Mystery and Dogma in Religion
Ezekiel 20:49
Then said I, Ah Lord GOD! they say of me, Does he not speak parables?

There is a tone of remonstrance and expostulation in these words of the prophet. He is evidently conscious that because of something in the nature of his message, that message will be unpopular with his hearers. There is in that which God has given him to speak, something that for this reason he would fain have altered — something, not in the substance, but in the style and form of his address, which he fain would phrase otherwise. "Ah Lord God, that which I have to say to these people comes to them in an unacceptable form; they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?" Whatever this stumbling block was, in the manner and form of the message, that lay in the way of its acceptance, he would fain remove it if possible. And so in his entreaty is implied a petition that he might be allowed and enabled to explain his parable. "Ah Lord God, if it may be so, may I but utter plainer speech; they say of me, Doth he not speak parables." Most natural was the objection of the hearers?; most natural was the desire of the teacher to accommodate himself and his message to that objection, and yet distinctly sinful was the desire on both parts, for these words that the prophet had to speak were not his words to alter as he pleased; they were God's words. What, then, was the demand of Israel, and what was the admission of the prophet? Was it not this, to doubt whether the form in which the Lord had cast His own message was the most perfect one, to doubt whether, in some way, He or they might not improve, or have it improved upon? And what was this but of the very essence of unbelief? The message of the Church to the world is like the message of the prophets of old, in part plain, in part mysterious, and as it were in parables. Very plain and very simple words has the Church of Christ, in the name of her Master, to speak to men when she tells us that "in the midst of life we are in death"; when she tells us that "we have erred and strayed from the right way like lost sheep"; when she bids us "Wash and make clean, and put away the evil of our doings, and seek to do justice, relieve the oppressed, and plead the cause of the fatherless and widow." But then, she has other words to speak that are not so plain, and not so easily intelligible, words that are full of mystery, words that sound like parables in the ears of those who listen to them. She has to speak of a Father who sent an incarnate Son into the world to die for men. She has to speak of the mystery of the Incarnation, and the Resurrection, and the Atonement, and the Ascension, and the descending of the Spirit, the eternal life of man and the eternal life to come. And as she speaks these mysteries, and as she speaks them dogmatically in the name of Him who has commissioned her by His authority to press them, on that authority, for the acceptance of man, she meets the answer from the world the prophet met of old, "We will accept your plainer truths, but we revolt from your darker sayings; speak to us plainly, and in no proverb." Is not that the difficulty that the Church encounters again and again? Is it not the difficulty which she encounters at this moment as she faces what is called "the spirit of the age," and the century in which she lives? How often do we hear and read in almost familiar forms of modern literature expressing the heart and thought of the age: "Give us natural religion, but give us less of your dogma; we care not for your theology and its mysteries, give us religion only." And the temptation of the Church is now, as of old, to yield to that cry, not for her own sake, but for the sake of her message, to soften down some of its difficulties, to explain away some of its strange sayings, in the hope that it may be more acceptable to men — in the vain and the utterly delusive hope that it will be so accepted. No, not so can we save our creed, and yet the temptation to do so is a sore one. Our duty is to say plainly to those who thus speak to us, "The words that you will have us alter, and the very form of those words — and we dare not distinguish between the form and the essence, for we believe the form to be Divine — are not our words to change, even to win your faith and your assent; they are God's words. Mysterious they may be, but we are the stewards of the manifold mysteries of God, and we dare not for our own sakes, and we need not for yours, add to or diminish aught from the words of the message of our Lord." But while the Church is thus sternly faithful to her mission; while she speaks and must ever speak the dogma or parables that our Lord has given her to speak; while she cannot give to men what they ask for from her, a religion without mystery, — she may at least strive to show to men the reasonableness of mystery and the necessity of dogma. We may not alter the parable we have to speak, but we may at least show them that there is some reasonableness in listening to that parable. Let us, for a moment or two, consider the attitude of the Church in the present day to those who denounce in her teaching its dogma and its mystery, and let us see if we can find something to help the difficulty of the objectors, and something at the same time to lead us ourselves to a deeper faith, and therefore to a real and bolder utterance of all the mysteries of our religion. And now, if we look at the objections that are commonly made on this ground in our popular literature or otherwise, to Christianity, we will find, I think, that they divide themselves under two heads. One is the objection to the mysteriousness and difficulty of Christian dogma, and another to what is described as the unreality of the language respecting Christian experience. Now a word or two upon each of these, and in the first we may just, in passing, remind the most scientific and logical of the objectors to dogma and mystery of this fact, that very much of the belief, the scientific belief, of mankind in their own teachings is, for the mass of those who receive it, nothing but dogmatism. Is it then altogether so inconceivable a thing, and so strange, that the all-wise and infinite intelligence of the Author of this world should deal with us, even the most learned and wisest of us, as the most learned and wise of us deal with inferior intelligences, and that He should give us in form of a dogmatic utterance that which we could never have discovered for ourselves? But passing on from this, let us ask next, is it possible for us to comply with this request that we should eliminate all dogma and all mystery from religion? Let us try to do it for one moment. Let us suppose that we have banished from Christianity, and from the word that Christianity has to speak to men, all those technical and mysterious terms about the Trinity and incarnation and atonement and regeneration, and that we have simplified our message. To what shall we reduce it? We may reduce it at least to two words, and beyond these it will not bear any reduction, if it is to be a religion at all. We must speak of God, and we must speak of man. For what is religion but the joining together of God and man? And when we name these two words — and these words must make part of all or any religion — have we got rid of mystery? Are there two words more fraught with mystery than these two? And for this reason, that God and man are not words, are not notions; they are facts. They are the facts of our life and of our being, and the difficulties that arise — the difficult thoughts of God and man — and the mysteries, parables, and dogmas that underlie these thoughts have vexed the hearts and souls of men before Christ was born, and they would vex them still if the name of Christ was forgotten. There are not merely difficulties and mysteries and parables in religion, but there are difficulties, mysteries, and parables in philosophy, and fact, and in human nature; you cannot escape them. The awful shadows of these mysteries wrap us round wherever we go; we cannot avoid them, we cannot escape them merely by bidding those who talk about them not to speak parables about them. Parables are in our hearts and souls and nature, and in the worm around us; in the very air, as it were, of our intellectual breath and thought, and we cannot cease to feel them without ceasing to exist, any more than we can live our natural life or cease to draw the vital air of the atmosphere without ceasing to live our natural life. We cannot, then, you see, escape from dogma, and parable, and we cannot escape from them in our speech or in our religion. It must and ought to be so. Can we escape from cant? What is the meaning of the word cant? Cant in its strictly etymological and historical meaning is this — the language of the initiated: a language known to those engaged in any business or occupation, the terms of which are terms of art, technical terms, and as such are only known and understood by those who practise the art. It means the technical language of any business, or art, or science. Religion is a science, and it is an art, — the science of the knowledge of God, and the art of holy living. And therefore it must necessarily have cant. But there is no more unreality in the cant of religion than there is unreality in the cant of medicine, or of law, or of trade, and the most offensive of all cant is the cant of irreligion and of scepticism. But although we have seen that Christianity must thus be mysterious in its doctrine at times, and must be peculiar at others, though we know that there is something apparently unreal and unmeaning in the words that describe its life, and although we must not shrink from dogma, nor shrink again from the accusation of religious cant, there is a warning for us Christians and us teachers of Christianity in this objection of the world and of the age that we do well to listen and give solemn heed to. It is quite true that men may be guilty of religious cant in a bad sense, and not in a good sense. And they are so whenever the words of their religious life — however true and important in themselves — are used by them without some corresponding emotion and experience in their own hearts; whenever the words that describe the Christian life become unreal upon our lips, that is to say, in other words, whenever our life falls below the level of our religious speech or our religious prayer. Then are we speaking cant, and cant that is mischievous and deadly to our own spiritual life. In the last place, we thank God for this — there is the power of bringing a better reality, a nobler life, into our speech by living our creed. Our creed becomes for us real. Men may so live that their prayers and their creeds are the living utterances of the new life that is day by day stealing into their very heart and life. And as the man becomes child-like, he is able to understand the meaning of the creed in which he expresses his belief in the Father. As the man becomes Christ-like, he can understand the meaning of the word Christ. As the man becomes spiritual, more and more does he understand the sentence in his creed which speaks of the giving of God's Holy Spirit to dwell amongst us; and prayer and repentance, and conversion and approach to God, and assurance and hope, and every other word of Christian experience, become for him new words, because they become for him new facts in his fife. As he dwells more and more in the heavenly land, he learns more and more of the heavenly speech, and so the creed fills the life with light, and the life reflects back that light upon the creed. We are not to be as children, simply listening to parables of our faith, as children listen to nursery stories. We are not merely "children crying in the night," we are not merely "children crying for the light." Rather we are to live as Christian men, rather as brave and strong men, with patient and quiet and trusting hearts — walking along the hard ways of life: ways that are chequered by shadow of the Cross, and lightened with the glory of the crowned Christ; and it may be that, bent and bowed beneath the weight of difficulty and trial, and the weariness of life, our eyes rest upon the path lust where our feet can stand, and see even there such pure light from our creed that it becomes a great revelation from the Father in heaven, who has given us our lot to walk and work in life.

(Abp. Magee.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then said I, Ah Lord GOD! they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?

WEB: Then I said, Ah Lord Yahweh! they say of me, Isn't he a speaker of parables?

Infidel Hearers
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