[I]t must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.
C. S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” Rehabilitations.
John Calvin distrusted speculative theology. He seems to have thought that it was disrespectful. There are many things in theology that are mysteries; they must simply be pondered. The longer you sit with a mystery the more deeply you may move into it, but you will never be able to walk all the way around it, define it, measure it, or solve it. When confronted with a mystery, Calvin always counseled silence. As an example of this, you will look in vain for any description of heaven in his writings, even though he mentions the reality of heaven fairly often. He was not a great fan of “producing new metaphors,” as Lewis advocates doing in the quotation above. He was distrustful of imagination.
There is something admirable about this approach. It is certainly true that when confronted with a mystery we need to speak with humility, and often we end up saying more about what is not true than about what is true. We call this approach the negative way, and it can be very powerful, especially when speaking about God Himself. There are many times when we need to say “God is not this,” or “God is unlike us,” or “God does not share this quality with us,” and then leave it at that.
But that is not quite the same thing as silence. In our present pluralist context, silence communicates something quite other than what it communicated in Calvin’s sixteenth-century European context. John Calvin lived in world where almost everyone believed in God, and there were very few people who wanted to deny the existence of the supernatural, so claiming that something was too mysterious to be understood made sense to most people, even those who didn’t agree with a particular Christian doctrine. In our time and place, Calvin’s sort of silence has a different meaning, suggesting that what we believe is irrational and that we are believing it blindly. In a disenchanted world, people expect to be able to explain and ultimately to control everything around us. In our context, if your only response to a challenge to your faith is “It’s a mystery,” that looks like intellectual surrender.