I won’t call it “negative theology” because that would be attributing too much to such a position, but it strikes me as closely related. I’m sure my theology friends will correct me and I’m eager to learn. So what do I mean by “theological mysterianism”? When confronted by the critiques of rational/natural theology, I often hear people respond with mysterian answers. What is a claim of rational theology? Such a claim might be something like the following:
God is, by definition a perfect being. If God is a perfect being, then God must also be morally perfect and must be omniscient, for when we ask ourselves what “perfection” would be, these properties are logically entailed.
If God is morally perfect, then the stories of Job, Adam and Eve, and Zeus committing adultery cannot be true, because they violate one or the other of these properties of moral perfection or omniscience.
How does the mysterian (usually an advocated of revealed theology) respond? Generally they respond with the claims that humans can’t possibly understand or know God’s perfection because we’re just lowly humans and lack the cognitive capacity to understand these things (or the infinite). In this way, the mysterian is able to preserve the truth of the stories they get from the authority of revealed theology (stories in sacred texts), by saying these things are beyond our comprehension. The argument runs “Although God appears to act immorally in Job, it’s only an appearance produced as a result of our inability to comprehend divine perfection.” Likewise, “Although the story of Adam and Eve appears nonsensical because there’s 1) no plausible reason why a divine being would need to experiment with whether beings such as us would eat the forbidden fruit, and 2) a being that did know how things would turn out but did such a thing anyway would be an immoral sadist, we just can’t understand God’s omniscience, rationality, or moral perfection. He had his reasons and they were good.” In this way, the advocate of mysterianism is able to defend the truth of these stories and stave off critique.
Such a strategy is fine so far as it goes, but it is not without consequences. If we submit the mysterian argument to weak transcendental analysis, we see that it assumes that God is unknowable. This has serious implications for discussions of God in public discourse. The mysterian began by wanting to save the stories they derive from revealed theology by saying that God’s nature is essentially unknowable. Not a bad strategy. However, what they fail to notice is that they’re burning down the house when they say this. If God we claim that God is essentially unknowable, that he’s a complete mystery, then we’ve sacrificed the right to say anything of God. We’ve sacrificed the right to say that God is good, that God’s creation is good, that God commands certain things, that there’s a reason for things, or that there’s any way that we can distinguish God from a tyrant (a being that arbitrarily acts merely based on taste and is able to establish his acts as sanctioned because of his mere superior power alone; like Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation). In other words, in a desire to preserve his stories as true, the mysterian abdicates any right to use God as a reason or premise in any argument about our moral duties, how the polis should be organized, why creation is good, etc. Why? Because the mysterian has said we can rationally know nothing because he is so far “beyond” (as Plato would have it) any rational comprehension. If you wish to make that argument, fine. However, in doing so, you’ve sacrificed any right to use appeals to God’s goodness and commands in your argumentation on any other issue. Notice, in making this argument I’ve done so in a completely immanent fashion. I haven’t appealed to any external or outside criteria, but have merely taken the mysterian at his own word and drawn out the consequences of those words. Somehow I suspect that no one is really a mysterian and that people who argue this way also argue that some knowledge of God is possible when they appeal to God.