The Limits of Knowledge (5)

This entire series, “The limits of Knowledge,” including especially this final installment, assigns distinctly different meanings to the words “knowledge” and “understanding” respectively. Knowledge refers to what is processed by rational intelligence as “facts,” resulting in conceptual (general, abstract) ideas, stored in language’s literal meanings. “Understanding” on the other hand, as I use it refers to apprehensions more broadly based in the body which include reflexive self-con­scious­ness, interpretation, recognition, realization and contemplation, expressible in metaphor, bypassing society’s storehouse of conventional meanings.

The original organic function of abstractive intelligence was not “to know” but to survive. That we “do not know” is not a problem. It is the expression of the very nature of what we are. We were not meant to know; we were meant to survive. “Knowing” what reality is, is not an innate mission or mandate that comes from “God,” as Rahner, Lonergan et al., would have it. Knowing is a task we have set for ourselves. It’s a valid project, but it’s entirely ours; we cannot infer anything transcendent (i.e., “spiritual”) from our voluntary pursuit of it. Nor do we have a right to expect it will tell us what we demand: “knowledge” — meaning our warehoused ideas. Our inability to know is only a problem (or a solution, as the Thomists see it) if we have assumed our conscious “selves” to be like “gods,” immortal spirits, striding above and beyond this world, forming divine immaterial ideas, the ultimate arbiters of all things material. We claim the right to sit in judgment on reality, submitting it to the bar of our dubiously reliable “ideas,” as if our “raptor’s claw” survival tool, abstractive conceptualization and its rationalist logic, were the very Mind of God.

In my opinion, this is the key. We divinized human reasoning — need I add, under the baneful influences of the Platonic-Cartesian illusions about the non-materiality of the human mind and the nature of matter as spirit’s antithesis. From then on anything that does not yield to our concepts is judged irrational and impossible, all evidence to the contrary notwith­standing. For Plato, only the world of ideas was real; for us, in contrast, all that exists is matter’s energy

The evidence, however, does in fact withstand these presumptions about the power of “spirit.” For, however absurd it may seem, we are-here … and we understand it completely! Our being-here-now is something we cannot grasp with our rational intelligence, verbal-conceptual formulations and abstractive tools … but that doesn’t mean either that it is nothing or that we do not understand it. This reduces the range of possibilities offered by our conventional words even as it expands exponentially the potential for an accurate and intimate understanding of existence mediated by other cognitive mechanisms rooted more broadly in the body like metaphor, interpretation, realization, recognition, contemplation and the possibility of relationship. For our attempt to understand our conscious immersion in being-here trans­lates to our attempt to understand the ineffable wordless darkness — material energy with its existential self-embrace which we are.

“Darkness,” of course, is another metaphor for this phenomenon, like emptiness. It is the living dynamism, the hunger of which we are constructed but unable to speak. It is what we are. In order to speak of this immersion we are forced to utilize our arsenal of non-con­ceptual apprehensions, our metaphorical allusions and poetic markers — myths, legends, parable-stories and witness personalities, rituals, symbols, interpretations and, most revealing of all, contemplative silence, to evoke, in a manner as close to presence itself as we can get, the embrace of being-here that we are. All we need do is experience ourselves being-here from moment to moment … the rest follows.

Hence, at the end of the day, we realize we do not “know” ourselves, … but we understand ourselves. We embrace ourselves in the transparent contemplation of a hungry and surviving energy that is “darkness” for our minds … but only for our minds. It is an understanding of existence derived from the realizations and interpretations of what lies hidden in the crystalline clarity of un-knowing and the penetrating silence of interior experience. We understand this desire. It is what we are … it is what everything is. It’s why we understand one another … and all things.

Christian “revelation” and darkness

Chris­tian “revelation,” as traditionally understood and defended, would turn this un-know­ing, this “darkness” into “light,” that is, into conventional knowledge. “Revelation,” meaning beliefs, “factual truth” as we have inherited it, fundamentally claims to present clear ideas. It pretends to take the emptiness and the darkness out of being-here and to articulate it in the form of defined concepts provided by “divine authority” brokered exclusively by an infallible Church and/or the “Book.” Catholic dogma is officially labeled de fide definita (a contradiction in terms, in my opinion). Dogma recapitulates the partializing dis­tortions of abstraction that we have been trying to get in perspective through­out these reflections.

Conventional knowledge — concepts — is the unequivocal goal of Ca­tholic dogmatic definitions. For, by claiming to “transcend” the dead-end of rational enquiry, “revela­tion” attempts to deny the ultimate significance of the unknowability, the Mysterium Tremendum that we have un­covered. The void, the darkness, the emptiness, we must understand, is not a concept. It is the antithesis of all concepts. It is a Mega-Metaphor; the ultimate figure that describes our experience of being-here, our contemplative appreciation of the ineffable living dynamism that drives becoming and gives meaning to our world and our very persons as part of that world. It is the force responsible for evolution. It is sacred for us for it is our very own lust for life. We experience it internally, we understand it intimately and with an incomparable certitude for it is ourselves, but we do not know what it is.

It’s relevant to remember that before the Middle Ages, in the more ancient Christian view, revelation was not considered defined dogma. Revelation for the ancients exclusively meant the Scriptures. John Scotus Eriúgena, for example, believed the result of rational enquiry, Philosophy, was not transcended by the Scriptures but rather was restated there in symbolic terms. The Scriptures, he said, were allegories and symbols, “figures” (= metaphors) that represented the self-same truth discovered by Philosophy. We will recognize this as the view of all the Fathers from Origen to Gregory of Nyssa in a living tradition that went back to Philo of Alexandria. In fact, for this tradition, as far as “knowledge of God” was concerned, Philosophy was the more direct and literal of the two. Scrip­ture was believed to provide stories and symbols designed to make the ethereal truths of Philosophy intelligible to the people who were not philosophers. The real “truth” contained in the symbols of scripture was Philosophical. Scripture did not trump Philosophy. The two were parallel modes of expression. There was only one “truth.”

In this perspective, the bottomless Unknowable Ground into which the roots of reality sank and disappeared was a discovery of Philosophy that always remained insuperable. Ancient Christian mysticism as represen­ted by the apophatic tradition of Pseudo-Diony­sius and Gregory of Nyssa, was constructed on exactly that foundation. Outside of the person and work of Jesus (who was quickly assimilated to Greek Philosophy’s Logos), there was no “new” infor­ma­tion about “God” to be found in the Scriptures. The Scriptures were symbols and stories which blended and flavored the “truth” of the Unfathomable Mystery — giving a “human” face to the Utter Darkness at the base of reality for the edification of the ordinary people. We cannot forget that for the Hebrew founders of Judaism, the only image permitted of Yahweh was an empty tent. “God” was categorically unknowable and the role of revelation was only to provide metaphors for the darkness, not knowledge.

Since the days of the ascendancy of the claims of the infallibility of Ca­tholic dogma, revelation has come to be presented not as figures and me­taphors of the unknowable, but rather as “facts” that were allegedly known but just happened to be beyond unaided discovery and rational comprehension. This had a long historical development. As the Church became associated with, and then progressively exercised in its own right the imperial prerogatives of the theocratic Roman State, its declarations about the “truth” became more arbitrary, authoritarian and “definitive.” Beginning with Nicaea (with the personal intervention of the Emperor Constantine himself), the Church acted as if it had inside information that defined “God,” the Logos, the Trinity, Grace, the after-life, and was the only one that knew exactly how that information was to be used in practice. Fundamentally what it did was to reify legitimate religious metaphors, and turn them into gratuitously infallible dogmatic concepts, entities, qualities, reasons and explanations — facts to be taken literally. The upshot of this was to change the significance of mystery from “unknowable” to “unintelligible,” and the method of expression from metaphor to defined dogmatic verbalized concept. As I grew up, every Catholic schoolchild was taught and believed that the “facts” of religion were fully known. The only “mystery” was what they meant!

But as far as “knowledge” was concerned, it meant that the Catholic Church “knew” everything that could possibly be known about “God.” It solidified the Church’s exclusive and universal role in “salvation.” It was the basis for an ideological absolutism that dominated western culture for a thousand years and still has influence to this day.

preserve the question … celebrate the darkness

The only way for religion to safeguard the integrity of the Unknown that our analysis of presence-in-process revealed to us, is to accept the “truths of revelation” not as conceptualized “facts” but as powerful evocative metaphors, creative instruments designed to preserve the question, not give an answer … to celebrate un-know­ability, the “absent explanation,” the Mysterium Tremendum which is our life … and to bundle the unknown remainder into relationship with what, at root, is our very selves. For traditional Christianity this is not the 180o turn it appears to be. Our mystical traditions, going back past the Middle Ages, beyond the Cappadocian Fathers, beyond even Philo of Alexandria to the origins of Mosaic Yahwism, have always spoken of “God” as the Unknowable One. Moses’ code demanded that carved images be forbidden lest we dared to imagine we “knew” the One-Who-Has-No-Name, Yahweh, which Philo tells us was a word that means “Nameless.”[1]

The abandonment of the claim to possess conceptual “knowledge” of God means the end of “dog­ma.” That will mean the surrender of human control, and an end to the arrogance of the sectarian religious enterprise. It accepts our ignorance. It confirms us in our utter humility, dethrones the overrated rational human “intellect” as the ultimate arbiter of reality, challenges the haughtiness spawned by our technological prowess and the false human superiority it implies, rejects the anti-material, anti-body, cerebral and gender-distorting assumptions of the Platonic-Carte­sian Paradigm, and lays a solid foundation for faith[2] not as arcane “knowledge,” a canonical gnosis, but as unconditional trusting surrender to a darkness we embrace as the very core dynamism of our living selves.

I have intentionally used the same images and metaphors as the mystics, West and East, because I think we are talking about the same experience. Darkness, unknowing, emptiness, are traditional words that de­scribe the fact that the only thing we will ever know, conceptually, is our universe of matter’s energy — including us — endlessly driven to survive in the present moment.

To my mind, this is the basis for the ultimate reconciliation of philosophical enquiry and theological projection. It not only confirms the limited conclusions of rational observation and analysis at all levels, scientific and philosophical, but it also guarantees respect for the metaphors of all religious traditions which are attempting to celebrate and relate to the powerful creative darkness instead of denying it. It also finally includes in the circle of the fully human all those people branded “atheist,” who choose to stand in utter silence before the mystery of it all, because they refuse to apply any metaphors whatsoever to the emptiness, the embrace of existence, that they, like the rest of us, encounter at the core of them­selves. We are all made of the same thirsty clay, the same hungry quest for life. For those of us who know that the very heart of the matter is that we do not know what that is, “atheists” are our coreligionists.

But it should not make us disconsolate to say we do not know. We don’t need to know; for we understand existence, and understanding opens to the possibility of relationship. Once we stop in­sisting that there must be an explanation that can be expressed in the con­ventional terms of our rational knowledge concepts, explanations, reasons, words, logic, analyses, instruments of human control — the immense mystery of being-here discloses itself. For while we may not know what it is, we experience its dynamic power and understand it from within. We possess it completely in conscious form. For we are it. We have no more intimate understanding of anything. We can realize our identity with it; we can hold it and be-hold it in silent contemplation; and we can express, com­mu­ni­cate and celebrate its groaning creative maternal benevolence which gave birth to this astonishing universe, with evocative metaphors, spellbinding myths and ecstatic rituals. And ultimately we embrace it as our very selves …  

But we do not know what it is.


[1] Philo of Alexandria, On the Change of Names, II (7) to (14) passim, tr.Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, p.341-342.
[2] faith: I claim the word “faith” has been hijacked by its association with Christianity’s projections about supernatural realities. Hence it is crossed out. That doesn’t mean it’s eliminated … rather that it no longer has its traditional significance as religious knowledge.



2 comments on “The Limits of Knowledge (5)

  1. Noel McMaster says:

    Faith crossed out (note 2) may mean an opportunity missed to be more explicitly anthropological in our assessment of where we might happen to be now in an evolving universe which involves us as ‘knowing’ participants. We need something different from ‘understanding’ to keep the creative project alive. The anthropological project of participation, in one tradition, is retrieved from Judaeo-Christian scriptures which, yes, wrongly often presumed to speak knowingly in the first person for God, when such SS were often the (symbolic) record of human ‘unknowing’ – carried forward, nevertheless, by a wager that there was also a project ‘understood’ to be unfolding all around us and that it was worthwhile. The appearance of such a wager belonged with the ‘unknown’s’ pedagogy of patience as we might read of it in the bible today, and is there to remind us that our task is to be knowingly human and humanising in community, in a creation with its dimension of ‘understanding’ .

  2. inigo rey says:

    Episode 5 is where you have excelled the first 4!
    The connection you make so strongly to the mystical traditions is rich with possibility. Not just that it is a place where we are unknowing and so, silent (ie without words/concepts), but that it is. That there is such a “place”.

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