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Knowing and Not Knowing

Soul Knowledge

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

Knowing and Not Knowing

Soul Knowledge

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

When Western civilization set out on its many paths of winning, accomplishment, and conquest, the contemplative mind seemed uninteresting and even counterproductive to our egoic purposes. The contemplative mind got in the way of definable goals for progress, science, and development, which were very good and necessary in their own way—but not for soul knowledge. We lost almost any notion of paradox, mystery, or the wisdom of unsayability—which are the open-ended qualities that make biblical faith so dynamic, creative, and nonviolent. Instead, we insisted on “knowing,” and even certain knowing all the time and every step of the way! This is no longer the enlightening path of Abraham, Moses, Mary, or Jesus but a rather late and utterly inadequate form of religion, which is probably why so many individuals, especially in the West, now say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I cannot fault them for that, though it sounds like the dualistic mind speaking.

We must remember that Christianity in its maturity is supremely love-centered, not information- or knowledge-centered. The primacy of love allows our knowing to be much humbler and more patient and helps us to recognize that other traditions—and other people—have much to teach us, and there is also much we can share with them. This stance of honest self-knowledge and deeper interiority, with the head (Scripture), the heart (Experience), and the body (Tradition) operating as one, is helping many to be more integrated and truthful about their own actual experience of God.

Contemplation allows us to see things in their wholeness and thus with respect (re-spect means to see a second time). Until Richard recognizes and somehow compensates for his prejudicial way of seeing the moment, all Richard will tend to see is his own emotional life and agenda in every new situation. This is the essential letting-go lesson (kenosis) of Contemplation 101, but such self-emptying does not yet feel much like “prayer” to the average person, which is probably why many give up too soon and frankly never truly meet otherness—much less the Other. They just keep meeting themselves over and over again. Only at a deeper level of contemplation do we begin to see the correlation between how we do anything and how we do everything else. We take the moment in front of us much more seriously and respectfully. We catch ourselves out of the corner of our eye, as it were, and our ego games are exposed and diminished.

Such knowing does not contradict the rational, but it’s much more holistic and inclusive. It might be called trans-rational although many think it is pre-rational. It goes where the rational mind cannot go, but then comes back to honor the rational, too. In our Living School, we call this “contemplative epistemology”—a contemplative theory of how we know what we know. Contemplation is really the change that changes everything—especially, first of all, the seer.  


Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 210, 214, 215-216.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Richard Rohr
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