Unknowing is a strange word. It seems to be an attempt to avoid using a word like ignorance for what it’s trying to say. But the fact that it is strange to our ears is somewhat curious because it is one of the oldest and most stable notions in western religious thought. Its roots go back to the foundations of Mosaic monotheism. “Unknowing” referred to the way one “knew” a “God” who was “unknowable.”
Moses had a vision of a “god” who spoke to him from a burning bush. He asked for this “god’s” name and the response was a NAME — so sacred to the Jews that it was never to be uttered — that meant “unknowable.” Translated into Vulgate Latin in the 5 TH century ce, it came into Western Christianity as ego sum qui sum, in English, “I am Who am.” This is not quite accurate, according to Philo of Alexandria, a first century ce Jewish philosopher. The Hebrew words, he says, translate rather to “I am who I am” which was a not-so-subtle refusal to give any name at all. In the context of a polytheistic culture which believed that having the names of gods gave humans power over them, the “no-name” response was a loud and clear declaration of divine independence. The unspeakable NAME then became the very symbol of transcendent monotheism for the Jews. It was not the philosophical “being” the greco-roman world has projected, but along with the Judaic prohibition against any depiction of “God,” the NAME evoked a presence that transcended human knowing. For the ancient Hebrews the closest they would come to representing “God” was an empty tent — the symbol of a nomadic “God” traveling with “his” nomadic people after their exodus from Egypt. The empty tent was another declaration of transcendence; it also said that “God” was unknowable and any imagery would be a distortion, a false god.
Tradition says the exodus is supposed to have taken place in the 13 TH century bce. Whatever the actual dates behind the stories of Moses and the NAME, it is minimally as ancient as the oldest redactions of the Torah, which date to the 6 TH or 7 TH century bce.
Some claim that Moses’ vision itself came from a 14 TH century bce Egyptian religious revolution closer to the traditional date of the exodus. The Egyptian reform centered on the recognition of a single divine principle, Aten, and the suppression of the traditional gods — Horus, Anubis, Thoth, etc — the images and myths of the Egyptian State religion. That brief interlude is referred to as the Armana period because it involved the relocation of the cultic capital to that city. Such a move was an indication of the intended depth of the conversion. It was a radical reform launched by the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It upended traditional patterns and ran counter to the millennial habits of the Egyptian population kept obedient through the myths of the gods and punishment after death. The “new” unknowable “One God” precipitated a strong reaction on the part of the established hierarchs and supposedly accounts for the subsequent obliteration of representations of Akhenaten after his death and the rapid dismantling of the changes made during his 17 year reign. He died around 1335 bce.
If the Egyptian connection to Moses is true, it means that an apophatic — “unknowing” — religious vision, expressed as an imageless monotheism, was not a unique revelation made by a supernatural “God” who chose to give this “knowledge” to one tribe alone. It was rather a fragile and vulnerable discovery of humankind, shared and transmitted since ancient times among anguished peoples who have had to struggle to defend this insight against the cultic constraints of totalitarian theocratic empires. Such a vision has always been marginated if not persecuted. From its very inception it revealed the intrinsic connection between belief in an unknowable god and the liberation of people from the religious mystifications maintained for the control of large and diverse populations. It was the bane of empire. Akhenaten’s reforms were perceived by the imperial Egyptian establishment as subversive of the state, and the Hebrew embrace of that vision, similarly, an act of political rebellion. It was a declaration of independence that at one and the same time was an event of religious and political liberation. It suggests that the two are internally connected. Liberation from the gods appears to be an essential component of liberation from oppression. But Why?
The current religious interpretation is that it “reveals” that “God” is a God of human liberation. But that ascribes an anthropomorphic intentionality to “God” that can only be taken metaphorically. I deny that the connection has anything to do with supernaturalism of any kind. I claim it is the expression of a necessary human dynamic generated around thinking that we know the will of “God.”
Simply put: Liberation from the gods means we are free from their demands. And in our contemporary context, that is exactly what the “unknowability” of God accomplishes. Admitting that we do not know what “God” is like means we do not know what “he wants.” Hence, what makes “God” completely unknowable also puts us beyond “God’s” control. If we do not know what “God” wants, there is no way we are obliged to obey him. We are free.
But notice, it also works the other way around. “Not-knowing” what “God” wants means there is no way that “God’s” power can be harnessed to human purposes. Why is that? Because there is no “obedience” of ours that could enhance our standing with “God” … which would in turn guarantee that “God” would feel obligated to do what we want. Even in the most anthropomorphic terms of naïve theistic conceptions, “God” needs nothing. The only thing that “God” could possibly want was what was good for us. That means what “God” does is love, not give orders. To call such love “God’s will” is a complete inversion of meaning, turning love into law. Wanting what is best for us does not respond to a “need” of any kind on the part of “God,” and we are not pleasing anyone but ourselves by complying with such a “will.” Therefore, even by traditional standards, we cannot “obey” “God;” we cannot “please” God, we can do nothing for God whatsoever … and so we have no claim on God at all. Not knowing “God” not only frees us from “God,“ it frees “God” from us. It preserves the transcendence of “God” and refutes any arrogant attempt on the part of any human “authority” to use “God” to exact obedience from other human beings.
I submit for your consideration: the entire spectrum of religion-based violence, so much in evidence in our times, despite its apparent variety of forms and motives, is ultimately reducible and insuperably bound to the claim of “knowing” what “God” really wants. That goes for the intergroup violence of war, exploitation and genocide … the interpersonal violence of family and gender … self-inflicted violence, … and violence toward other species and the environment. Once that false constant — “God’s will” — is eliminated from the equation, the logic that comouflages the violence we perpetrate on others is refuted. That does not mean violence will disappear, but it eliminates one major reason why we don’t see what we are doing even when it is staring us in the face.
Knowledge and unknowing
“Knowledge” is a critical category for human beings. We use our knowledge and the logic of the antecendent and consequent events that can be inferred from that knowledge to defend ourselves in an impersonal universe.
The introduction of rational order into the welter of unconnected incoming data is critical to human psychological stability; it represents our control of an uncontrolled environment. The animals have their instincts and their extraordinary bodies built for speed, strength and the mastery of an environmental niche. We don’t. We have only our minds and the representative imagery we generate about the world around us. It has allowed us to transcend the limited habitats of the animals, but it has also meant that we are weaponless against the world except for our ability to imagine “what’s coming next” and adjust our labors accordingly. Knowing “what’s coming next” is critical to our survival. Religion claims to have “knowledge” about existence itself and its apparent loss in death — “what’s coming next” — and how to deal with it, so we can continue to “survive.” Traditional Religion makes sense to us because it is the linear extension of the very same survival tactics we use everyday to stay alive and prepare for tomorrow. Religion claims it “knows” … and that that “knowledge” is salvation.
A different kind of “religion” — one that claims that it cannot know God — necessarily runs counter to these traditional resolutions of human anguish provided by mainstream religion. We call such religions apophatic, meaning that they say nothing about God. They eschew “knowledge.” In a sense, they can hardly be called religion at all, because the central dynamic on which they function is contrary if not contradictory to standard religion. Apophatic religions function on “unknowing” rather than “knowing” … on realization and understanding rather than “knowledge,” … and on autonomous self-actuation (compassion, justice and love — being “human”) rather than obedience to law, because they do not presume to know the “will of God.”
Mystics like John of the Cross are fully immersed in the apophatic tradition. Reading what they wrote helps us understand how this phenomenon impacts our social psychology. The mystics, when confronted with the impasse of “not knowing” what it’s all about, either did not take the “knowledge” detour offered by religion, or quickly abandoned it. They “left” religion and its “knowledge” and chose the path of unknowing, plunging headlong into their clear-headed ignorance, which they fully trusted, convinced that at some point it would yield what they were looking for — the truth about existence, life and death. The mystics, even the most institutionally loyal of them, universally rejected religious imagery (knowledge) as inadequate to their quest for “contact” with existence. They counseled emptiness — the mistrust of all clarity of ideas or images — in the search for “God.” They were convinced that the human ignorance about existence, which we all experience, is rooted in the very unknowability of God … and therefore it was the “way” to establish contact. “In order to arrive at what you do not know,” said T.S.Eliot, “you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.”
They realized that there was no new “knowledge” to be had. It seems that at some point an “enlightenment” occurred for them that did not turn ignorance into “knowledge” but rather into an understanding or realization of the ultimate “goodness” of things just the way they are … that they themselves were absolutely where they were supposed to be, doing exacltly what they were supposed to be doing. There was nowhere they needed to go, and nothing they needed to do. Their quest ended; they had arrived. They found that they were already in the “heaven” that they were taught that they should strive for in another world after death. Gregory of Nyssa, a 6 TH century Greek Father and mystic, taught that “heaven” was not a place, but a state of mind. The world such as it is was dripping with the very love and benevolence they had roamed so far and wide to find. This “enlightenment” they called unknowing because it was not “knowledge.” The Buddha said it was as if we had a “third eye” and it suddenly opened.
I claim that what they encountered was that in which all things live and move and have their being … what some of them call “God.”