Knowing and Not Knowing
All Spiritual Knowing Must Be Balanced by Not-Knowing
Monday, January 27, 2020
It is amazing how religion has turned the biblical idea of faith around 180 degrees—into a need and even a right to certain knowing, complete predictability, and perfect assurance about whom and what God likes or doesn’t like. Why do we think we can have the Infinite Mystery of God in our quite finite pocket? We supposedly know what God is going to say or do next, because we think our particular denomination has it all figured out. In this schema, God is no longer free but must follow our rules and our theology. If God is not infinitely free, we are in trouble, because every time God forgives or shows mercy, God is breaking God’s own rules with shocking (but merciful) freedom and inconsistency!
In the fourth century, as the Christian church moved from bottom to the top, where it was protected and pampered by the Roman Empire, people like Anthony of the Desert, John Cassian, Evagrius Ponticus, and the early monks went off to the deserts to keep growing in the Spirit. They found the Church’s newfound privilege—and the loss of Jesus’ core values—unacceptable. It was in these deserts that a different mind called contemplation was first formally taught.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing.
We do need enough knowing to be able to hold our ground. We need a container and structure in which we can safely acknowledge that we do know a bit, in fact just enough to hold us until we are ready for a further knowing. In the meantime, we can happily exist in what some have called docta ignorantia or “learned ignorance.” Such people tend to be very happy and they also make a lot of other people happy.
A few years ago, a man from Colorado came to visit me. He said, “Richard, when you were still in Cincinnati, I gave you a dilemma that I was struggling with; and you told me something that has been my mantra for 30 years. You said to me, ‘You know, you don’t really need to know. It’s okay not to know.’”
Then he said, “That’s been my mantra for 30 years—with my wife, with my children, with my business, in my politics. Whenever there is a dilemma, I just say, ‘I don’t know.’ It makes my wife happy, my children happy, and my life happy!” Tears started running down his cheeks. “You taught me this.”
I said, “I did? I don’t even live it myself!” But then, most of my preaching is really preaching to myself.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 51;
Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 19-20; and