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Notre Dame Law Review Reflection

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A mystery of faith is a truth of religion that escapes human understanding. The mysteries of religion are not truths that human beings happen not to know, or truths that they could know with sufficient study and application, but instead truths that they cannot know in the nature of things. In the Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes that as a Christian apostle, his holy office is to “bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.” Note that Paul does not say that his task is to make everybody understand the Christian mystery, or to clarify it for ordinary human contemplation, but instead to complete or fulfill it. Similarly, in 1 Timothy, Paul writes: “Undeniably great is the mystery of devotion,” so great that comprehension of it is not possible. But one of the most striking Biblical passages concerning the idea of mystery in Christianity is in the First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul says:

And my speech and my preaching was not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in shewing of the Spirit and power; That your faith might not stand on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. Howbeit we speak wisdom among the perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, neither of the princes of this world that come to nought; But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew; for if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.

Here is a real division between human and divine understanding—between two different types of knowledge and ways of knowing— the “wisdom of this world” and “the wisdom of God in a mystery.” Apart from these Biblical passages, the Catholic Church often refers to the sacraments as mysteries. The lead-in to the Memorial Acclamation, a part of the Catholic Mass, includes the declaration, “[t]he mystery of faith,” in reference to the Eucharist. And other religious traditions refer to mysteries in their own respective systems of thought, worship, and practice.



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