(This is the second of two essays on this topic. The first is immediately below it)
But still and all, have we answered the question … why the word unknowing? Why not ignorance? There are reasons the mystics created it, and why generations of them have sustained it and preserved it in translation into many languages. Unknowing is not the same as ignorance.
Unknowing is engaged. Ignorance is not; it is passive; it refers to the simple absence of “knowledge.” We are all automatically ignorant of everything we do not know. The ignorant bear no necessary relationship to what they are ignorant of. Most likely they are not aware of what they do not know, and might not care if they were. This absence of human engagement, even negatively, may help explain why the word is often used as an insult. Even brute animals are ignorant.
In this regard, it is also interesting that you never find the word “unknowledge” in the mystical literature either. I think it is true for the same reason. Such a word would suggest a bare lack of “knowledge.” But the term unknowing does not refer to a static condition. It is an action word; it refers to a living relationship, an embrace.
Unknowing implies an active even passionate relationship to what we do not know. More than a search, or a quest for an allegedly absent “knowledge,” it goes further and suggests some sort of embrace, or an active grasp of the unknown with a cognitive dimension. What can this possibly mean?
In two earlier posts I tried to elaborate the notion of faith as the active appropriation of our common possession of material energy, existence.
The fulcrum around which that discussion turned was the fact that the subject and object of existential “knowledge” was one and the same thing. It meant that it was impossible for the enquiring subject to “objectify” material energy (existence) and study it as if it were “something out there” to which s/he could relate as to an “other.” The searching subject, as active, is itself always within the circle of the matter that it is searching to understand. It was one of the central conclusions of The Mystery of Matter. It meant that “matter” was not the object of “knowledge,” but of a cognitive experience I call understanding.
[This is the fundamental reason why physical reductionism, which may be of value as a scientific strategy used by certain limited disciplines, does not work as an ultimate philosophical position, because the “condition” of the matter studied by physics in isolation does not take into account the other “conditions” that very same matter assumes later … in life … in the higher animals … and in us. Physics is a limited discipline. It cannot be the sole judge of the nature of elements that also function integrally in the organisms studied by biology, the cognitive sciences and sociology. If you are trying to determine the “nature” of quarks and gluons (the most basic components of ordinary matter known to date), the quark in my heart or brain, functioning as an integral component of conscious, compassionate and committed human political-ethical behavior, is no less a quark nor are its abilities any the less validly on display in my human activity than in the CERN particle accelerator. To talk about the nature of “quarks” therefore, you have to look at the way they behave everywhere they are found. Obviously they are capable of existing and functioning in more than one “condition.” A trans-disciplinary science like cosmo-ontology, using methodological tools designed for the purpose, is needed to interpret this phenomenon.
Matter is what it is. And what it is, accounts for what you see it doing right before your eyes. Any arbitrary “reduction” in the scope and range, depth and intensity of its actual, real, observable functioning, is a distortion — that means false.]
What this means is that there is no way for us to “know” matter without “knowing” ourselves, for we are matter. Since we are driven by a conatus that is passionately involved in continuing to exist — derived from the very energy of matter itself — to fail to appropriate its dynamism is to fail to “know” matter as it is. The uncomplicated recognition that that dynamism is also us … and constitutive of us as it is, is the basic “cognitive content” of the act of faith. Faith, then, as I define it, is the active embrace of existence — matter’s energy — for what it is, as we experience it in all its manifestations which includes our driven “selves.”
The use of the cross-out is a reminder that the faith referred to is a completely natural human act. There is no supernatural agency or object of any kind required or implied. Unfortunately, the word has been wed to religion for so long that it is easy to forget that it is more fundamentally an ordinary human phenomenon. But that is exactly the way it is intended here. Faith trusts existence, matter’s energy, as it would its mother … or even itself. Why? Because the subject of the act of faith is nothing but matter’s energy. I trust myself.
In this regard there’s a point here that has not been made explicit. And that is that the Buddhists have the same experience, but they do not call it an experience of “God.” They call it “enlightenment.” Buddhism is a non-theist “religion.” We in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic west have also described the same experience and we call it “God.” How could exactly the same experience be “labeled” (named) two different things unless the labels derive from a different data source than direct experience. “Knowledge” refers back to a cognitive cultural product, word-concepts, that are used to interpret direct experience. They are not the same thing at all. It is our tradition that suggests that this is an experience of “God” and that tradition goes back thousands of years and may even pre-date Mosaic monotheism. But there’s nothing in this fact that trumps tradition and gives us the right to claim direct “knowledge” of “God.” The only thing that is direct is the experience. The name is an interpretation, mediated by culture. The experience is something “atheists” and Buddhists equally lay claim to.
As far as I am concerned, it is an experience of “that in which we live and move and have our being,” Paul’s definition of “God” in Acts 17 and the phrase I use in MM to suggest that it is material energy that fits all aspects of that definition. I claim that it is the indisputable source of our sense of the sacred, putting it on solid ground and not in some ethereal realm. What labels (names) we use for it afterward — “God” or “enlightenment” or nothing — are much less important.
Unknowing, therefore, is another word for faith. And it is exactly the kind of faith that John of the Cross said put us in contact, boca a boca, with the source of existence. It is not necessarily ecstatic. That source was for him “God,” for others perhaps like the Buddhists, an eye-opening dynamism they choose not to name. Naming it, as we saw even at the very birth of our own tradition, was considered by our religious ancestors a fatal, irreparable mistake. Faith is the act of surrender to the dynamic benevolence of existence, such as it is. It is an act that appropriates everything that material energy — from verifiable observation — can be validly said to be, including its constitutive presence as my organic self.
It is as simple and natural and “enlightening” as it is elusive. Unknowing, as strange as it sounds, seems to capture it all.