what we cannot know
Those of us who have inhabited earth in the modern era have been taught to assume reality is what we know and if we can’t know it in the usual ways (that is by careful study and logical organization) then it is not real after all and is relegated to some other category that is somewhere less than serious. The mysteries of religious experience are therefore subtly and not so subtly dismissed as something that cannot survive careful scrutiny and are therefore not worth our attention. Even we who still practice faith are influenced more than we know by the idea that the incomprehensible is less than real. This is the arrogance of modernism. Faith however weakened is still not completely undone however. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great spokesperson for religious experience in the modern age, writing in the book entitled Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity said: In the light of faith we do not seek to unveil or to explain but to perceive and to absorb the rarities of mystery that are gleaming softly from all things; not to know more, but to know what is more than anything we can grasp. The common understanding in this era is that if something is real and/or serious it must be something that we can fully know (that reality is a sum total of the facts and nothing more) but faith is knowing that there are things we cannot know and that the truth is more than the sum total of the facts we can know. There are things that cannot be explained. There is something more than us.
Both of our readings this morning are reminders of the mysteries of God which we can explain forever and never really know what we are talking about. The typical modern might wonder what the point would be and how significant anything could be that we can't hope to understand or explain but of course that would be the significance to the modern mind? that any and all assumptions about what is real are challenged. As those who have grown up in the context of the modern world but who still seek to practice faith and be serious about it we have the option of approaching faith as something that can indeed be thoroughly rational and understandable in light of the facts which can also lead to some pretty strong opinions about what constitutes a fact. (i.e. Is the Bible about facts or truth (see above)? This view would argue that faith can be had with a gradual and eventually complete accumulation of the right knowledge. That is one way of viewing faith. There is another: that faith has not much to do with what we know from the facts we have. Faith is a product of what we don't know and have no hope of knowing. It is, in the words of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, conviction of things unseen. It is in the unknown, the unseen, the inexplicable, the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, that we place our faith. This is the more difficult place to be, less secure, less defensible, but in my view, more accurate and more helpful if the point of faith is to bring us to God.
There is a delightful little book, a devotional classic from the middle ages of Christianity called The Cloud of Unknowing written by someone appropriately unknown. This is what the unknown writer says this little book is about (I have elected to not change the language of a classic from the original so please pardon the maleness of it): But how you ask me, "How am I to think of God himself, and what is he?" and I cannot answer you except to say, "I do not know!" For with this question you have brought me into the same darkness, the same cloud of unknowing where I want you to be! For though we through the grace of God can know fully about all other matters, and think about them - yes, even the very works of God himself - yet of God himself can no man think. Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think, and choose for my love that thing which I cannot think! Why? Because he may be loved, but not thought. By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never. Therefore, though it may be good sometimes to think particularly about God's kindness and worth, and though it may be enlightening too, and a part of contemplation, yet in the work now before us it must be put down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you are to step over it resolutely and eagerly, with a devout and kindling love, and try to penetrate that darkness above you. Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account whatever think of giving up.
And so we part ways with the modern world and its emphasis on thinking our way to God. There is only one way to God and it is love. Think of all the ways it has been said. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus said, Love the Lord your God with all of your heart (Matthew 22.37) When Jesus said he was the truth and the way and the life and no one comes to the Father except by me (John 14.6) this is what he meant. He is love, and the truth and the way and the life is love. In short, no one comes to God except by love. This is not the exclusive word that has been used by some to separate and divide, as in "no one gets to God except through Jesus" (as if anyone had the exclusive right to decide who that is) but rather is a word of radical inclusion inviting all of every creed to love God and thereby come to God. Jesus is the way of love. All who can love can find God. If that sounds too easy I would remind you that love is not so easy as one might think. As we grow older we learn that love has complications. It is not just about what we want. Love is a surrendering as much as it is anything else, a surrendering to the beloved, to what somebody else wants. In the words of First John, We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (I John 3.16)
Surrendering is not giving up but opening up, opening up to the unknown, to the uncontrolled, to trust the unseen. It is to walk in the dark as much as it to walk in the light. It is to walk in the dark to the light.
I am reminded of that ancient wisdom that says: If you want to see where you are going, close your eyes and walk in the dark.
What does it mean? Perhaps it simply means that what we can see or think we see or expect to see might distract us from what is real, from who we are, from the God we seek.
It is true in art as well. A painter was asked one time what was the hardest part of the painting and the answer was the part of the canvas where nothing is painted. Is that not like the question of God? What do we do with nothing that is something and may even be everything?
In this incredible scene where Jesus is transfigured in a dazzling white light and is seen in the company of Elijah and Moses who have themselves been gone from the earth for sometime we are surely in the realm of something outside what we know anything about. Nevertheless, Peter couldn't keep still and spoke for all of us in such a situation by suggesting that they do something; that they build something; that they, in fact, try to make sense of this occasion, to put things in order, to get organized. But he is lost, as lost as we are in the presence of the invisible light.
It is no accident that as Peter was getting things organized a cloud overshadowed them all and they were left with nothing to do but to trust what they did not know but loved. Just as light which is required for sight when it is too much blinds us, so it is also true that when that which we seek is so close to us, we cannot find it. It is like the old saying I heard one time that no matter whom it was that discovered water we know it wasn't a fish. God is around us and within us wherever love is, as close to us as the love we dare to offer to another, as close to us as the love we are willing to risk surrendering to. We are surrounded in a cloud of unknowing and an eternal love that simply will not be contained. It is all that stands between us and the mysteries of God. The mystery itself touches us and shields our eyes from its glory even as it beckons to us to come on in.
It was out of the cloud that the voice was heard that said to listen to Jesus, the beloved. This is a call to faith, not the faith that is calculated to ensure a certain knowledge that all finally adds up but a faith that blocked from seeing and defining and quantifying and limiting has left only one avenue for discourse, the way of love and devotion. And so it is that we are being called to trust what we cannot know, to love even as we are discovering what love is, to go where love will take us even if we don't know where that is.
We need not fear the unknown for it is what we cannot know that will save us. If anything what we do know should be what frightens us. Reason is a good gift of God but it cannot explain God fully. There is more. There is love which is big enough and mysterious enough to make us humble, humble enough to know what we cannot know and humble enough to use what we do know and all of God’s gifts for the good of all.
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