On knowing one’s unknowing…

“God” is a word which for many provokes discomfort, echoes of an authoritarian judgemental deity, or a childhood perception of a bearded old man on a cloud. Many who reject any idea of the Divine are living with a concept which many of us would consider outdated. In answer to a theist’s question: “Who is this God that you don’t believe in?” the answer might not be so different from the view held by the questioner.

…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who know a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.

Jennifer Kavanagh, A Little Book of Unknowing

For myself, I have found cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.

The Hebrew word  יָדַע (yada), does not mean quite what our English word “know” means. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology states, “To know [as we usually translate “yada”] is not to be intellectually informed about some abstract principle, but to apprehend and experience reality. Knowledge is not the possession of information, but rather its exercise or actualization.”

I for one cannot reach out and know God like this; but in knowing my own unknowing, in keeping still and keeping out of the way, I can be known, and in being known, know. Isaac Penington put it far better than I can:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Quaker Faith & Practice 26.70

2 thoughts on “On knowing one’s unknowing…

  1. Pingback: Living Retired Lives – More from Quaker Faith & Practice | Silent Assemblies

  2. Pingback: A Life with Ravens | Silent Assemblies

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