All Spiritual Knowing Must Be Balanced by Not-Knowing

The Early Christian Church

All Spiritual Knowing Must Be Balanced by Not-Knowing
Wednesday, April 29, 2015

As the Christian church moved from bottom to top, 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 of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to keep their freedom and 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 perfected and taught. Contemplation alone could understand spiritual things properly, they came to see.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence, 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. It really does “work”! Today scientists might call it moving forward by theory and hypothesis so you are always ready for the next new discovery.

We do need enough knowing to be able to hold our ground, and I hope I’m offering a bit of that here in these meditations—a container and structure in which you can safely acknowledge that you do know a bit, and in fact just enough to hold you until you are ready for a further knowing. In the meantime you 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. We are all burdened by “know-it-alls.”

It is amazing how religion has turned this biblical idea of faith around to mean the exact opposite: into a need and even a right to certain knowing, complete predictability, and perfect assurance about whom God likes and whom God does not like. It seems we think we can have the Infinite Mystery of God in our quite finite pocket. We 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 and showing shocking (but merciful) freedom and inconsistency!

Gateway to Silence:
Teach me Your way.

References:
Adapted from Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, p. 51;
and Things Hidden: Scripture As Spirituality, pp. 19-20, 230

Image credit: 6th c. mosaic (detail), Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha, Israel.

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