may feel the need to intervene. If his work begins to be interpreted incorrectly, ignorantly, and in a way which may deter his intended audience from the understanding he originally wished to instill in them, he may feel compelled to interrupt them, to give them some framework by which his art ought to be understood, and, if his would-be interpreters are persistent and confused enough, he may just have to spell it out for them in plain language. Why? To protect the mystery.

To say something is a mystery does not necessarily mean it lacks right and wrong answers, and certainly does not mean it in unanswerable. A story told badly cannot be mysterious. Imagination requires reasonable first principles, otherwise it devolves into senselessness. Give a child a blank piece of paper and ask him to write a story, and who knows what you will end up with. Depending on the child, you may get a meaningless combination of non-sequiturs, which may not even make any sense to the author when it is all said and done. It may even be offensive and inappropriate. If you don’t define at least a certain amount of the story, the story may never come together at all. By defining those parameters, those non-negotiables, however, you may bring about a new level of understanding, and may even discover something beautiful.

The current mystery which secularists are trying to destroy by re-definition or un-definition is the mystery of marriage. A perfect marriage is indeed unattainable in this life, and when we try to theorize what it would consist of, we find that it is hard to describe, or at least hard to understand and live out. But that doesn’t mean we can’t describe what it is fundamentally, and what it is not. We do not have to tell the world everything that marriage is, but we have to tell the world something that it is. The spiritual union created in marriage will always be a mystery, but it will always be a mystery that exists only between one man and one woman.

Sacramental marriage will always be an institution of imagination and fruitfulness; one which transcends the material and temporal world and creates new faith and love, new lives and souls. Counterfeit marriage (including same-sex union, divorce, and cohabitation) is utterly unimaginative; devoid of mystery. In its depravity it begins and ends in itself, laying waste to its proponents, its participants, and the societies it effects. A religious society (the only kind that can create culture, as opposed to mere association) can retain its mystery only when it rests on definitions. A secular society built upon the absence of definition is ultimately built on sand.

Thomas Aquinas, for example, worked diligently to construct the most detailed, systematic, and comprehensive philosophical work on theology the world has ever known. His articulation of transubstantiation, for example, did not take away any of the mystery of the Eucharist; it highlighted the mystery and protected it from distortion. He used such precision in his arguments not because he relished in formulas and definitions, but because he lived in such great wonder and amazement at the divine mystery. He was so specific not because he was unimaginative, but because he was a mystic. If we all thought about the faith we confess and the world in which we live with the same precision and clarity that Thomas did, we would not live in a world of reductionistic definition, as some on the theological left would have you think. Our lives would be filled with more imagination, wonder, and amazement than we could have ever expected.

Dusty Gates


Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

  • JP

    “Sacramental marriage will always be an institution of imagination and
    fruitfulness; one which transcends the material and temporal world and
    creates new faith and love, new lives and souls. Counterfeit marriage
    (including same-sex union, divorce, and cohabitation) is utterly
    unimaginative; devoid of mystery. In its depravity it begins and ends in
    itself, laying waste to its proponents, its participants, and the
    societies it effects.”

    Hegel once wrote, “The owl of Minerva flies at midnight”. For in the ancient world, the owl accompanied Athena. Owls were looked on in mythology as givers of wisdom; but, they were also seen as harbingers of death. Hegel’s quote concerned the role of philosophy and the death of culture. Once a society has been de-mythologized, once its mysteries have been solved under the guiding light of “science” (or Reason), said society is finished.

    Without a doubt, there are many in the Church, whether they realize it or not, who are not comfortable with Mystery. They like the concrete, the material – things they can see and measure. Marriage isn’t a mystical union; it is simply a “partnership”, a social arrangement. Ergo, if there are “issues” between husband and wife, the solutions can be found in counseling, self-help, and “community”. For these well meaning Modernists, marriage is best explained through sociology and anthropology. Priests and theology have no place.

    The owl indeed has taken flight.

    • Bruno

      Socrates was a friend of Reason to the end of his days (a much better friend than Hegel), and perhaps no man in Athens wondered more than him. I don’t think that there is only a mythologized/healthy society and a demythologized/dying society, no sir, because I’m a Catholic, and see no place for myths, nor have any motive to grieve their dismissal. Reason is no enemy of flourishing, au contraire, and I think that that is the point of this article. I’m sorry if I misunderstood you.

      • JP

        I’m not sure if you did. However, the language of so many in the Church betrays or at least downplays the idea that there are unexplainable mysteries. Their language is that of the rationalist. Hegel, and later Nietzsche took religion seriously from an anthropological point of view. Even that romantic Schiller made a distinction between “sentimental” poetry and “naive” poetry. The naive poet, when writing about God, actually believed what he wrote unlocked the mysteries of God and the Universe, while the sentimental poet wrote from a point of view of detachment. He mourned for what was lost wishing to believe; but, realizing at the same time that that was an impossibility. Schiller was thinking of Homer and himself. He mourned that unlike, Homer, his poetry could not re-fire Man’s longing for the infinite, for God.

        Hegel believed that de-mythologizing the Gods – in our case, the Holy Trinity, destroys societies inner strength, and ability to shape future lives and events. Nietzsche went a step further and declared the Death of God (through Reason) not only destroys society (in this case, the West), but would lead to a re-animalization of Man.

        I’m not saying either side is correct. However, it isn’t difficult to see the evolution of Catholicism the last 100 years – at least in the West. Pope John Paul II was probably the only World Historical Figure during the last 80 years who believed that Reason and Faith can live together, and are not mutually exclusive. But, we’ve fallen a long ways from the heights of Saint Thomas Aqauinas.

        • Bruno

          It seems to me that you ascribe to knowledge of God and acknowledgement of mystery a mythological nature, is that the case, or are only those opinions of Hegel to which you don’t subscribe?

          I don’t think that St. John Paul’s stance on the relation between Faith and Reason is a particular case, rather I’m under the impression that this is a constant assumption, even if implicit, throughout the centuries, back to the Fathers.

          Philosophy was never a stranger to theologians, and it is a modern myth (that one I acknowledge) that they are inimical. Indeed the common view is that the Church has kept man from knowledge – little does modern man know that it is only the Church that will enable man to know again.

    • Randall Ward

      Marx stole Hegels idea of; the State taking over the working out of history from God. The idea of the State completing history is the fundamental idea of communism. The god State idea hasn’t worked out too well in the past one hundred years. A man can be smart in many ways and yet be an idiot in the important things.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    A most penetrating and insightful article on mystery and the only way to touch or sense it–by way of imagination, by way of wonder, by way of co-natural knowledge in which persons by way of an intimate indissoluble union or natural, God-designed bond experience something beautiful, holy, or ineffable that cannot be reduced but only intimated, experienced, and felt in the heart and soul. As St. Paul tells us, marriage is indeed a great and profound mystery that gives some hint of the nature of the Trinity. Outstanding article!

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    A wonderful statement. Thank you for this article!

  • Guest

    God is experienced. His Energies are all around us, and the intellect is incidental. Not to be totally discounted, of course…but it takes a backseat when it comes to the power of God. Your own Thomas Acquinas declared his own works to be straw. I have heard a few Orthodox put forth the idea that God gave him a glimpse of the Uncreated Light, and it was this experience that caused him to disown his own work.
    We commune infants not only because it was the ancient practice, but because “understanding” is not required to experience the Grace of this Holy Mystery.

    • James1

      I do not have the exact quote at hand, but I believe St Thomas Aquinas’ words were more a comparison of his writing to the revelation he received. Not that his writing was straw, but as straw.

      • John200


  • Belleropho914

    I wonder to what extent the Eastern emphasis on mystery has been influenced by their physical nearness to, and more frequent interaction with, Islam.

    After all, in Islam, when something happens, they merely say “Insha allah” “It is the will of God” and they don’t seem to inquire much into why or wherefores of it all.

  • Shlomo (Constantine)

    People of different cultures have different needs. That is why there are different rites and different theologies. The Latin West should not feel defensive or intimidated. In fact, it needs to be defended these days. My baptism is of the East, however, and I am coming from Judaism. It seems, as George Santayana pointed out, that the West has not understood the Hebrew use of violent metaphor to convey a transcendental reality. So in the West, thinkers have tried to define the undefinable. We in the East call the Eucharist, “The Holy Mysteries,” and leave it at that. The doctrine of Transubstantiation of Aquinas is “as straw.” That is a good metaphor. That said, the Latin needs to be restored to its rightful place, especially in the Mass. Another mystery is the Torah Code. As a student of the Torah Code, it is evident to me from the Code that it is via the traditional Latin Mass that all our offerings and prayers ascend. That may sound a little strange, but there is a Hebrew reason for why the sacrifice of Messiah Christ was carried out in Latin and why it is via the Latin Mass all our prayers ascend, Christian and non-Christian. (You may contact me at my e-mail address if there is further interest)

    • Michael S.

      Asserting “different theologies” is the same as asserting different sciences (I think the term is latitudinarianism or what was described as the “two truths” which Aquinas fought against intellectually). This is illogical. There can only be universal theology just as there is universal science applicable to everyone. Therefore, a true and universal theology can furnish the needs of differing cultures.
      Aquinas also stated that no one can know the mystery of a single fly. Science has revealed to us the unbelievable mechanisms inside straw such as atoms, molecules and DNA that is both revealed truth and revealed mystery. In other words, the “straw” of God through Jesus, Creation, Reason and the Catholic Church is adequate for man’s salvation on earth and in eternity.

  • Nick_Palmer3

    Thanks, Dusty, this is an excellent essay. A lucid reflection on the integral nature of Faith and Reason. Revelation never contradicting Reason, but carrying us beyond it.

    And, I can’t resist (while on the subject of “doctrine”) taking a cheap shot at the line:

    “Give a child a blank piece of paper and ask them to write a story…”

    No, it should be “Give a child a blank piece of paper and ask HIM to write a story…”


  • Michael S.

    Mr. Gates states implicitly want needs to be stated explicitly. Imagination not grounded in truth and true doctrine leads to people like Wendell Berry (I live in Kentucky) to compare the sexual act of homosexuals to to the sexual act of heterosexuals justifying homosexual marriage. Youtube has a video with Mr. Berry interviewed by Bill Moyers at St. Catherine College in Kentucky. Also, when asked if he believed in God, Mr. Berry’s imagination seems to have fallen short. Also, another video of Mr. Berry speaking at Georgetown College in Kentucky led his “imagination” to describe republicans or conservatives as evil and “dark”. In the end imagination tethered to man alone and divorced from God leads to horrendous evil. It has been made abundantly clear that much imagination went into building a super efficient machine that could gas and execute so many millions of people with so few soldiers guarding the concentration camps. So, there is the complete spectrum of imagination that one must not ignore. In our time it is the “fruit” of this imagination used to justify the antiseptic cruelty of abortion revealing groups like ISIS as inefficient dunderheads.

    • Michael S.

      Therefore, true science and true religion furnish the beautiful boundaries for imagination so it can discover and reveal more of the innumerable and infinite fruits contained in the mysteries of Creation and God’s love.

      The more we know of the universe the more profoundly we are struck by a Reason whose ways we can only contemplate with astonishment. Pope Benedict.

      In relation to Aquinas and “straw” below: Albert Einstein once said that in the laws of nature “there is revealed such a superior Reason that everything significant which has arisen out of human thought and arrangement is, in comparison with it, THE MEREST EMPTY REFLECTION.” [my emphasis]

  • hombre111

    Thomas Aquinas wrote his detailed, comprehensive, and philosophical work on theology, celebrated Mass one day, look at his pile of writing, and said, “It is straw.” And, unless someone knows differently, he never wrote at that level again. The Catechism, as good as it is, already has its limits and, one day, it will also have to be written again.

    Theology is faith seeking reason. But it is a flawed process and all the work of the Latin Church does not make it that much clearer. First, the author of a book of scripture is guided by the Holy Spirit to write. But even with divine guidance, he has to explain the revelation to himself, within his own inner world, his world of experience, and his culture. He will not be able to shed his personality, his history, his emotions, or even his deepest hangups. Deep study of Scripture reveal all these things.

    When Paul the Jew went west, he entered the world of Greek culture. The philosophy that Thomas used came from Aristotle. Neo-Platonism played a huge role in the thinking of Augustin. The Stoics had their impact. The unfolding history of the Latin West played its role.

    I consider Fr. Don Gelpi, SJ, to be the new Thomas. In his books, he criticizes the dualism that taints the thought of Augustin and Thomas. Using the thought of American philosophers, he sets out on a course of his own. One day, I pray, he will finally play a major role. One of his concepts that I like best is an idea he takes from Charles Peirce, and American philosophers, which he calls contrite fallibilism. If there is any stone in the shoe of Catholic doctrine, it is assumption that somehow things have been said perfectly, and any new effort draws condemnation.

    But even de fide pronouncements are proclaimed within a world-view limited by language, by so-called eternal philosophy in a world that moves on, by the effort to explain a faith lived in one culture to people who live within a different culture. St. Thomas Aquinas would understand this. He could see that even his best efforts could be straw.

    • John200

      Dear Father Hombre,
      Thank you for, “Theology is faith seeking reason.” We will not get much further on this, because theology uses reason to understand the truth, based on faith in God.

      Second point: Thomas’ writing was masterful, and he knew it, because Jesus told him so. He stopped writing because he had a vision of God that exceeded anything he (Thomas) could put on paper. He had done enough. He did not abandon writing because it really was ‘as straw’ nor did he burn it, as he might have done under such belief.

      Best wishes in your fight against confusion. And don’t wait too long for Don Gelpi to be declared the new Thomas. Ain’t happening. Too much confusion. As a quick example, I will avoid the temptation to follow up Augustine’s and Thomas’ dualism.

      New efforts draw condemnation if they are contrary to the truth, sometimes heretical, other times outright schismatic. Basing your thought on an American pragmatist’s thought is hazardous to your connection to revealed truth.

      • hombre111

        St. Thomas’ writing is masterful. Slogging through his Summa is also a drag, something I do every once in a while on my Kindle. Depends on which pragmatist you are reading.

        • John200

          I was referring to C. S. Peirce, following your lead. I know the rest of the pragmatists (at one time I was under their spell), but this time it was Charles Peirce.

          When I first read Thomas, I found him impossible. Fortunately, there are good commentaries, companions, shorter summas, etc. on the market. Walter Farrell’s is the one that got me through. He took 4 volumes, so that was slow, too. Peter Kreeft was a great help as well. Once I got clued in to Thomas’ style and purposes, the rest followed.

          On this point I salute you — 4,000 pages on a Kindle — you are a patient and persevering man! I could never do that. Give me hard copy, I want to flip back and forth through the pages, the Table of Contents, index, exhibits, pics (Thomas, where are the pics???), etc.

          Happy Palm Sunday.

          • hombre111

            You are right. Kindle is a pain. I have never managed to use its intricacies. Happy Holy Week.

  • Craig Roberts

    Oh yeah?…well then what are we to make of this headline (courtesy of…”Pope Francis: Doctrine is cold and leads to an abstract world without faith, hope and love.”

    • Martha

      I think it’s self-explanatory, don’t you?

      Pope Francis does not care about preserving dogma or doctrine.

  • Philip Lishman

    Yes. Studying the mysteries of God may help us turn unknown unknowns into known unknowns, which concentrates our faith.

  • Paul

    Christ commanded people to love, not hate. Nothing mysterious about that.

  • Randall Ward

    Good article Dusty, and thank you. You might want to read up on the history of the first seven hundred years of the Orthodox Church and all the Church councils. I don’t think you can say that the orthodox churches do not care for exact theology, since they are the churches that did the fighting to give us the Church we have today. Rome was just a bit player in the battles.
    The CC is just the bloody stump that is left from the destruction of the Great Orthodox Churches. Sometimes we Catholics forget that fact.

    • Hesychast

      The Orthodox still exist, with about 300 million members worldwide. In most of the world, Orthodox faithful are poor, persecuted, and cling to God and His Church like a life raft in a sea of troubles.