The place of unknowing
I feel privileged to be participating in the second pilot of the Cloud and Fire programme. Over the weeks we are encouraged to reflect deeply on a series of themes, and we have now reached that of “unknowing.” Cloud and Fire follows an outline which reflects the events of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, and through the lens of that story we seek to discern how we are to live in the climate and ecological crises that are engulfing us all.
Unknowing has meanings on many levels. It can refer to what we don’t know now, but which potentially we can. Climate scientists- and soil scientists for that matter as well- tell us how much there is yet to learn about the complex natural processes which determine and maintain the conditions of life on earth. In these disciplines the area of unknowing is steadily shrinking as observation and experiment increase knowledge.
Unknowing can also mean what we simply can’t know now, but which one day we will. Despite the sometimes desperate efforts of human beings to determine the future, we can never know for certain what will happen tomorrow, although we do know that in two days’ time tomorrow will be yesterday and therefore knowable and part of the unalterable past. Many of us are haunted by the prospect of an unliveable environment for many millions of human beings at some point this century- not a certain outcome, but a very possible one. This is a painful unknowing to live with.
At its most profound, unknowing is a recognition of that which we simply cannot know, now or ever. Faith has traditionally and sometimes glibly used the word mystery in this context. The “sacred mysteries” are labels which are used to point to what is essentially- in its essence- unknowable. “God” comes into that category of course, and the wonderful anonymous fourteeth-century work “The Cloud of Unknowing” underscores how God, the Ultimate, is incomprehensible to our rational minds.
The Christian tradition embraced the notion of the Death of God long before Nietzsche. In the faith context it refers to the loss of any sense of meaning, when former assurances and securities disappear. God becomes absent, as the words “My God, why have you abandoned me” from Psalm 22 testify, words echoed, according to the tradition, by Jesus himself on the cross.
The loss of God, or rather of what we thought we knew of God, of how we envisaged God, is an essential and recurring characteristic of living truthfully. It may be a relatively gentle process, one of reshaping our understanding as we recognise its inadequacies: or it can be precipitated by a crisis of one kind or another. In the latter case, the result may be profound disorientation and distress, a genuine dark night of the soul. Yet this darkness has the potential to be the womb of new life, as the tomb of Jesus gave birth to the resurrection.
The God we counted on, the God we thought we knew before the climate crisis, before the devastating loss of species and of human lives, cultures and ways of living- that God is disappearing on us. The God that will be revealed to us we do not yet discern. In such a time the only safe place, paradoxically, is the place of unknowing, the place of dark trust, where there seems no assurance and often no hope. But that is where we have to wait, because we have no other option. Yet it is nonetheless a choice to be made.