Meeting the Cloud of Unknowing in the Union Hall

the cover of the book Awake to the Moment
How does what we know, and how we know it, make a difference?

Finishing up the first chapter of Awake to the Moment1, “What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? Context and Questions,” here are my summary notes and comments:

It is difficult to know anything, but particularly difficult to know God, who is infinite and mysterious. The doctrine of revelation doesn’t eliminate the need to interpret the revelation we receive. Constructive theology affirms that the diverse interpretations that constitute Christian tradition actually help people know God, because they keep our minds open and alert to the places our knowledge may need expansion, correction, qualification, or in some other way is less certain than we might think.

Christian theological knowledge involves “unknowing,” which seems to mean both taking apart what we already know or think we know, and recognizing areas of not knowing at all, as in the “negative knowing” or paradox – the “shimmering darkness” and “dazzling obscurity” and such (53) – of the apophatic tradition. And the humility of recognizing that we can’t know everything about God.

Christians are going to make truth claims; and are going to continue to make competing truth claims within the larger tradition. Constructive theologians offer three guidelines: (1) look at claims in the context of Christian tradition; (2) coherence – with the world, Scripture, tradition; (3) look at how they affect people:

Truth claims that cause harm to ourselves or others must be questioned and questioned again. Given the most basic Christian beliefs that God exists, creation is good, and God loves us, any claim that fails to promote life must be held suspect. (54)

The authors go on to offer some “sketches” of epistemology in light of their suggestions and guidelines. One sketch is an interpretation of Nehemiah’s survey of the ruins of the Jerusalem wall the night before undertaking the work of rebuilding. It imagines – pragmatically – that Nehemiah must have been looking at the resources for rebuilding in those ruins, “loving the ruins” both for what they have been, but also for what they can become. That surmise becomes a metaphor for the work of contemporary theology, also an exercise in finding resources in the lovable ruins of the tradition of Christian theologies. Another sketch considers changes made over time to the “Spaceship Earth” exhibit at Epcot Center, and the epistemological insights it may – or may not – reinforce. Look for what it does teach us; also ask questions about what is being known and what is being hidden or ignored; and ask and wonder about who makes the decisions about what is learned and known, what processes go into making that decision. “Reading the Bible in the Union Hall” shares a few of the insights into what is known about Scripture, and how it is known, when the Bible study group is made up of workers, mainly at Walmart, and meets in the local union hall, and reads Scripture with questions in mind like

“How does this reading help me deal with the erosion of dignity and living conditions in labor? How does this reading bring together workers who often share a deep faith but whom the management is actively seeking to divide? How does this reading help us endure the ever-increasing pushback against organizing? Does this reading give us courage to speak the truth? (60)

And a final sketch looks at what a Christian can learn from the practice of a different religious tradition, the Vipassana meditation of the Buddhist tradition, in the face of imminent, but uncertain, death – not as an “alternative” to Christian knowledge or faith, but as another voice, with something of value to contribute.

The chapter ends with a reflection on the challenge of a statement made by Karl Rahner that opens his Foundations of Christian Faith:

[Knowledge] is only a small island in a vast sea that has not been traveled. It is a floating island, and it might be more familiar to us than the sea, but ultimately it is borne by the sea and only because it is [borne by the sea] can we be borne by it. Hence the existential question for the knower is this: Which does he love more, the small island of his so-called knowledge, or the sea of infinite mystery?2

They point out that the answer is less straightforward than it might seem. How can we not love the island – all that we know, and knowing, love? How can we really love the sea, mysterious as it is, unknown? On the other hand, how can we not, recognizing that everything that we do know, and love, comes from and depends upon it?

Something about the particular expressions of the nature of divine mystery in this final section of the chapter made me notice more acutely than ever before just what we are really saying when we say “God is unsearchable” and other things of that sort. It occurred to me that even the universe we know of, infinite and practically unknowable as it is, and awe-inspiring precisely because of that infinite vastness and all the invisible beauty it holds, is still in principle more knowable than the infinitely more infinite God …

We cannot, in the end, simply fall permanently silent. But we may, from time to time, get almost a glimmer of the reason we would want to.

1 Laurel C. Schneider and Stephen G. Ray Jr., editors. Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. (42-50)

2 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), 22, quoted in Schneider and Ray, eds., Awake to the Moment, 65.

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