Unknowing: Week 2

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

God, it seems, cannot really be known, but only related to. Or, as the mystics would assert, we know God by loving God, by trusting God, by placing our hope in God. It is a nonpossessive, nonobjectified way of knowing. It is always I-Thou and never I-It, to use Martin Buber’s wonderfully insightful phrases. God allows us to know God only by loving God. God, in that sense, cannot be “thought.” [1]

Karen Armstrong, a religious historian and creator of the Charter for Compassion, reflects on this theme across humanity and religious traditions [brackets contain my additions]:

Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has also been part of the human experience. Even today, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists find that the contemplation of the insoluble is a source of joy, astonishment, and contentment.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence. . . . Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness. “It is decisively the fact that language does have frontiers,” explains the British critic George Steiner, “that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvellously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours.” [2]

Religion is complex; in every age, there are numerous strands of piety. No single tendency ever prevails in its entirety. People practice their faith in myriad contrasting and contradictory ways. But a deliberate and principled reticence about God [talk] and/or the sacred was a constant theme [at the more mature levels] not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could be known only by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight, and this, I believe, is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today. . . .

We are seeing a great deal of strident dogmatism today, religious and secular, but there is also a growing appreciation of the value of unknowing [and unsaying]. We can never re-create the past, but we can learn from its mistakes and insights. There is a long religious tradition that stressed the importance of recognizing the limits of our knowledge, of silence, reticence, and awe. . . . One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of. We may have to unlearn a great deal about religion before we can move on to new insight.

It is not easy to talk about what we call “God,” and the [mature] religious quest often begins with the deliberate dissolution of ordinary thought patterns [and the ordinary egoic self].

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2015), 103.

[2] Armstrong cites George Steiner, Language and Silence (London: 1967), 58-59.

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Alfred A. Knopf: 2009), xiv, xviii.

Image credit: Stars and Clouds at Nighttime (detail), Arnie Chau.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing which now happily envelops you. You won’t know what this is . . . You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do.The Cloud of Unknowing

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