Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Meaning of Dark Knowledge of God

The Victorian B&B Linda and I stayed at in Cape May, NJ


The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing are classic books on Christian spirituality. Both speak of a kind of knowing that is "dark." Here are the basic ideas about "dark knowledge."

  1. Theologians and philosophers offer ways of knowing about God via the "light of reason" and the "light of sense experience." But such "knowing" necessarily involves a distance between the human knower and God as an object to be known.
  2. There is a way to know God, not just know about God. This is relational knowledge. In relational knowledge the epistemic gap between knower and known dissolves.
  3. To know God relationally one must leave the "light of reason and experience" behind and enter into the place where there is not light; viz., into a "dark place." A "dark place" means: a place where one does not find one's way by the light of reason and experience.
  4. In that "darkness" one encounters God. The God-encounter, in the dark epistemic environment, is one of which one cannot speak. It is a "mystical" encounter (from the Greek word muo [μυω], meaning "to conceal"].
  5. God, who is relationally unknowable via human concepts, can be known by agnosia, "unknowing." A favorite biblical mystics use is of God speaking to Moses through the cloud. Gregory of Nyssa (330-395) writes: "What now is the meaning of Moses' entry into the darkness and the vision of God that he enjoyed in it?... [Moses' God-encounter] leaves all surface experiences, not only those that can be grasped by the senses, but also those which the mind itself seems to see, and it keeps on going deeper until by the operation of the Spirit it penetrates the invisible and incomprehensible, and it is there that it sees God. The true vision and the true knowledge of what we seek consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness that our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility" (In Kenneth Leech, True Prayer, 20). Pseudo-Dionysius, in his Mystical Theology, writes: "And then Moses is cut off from both things seen and those who see, and enters into the darkness of unknowing, a truly hidden darkness, according to which he shuts his eyes to all apprehensions that convey knowledge, for he has passed into a realm quite beyond any feeling or seeing. Now, belonging wholly to that which is beyond all, and yet to nothing at all, and being neither himself nor another, and united in his highest part in passivity with him who is completely unknowable, he knows by not knowing in a manner that transcends understanding" (In Ib., 21). A Moses-knowledge of God is a "dark" knowledge in the sense that all one's cognitive-mental faculties are abandoned for the sake of a "knowing" that is actually an "unknowing." "Unknowing" is a way of knowing, but not by one's normal cognitive faculties (reason, experience [sight, hearing]."
  6. I feel certain there is an "unknowing-knowing" of God since relational knowledge is "beyond" one's normal cognitive abilities. Here the theme of "love" predominates. One does not discourse scientifically or logically about love. Rather, one writes songs and poems and draws art to express the rationally inexpressible.
  7. Mystical knowing of God is often described as "ecstatic" knowing in the sense of ekstasis, a "standing outside of oneself." This way of knowing is unusual in that it is not acquired in the usual ways (reason, experience).
  8. It is at this point that Christian mystics such as, e.g., Thomas Merton, become friends with the ecstatic experiences of certain other religions such as Buddhism. A religious universalism is embraced, rooted in the belief that all religions, especially their mystical instantiations, experience a common ontological reality of experience. See Tillich, e.g., for a theology that explains this. This is not my position, but I can see how it is arrived at. (See 10 below.)
  9. Tribal-charismatic worship expresses mystical-unitive experience, perhaps even facilitating it. It is this element of charismatic worship that troubles some evangelical Christians who are products of the Enlightenment's commitment to a certain form of rationality. Pentecostal-charismatic worship reminds me of sections of The Dark Night of the Soul.
  10. I don't think mystical experience commits one to religious universalism. Within the Christian noetic framework one should expect to have "unknowing encounters" with our God whose ways are not our ways, and whose glory massively transcends our own epistemic limitedness.
  11. Greg Boyd, in his book Present Perfect, has what I would call a "dark encounter" with God (i.e., a "mystical encounter"). Greg writes: "I used to run in ultramarathons. (ranging from 50 to 100 miles)... To train, I'd occasionally go on three- to six-hour runs through the woods. One fall morning, as I ran my laps on a beautiful five-mile trail that circled a lake, I prayed and enjoyed the scenery, though my mind was mostly focused on an upcoming race. I wondered whether I could win and what my strategy should be. I thought about what had and hadn't worked in previous races, and I worried that perhaps I hadn't trained enough. I wondered if the soreness in my left Achilles' tendon would improve or worsen - all the sort of things runners typically obsess about. About two hours into my run, however, something unusual happened. I noticed a cricket chirping. For reasons that still escaped me, I slowed down to pay closer attention. Immediately I noticed another cricket, then another. In a moment I was surrounded by a choir of crickets! It seemed to me that they had just started singing, though I knew that couldn't be true. They had to have been chirping throughout my run - but I just hadn't been listening. As I came to a halt, I giggled in amazement at how deaf I'd been. Then something else remarkable occurred. As I stood in the middle of the trail, my ears opened up to an explosion of sounds - marvelous sounds. It seemed as though a million frogs were croaking their hearts out in the lake. They were so loud! How had I not noticed them before? A dozen or so bees hummed gently as they flittered in and out of a flowerbed in front of me. Distant grasshoppers contributed an odd, random buzzing. A magnificent, diverse choir of birds was proclaiming the wonders of creation. It was stunning. How had I missed all this until now?... The moment felt sacred. I felt I was waking up to God's presence permeating all things and reflected in all things. It seemed I was, for the first time, waking up to the way the world is supposed to be experienced - the way it really is. Overwhelmed by the sense of God's presence and breathtaking beauty, I began to weep." (Greg Boyd, Present Perfect, 12-13)
  12. Boyd's God-encounter was not arrived at by means of reason or inductive arguments from experience (arguing from premises to conclusion). It was unprovoked and non-evidential, yet real. It was more real in the sense of it being a personal encounter, a relationship-thing with God.
  13. I have had a number of unknowing-experiences with God. They are heavy, thick, palpable, and glorious. They form an important part of my personal faith in God. They cannot be used evidentially in logical arguments for the existence of God. They are personally verifying and convincing. My spiritual journal is filled with them. These "dark" experiences of God have, at times, been revolutionary in terms of what God is doing in me. They are faith-building, and increase my love for God. And my theological framework predicts they will and perhaps even should, at times, happen.