a theology of unKnowing
Theology, following the common consensus of the ancient Mediterranean world, begins with the premise that “God” is unknowable.
The unknowability of God came directly from Plato’s theory of the utterly inaccessible transcendence of the “One.” The One was pure spirit with no admixture of matter. That absolute immateriality meant that “he” was totally beyond human comprehension, unchanging, impassable, simple, motionless, without even a ripple of a divided thought. Without division and multiplicity, the human intellect cannot function, hence cannot know “God.” The “One” dwelt alone in a self-contemplating serenity that was so remote and unreachable that, in Plato’s fertile imagination, it required the emanation of a secondary divinity called “The Craftsman,” which later Platonists would identify as the Nous, the Mind of God, to interface with the world of matter and insert the divinely conceived “ideas” of the things that inhabit the earth so that “God” may be known.
Philo of Alexandria, a first century diaspora Jew who was pursuing the intriguing parallels between the Septuagint Bible and Greek philosophy, said Plato’s Demiourgos-Craftsman matched the Bible’s image of “God’s” word which had creative power; so he called it Logos. The development of the Trinity in Christian thought ultimately came from Philo’s assimilation of the Hebrew Bible to Plato. “Theology,” for Christians, was simply the attempt to braid together the story of Jesus’ mission and message with Plato’s narrative of the origin of the material cosmos guided by Philo’s Bible-based interpretations. It was all a derivative of the unknowability of an immaterial “God.”
What is remarkable Is that later, in the middle ages, dogmatic theology would operate on the opposite assumption; for it proposed to make “God” known in clear, comprehensible propositions. This apparent anomaly is not hard to understand once you realize that it arose in response to a different need.
Starting In the early middle ages the task of making the propositions of belief clear and unambiguous became a necessary part of the social/political cohesion that accompanied the rise of papal power. Submission to the “truths” of Catholic belief effectively equated to submission to the social/political authorities. Making those propositions intelligible and logically irrefutable was an integral part of the dream of Christian unity (and the earthly paradise it promised) that captivated the European imagination as a feudal, Germanic society melted and molted in the forge of Mediterranean Catholicism.
In the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury called the theological enterprise “faith seeking understanding.” In his era, “creeds” which had originated in ancient times, were gathered along with the subsequent pronouncements of councils and popes into collections of “decretals.” Those propositions were variously labeled as more or less necessary to be believed. It turned them into verbal formulae demanding acquiescence ― effectively, commands to be obeyed. They functioned for the cohesion of a Church-run society. The study of the decretals by Canon lawyers was the origin of dogmatic theology.
The great summae of the 13th century were its direct extensions. They nested the propositions of belief in a such a wrapping of unassailable rationality and logic, that acquiescence was assumed automatically to follow; dissidents would find disagreement almost impossible to sustain, and infidels and heretics would be converted. Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles was written specifically to assist Christians in their debates with Arabic interpretations of Aristotle at the university of Salamanca in Spain where, in 1250, “Moors” still controlled a third of the peninsula. Mediaeval theology served to solidify the social and political hegemony of Christendom. Dogmatic theology was never intended as a vademecum for the Christian faithful. It was not focused on faith, but beliefs, control, obedience. Dogmatic theology was a user’s manual for theocracy.
Traditionally ― since the end of the middle ages ― theology (as an ecclesiastical discipline separate from the study of law and ritual) has been divided three ways: dogmatic theology, moral theology and mystical theology. Of the three, dogmatic and moral theology were considered fundamental because they dealt with the essential elements of salvation. If you failed to comply with either the requirements of orthodox belief or the commands of Christian morality, you risked eternal punishment.
Mystical theology, on the other hand, was considered somewhat superfluous. Since it dealt with the progress of the “soul” that had already achieved a basic compliance with faith and morals and wished to advance in holiness, it was treated like a playbook of the saved. Those occupied with such matters were well beyond the danger of losing their souls. Since most people were struggling to simply keep the commandments, what mystical theology had to offer was, so to speak, none of their business, and they were explicitly counselled to stay away from it. The result was that mystical theology got sidelined to the monasteries and along with it the tradition of the unknowability of “God.” Theology, to all extents and purposes, meant dogmatic theology.
Hence, in the pursuit of what was demanded for clear and unambiguous acquiescence of the “faithful,” dogmatic theology made every effort to make “God” and the things of God clear and articulate if not totally comprehensible. The orthodox Christian had to be able to say the officially designated truth in words that were recognizable to the authorities. Whether the people understood the truth in question or knew how it applied to their lives was not the principal concern.
In such a context, the unknowability of “God” was not conducive to the theologians’ agenda; and while the ancient traditions demanded that it be acknowledged, it was always something of an embarrassment. Its pursuit was quarantined to the monasteries. This was not only because it invalidated the inquisition’s main probe, but because it had profound repercussions on Church control. For consider: (1) if “God” is unknowable then it is reasonable to doubt that we know what “he” wants. (2) That doubt, in turn, challenges the inerrancy of the biblical documents used to establish “God’s will” and the authority of the Church. Also, (3) if I have no idea what “God” wants, I cannot rely on my obedient compliance to guarantee “salvation.” All quid pro quo is vitiated. (4) My relationship to an unknowable “God” is reduced to sheer trust. (5) Morality then, without a divine lawmaker, is an earthly matter, the consensus of the community about living in harmony here on earth. Church teaching (and control) loses its weight, and the quid pro quo adjudicated after death in another world ceases being the sole determinant of human behavior.
At the end of the day, for the authorities who believed themselves divinely mandated to control the social order, an entire society for whom life was an unmoored adventure in community cooperation sustained by a trust in the creative benevolence of an unknown loving Source, was a nightmare. It certified a radical freedom that was unheard of, and considered subversive. The last person who spoke in those terms was crucified for it, and the inquisitors knew why.
Mystical Theology, grounded in the unknowability of “God,” is really “theology” ― the inheritor of the earliest traditions ― displaced and disenfranchised by dogmatic theology and the theocratic imperatives of mediaeval Christendom. What Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century would call theology was, in mediaeval Europe, relegated to “house arrest” in the monasteries.
Christian monasticism, which became the guardian of ancient theology, since its inception in the Egyptian desert, has represented something of an alternative current to mainstream Christianity. It is not insignificant that Antony, considered the founder of Christian monasticism, chose to withdraw from the world in the era of Constantine’s ascendancy. By then the Christian Church had become a respectable institution that had spread throughout the Roman Empire. The belief that a “church-of-the-catacombs” was selected to be the state religion of the Rome is complete fiction; the Church that Constantine knew was prominent, prosperous and propertied.
It was in this context that, according to Athanasius’ biography, Antony understood that the call of Jesus to sell all you had, was no longer a poetic exaggeration. It was literally applicable to Christians like himself who had become comfortable in an empire that the scriptures had once condemned as “the Whore of Babylon.” Antony gave away his entire inheritance including hundreds of acres of farmland, moved into the desert and sustained himself by the work of his hands. It was a rejection of the Church-as-Imperial-enterprise. Over time others joined him, traditions were established and passed on. Kindred spirits from the West like John Cassian and Benedict of Nursia came to Egypt and took back with them the core of the monastic vision, including its theology. A communal way of life developed that was a distinctly Christian vision of personal transformation and an implicit repudiation of the Church as it had become.
The fact that the monks’ vision was grounded in that version of theology that we now call mystical suggests that, had the ancient traditions prevailed over the demands of the mediaeval Church to provide a hieratic underpinning to the imperial autocracy that ran civil society, the western “Church” might have remained more like the Christian Community that many dream about in our times. Ancient theology was not primarily focused on another world. It saw the material universe as the emanation of “God’s” own reality and therefore concluded that contact with “God” in this universe was not only possible but was the very reason why “God” created the world of time and matter. “God” wanted to be known and loved in this life.
Hence, mystical theology, unlike dogmatic theology, was not concerned about burning in hell. It imagined Christian life, rather, as a daring ascent to reach the peak of a forbidding mountain where a reward beyond words awaited the victor in this life. The reward was the consummation of a relationship which was conceived in psycho-erotic terms: a conjugal relationship with Esse ― the existence at the core of one’s being that sustained all things. One did not become Christian for safety and security, but rather to engage in a perilous journey of self-conquest and self-realization as the necessary path to absorption into the very heart of reality. The goal was bliss, here and now; you didn’t defend and preserve yourself, you lost yourself in the abandon of combat and let yourself be embraced by the “Other” in Whom all things, including you, lived and moved and had their being. It was not a business transaction, a quid pro quo, it was an adventure of discovery and delight: a love affair beyond all others, to find and feel the contours of the face of God.
And the unknowability of “God” established the essential conditions of the ascent. For without the clarity and control of knowledge, you had to fly blind. You had nothing to go on but the scent of the beloved that arose from the longings of your own flesh which in fact was where “he” resided. You had an ultimate trust that your way up the mountain would be sustained by a guiding wind that would not fail you. It was the activation in your own lifetime of the reditus ― the return of all things to their source ― that was the ultimate destiny of the universe. You were a microcosm of the cosmic narrative.
So ignorance was the condition for bliss. Happiness was not in the control and possession that knowledge appears to offer; it lies rather in unknowing, letting go, self-abandon, stepping into the void, embracing the emptiness that is yourself. The ancients like Dionysius were quite explicit: you met “God” in a cloud of unknowing.
Not-knowing implies trust. There is no way out of our entrapment; there is no exit for us. We are part of a universe of perishing matter strewn out by “God” to delight us and draw us to himself. There is no place to go, nothing to accomplish; there is no security to be gained. We stand at the still point of our turning world ― given ― and the only thing worth striving for is to learn to trust the unknown current ― the giver ― in which we ride.
 Brian Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, Cambridge, 1955.