Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Not Knowing

Today is Trinity Sunday, so we are invited to reflect on the question, “What is God like?”  What is God like?

I don’t know.  Whatever God is, God can’t be described in words.  Even the great Doctrine of the Trinity: “One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is inadequate.  It is a beautiful statement.  It is worthy of our attention.  But it is, at best, the least inadequate way to describe the indescribable.  It can help us avoid some errors, but it doesn’t give us the truth.  It just nudges us into the Mystery.

The problem is when we confuse the Doctrine of the Trinity with the reality of God.  “When the sage points to the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger.”  The Trinity is the finger.  And as the French writer, Jean Guiton, adds: “We often use the finger to gauge out eyes.”[1] 

That is the problem with religion.  We think we know!  We don’t know!  Fr. Anthony De Mello describes the problem with a story.

A man born blind comes to me and asks, “What is this thing called green?”  How does one describe the color green to someone who is blind?  One uses analogies.  So I say, “The color green is something like soft music.”  “Oh,” he says, “like soft music.”  “Yes, I say, “soothing and soft music.”  So a second blind man comes to me and asks, “What is the color green?”  I tell him it’s something like soft satin, very soft and soothing to the touch.  So the next day I notice that the two blind men are bashing each other over the head with bottles.  One is saying, “It’s soft like music”; the other is saying, “It’s soft like satin.”  And on it goes.

Neither of them knows what they’re talking about, because if they did, they’d shut up.  It’s as bad as that.  It’s even worse, because one day, say, you give sight to this blind man, and he’s sitting there in the garden and he’s looking all around him, and you say to him, “Well, now you know what the color green is.”  And he answers, “That’s true.  I heard some of it this morning!”

The fact is that you’re surrounded by God and you don’t see God, because you “know” about God.  The final barrier to the vision of God is our God concept.  You miss God because you think you know.  That’s the terrible thing about religion.  That’s what the gospels were saying, that religious people “knew,” so they got rid of Jesus.  The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable.[2]

The vital, living stream of contemplative Christian tradition always has taught this, but we forget.  We start to think we know.   Even St. Thomas Aquinas, as voluble a theologian as ever lived, wrote at the beginning of his famous Summa Theologica, “About God, we cannot say what He is but rather what He is not. And so we cannot speak about how He is but rather how He is not.”[3]  In fact, in the final years of his life St. Thomas took a vow of silence.  He realized that he didn’t know; or, perhaps, that what he did know could not be communicated with words.

Confusing our ideas about God with the reality of God can be deadening.  We can be so focused on religion that we miss God altogether.  De Mello tells another story to illustrate this point.

There was a man who invented the art of making fire.  He took his tools and went to a tribe in the north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold.  He taught the people there to make fire.  The people were very interested.  He showed them the uses to which they could put fire – they could cook, could keep themselves warm, etc.  They were so grateful that they had learned the art of making fire.  But before they could express their gratitude to the man, he disappeared.  He wasn’t concerned with getting their recognition or gratitude; he was concerned about their well-being.

He went to another tribe, where he again began to show them the value of his invention.  People were interested there, too, a bit too interested for the peace of mind of their priests, who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity.  So they decided to do away with him.  They poisoned him, crucified him, put it any way you like.  But they were afraid now that the people might turn against them, so they were very wise, even wily.  Do you know what they did?  They had a portrait of the man made and mounted it on the main altar of the temple.  The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to revere the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire, which they dutifully did for centuries.  The veneration and the worship went on, but there was no fire.[4]

Religion can teach you about the fire, but it can’t make the fire.  Only you can make the fire or, rather, the fire already is in you.  This is what Jesus Christ is all about:  wake-up, and realize the fire that is in you, the love that is in you!  Get in touch with the reality of God that is available to you here and now, without which you would not be at all!  Wake-up!

The most that religion can do is pass along some tools that help us to wake-up, remind us that we don’t know, and encourage us to drop our illusions and attachments so that we can get in touch with reality.  When we do that, then we will know God; not as an abstract concept expressed in the Doctrine of the Trinity, but as the living flame of love in which we are consumed and made new.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century mystical treatise, advises us that “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him.” “It is laudable to reflect on God’s kindness and to love and praise him for it; yet it is far better to let your mind rest in the awareness of him in his naked existence and to love and praise him for what he is in himself.” 

The author invites us to know God in the only way possible:  through self-emptying love, surrendering in love to the mystery that we cannot comprehend.  Placing ourselves between the cloud of unknowing in which the reality of God is concealed, and the cloud of forgetting, whereby we detach ourselves from our obsessions and illusions, we simply rest in God’s presence and seek to penetrate the cloud of unknowing with “little darts of love.”  By emptying ourselves in this way, we may be filled with the love that transcends our understanding.   We do not attain to God through intellectual abstraction, but through ego subtraction:  we become receptive so that we may be filled.  And being filled, we empty ourselves in self-giving to the Beloved.  And so it goes on.

The language of the Trinitarian relationships within the Godhead, derived from biblical metaphors, is an imaginative extrapolation from the the human experience of divine love:  of giving and receiving in mutual self-surrender, but it is not the experience itself; which is, finally, uncommunicable.  In the fire of divine love, language turns to ashes. 

Don’t get tripped up by theological language.  Embrace the cloud of unknowing.  There really isn’t any other option!  All we can do is trust Jesus’ promise that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth . . . He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”[5]  Just as the Father shared everything with Jesus, so we can trust that Jesus will share the fullness of the Father with us.  We can boast with St. Paul “in our hope of sharing the glory of God . . . because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[6]

Fr. Thomas Keating writes that

The Trinitarian relationships, of their very nature, invite us into the stream of divine love that is unconditional and totally self-surrendered.  This boundless love emerges from the Father into the Son, and through the Son is communicated by the Spirit to all creation.  The invitation is given to every human being to enter into the stream of divine love, or at least to venture a big toe into the everflowing river of eternal life.  As we let go of our false self, we move into this stream of love that is always flowing and bestowing endless gifts of grace.  The more we open our capacity to receive, the more we can give.  And as we give, we enlarge the space in us to receive still more.[7]

Beautiful words from a book entitled, not without some irony, Reflections on the Unknowable!

Well, enough about the finger already.  Turn your gaze instead, to the moon.  

[1] Anthony De Mello, Awareness:  The Perils and Opportunities of Reality (New York:  Doubleday, 1990), pp. 102-103.
[2] De Mello, pp. 101-102.
[3] De Mello, p. 100.
[4] De Mello, pp. 174-175.
[5] John 16:13a,14-15.
[6] Romans 5:2,5.
[7] Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable (New York:  Lantern Books, 2014), p. 155.

No comments: