Part of our hike yesterday included something called The Devil’s Kettle of the Brule River, an unusual waterfall, to say the least. The river at this point splits into two parts as it goes over the falls. The part on the right looks like a normal waterfall – water comes down the falls and continues downstream. The part on the left simply vanishes into a pothole – the Devil’s Kettle. The mysterious part is that no one knows where the water goes. There is no visible outlet at the base of the falls or any other place downstream. Although it is assumed that the water somehow makes it way out to Lake Superior, no one knows how. It is a mystery.
We don’t tend to do well with mysteries. We assume we ought to be able to determine the answers to most questions if we try hard enough. Indeed, as we were watching the water flow into The Devil’s Kettle, Elena, my daughter, said with some exasperation, “someone must be smart enough to figure out where the water goes.” And people have tried (at least some of whom presumably are smart). They have thrown dyes into the pothole, they’ve thrown things like logs, but nothing ever comes out anywhere that anyone can see.
“It is a mystery” with respect to questions of faith used to frustrate me tremendously when I was in high school. It seemed like so many answers to the questions I and my friends had was, “Well, that is just one of the mysteries of the Catholic faith.” It may be that that answer was given more frequently than it should have been. But the truth is that sometimes the answer really is, “it’s a mystery.” Although we use many words to talk about God, at some level we are forced to admit that God is mystery.
In Doing the Truth in Love, Michael Himes et al write:
The first and most important thing to know in theology is that whatever you think of when you hear the word “God” is not God. However deep, however rich, however noble, however powerful, however loving, however scripturally-based or traditionally-sanctioned, whatever the image is, it is not God because God remains mystery. We must take that very seriously….The word God functions like x in algebra. It is a stand-in for the mystery, just as, when someone works out an algebraic equation, all the attention focuses on x which designates that which is unknown. So, too, the word “God” functions as a handy bit of shorthand for the absolute mystery which grounds and supports all that exists.
We can try as hard to explain God as the people up here have tried to determine where the water in the Devil’s Kettle goes. But, ultimately, we need to simply accept the mystery. Creo en Dios