‘If you understand it, it isn’t God’ so wrote St Augustine in the 4th century; a sentiment similarly advocated by Thomas Aquinas who suggested that ‘the only thing we can say about God is that he is not what he is’. Interestingly Aquinas saw that the depth of the transcendent experience was so much more than all he’d written about, which he then described as ‘but straw’ compared to the great moment of illumination he experienced towards the end of his life.
In other religions the same idea is found, so in Taoism: ‘the Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.’ In Hinduism the description of the inexpressible mystery of Brahman is described as neti neti (not this, not this). In Judaism a 12th century philosopher said that God can only be described in negative terms – similar to the darkness expressed by St John of the Cross. But we don’t like not knowing, nor the negative and the dark and in times of chaos we look for certainty and definite answers. Darkness is rejected as evil and the emphasis is on the light yet often the dark places can also be or become wombs of life and new insight.
Sometimes we feel able to search for these experiences of not knowing and will ourselves to surrender completely into the hands of something more than ourselves, but usually the grip of the past is stronger – not only our personal history but the hold of the unconscious and past generations that affect the way we physically and psychologically are.
Bede Griffiths searched all his life to understand what he called ‘transcendent Mystery’ and ‘ultimate Truth’ which he saw were only terms to express the inexpressible. He saw this as the whole problem of life which continually baffles our reason.
‘The ultimate meaning and purpose of life cannot be expressed, cannot properly be thought. It is present everywhere, in everything, yet it always escapes our grasp. It is the ‘Ground’ of all existence, that from which all things come, to which all things return, but which never appears. It is ‘within’ all things, ‘above’ all things, ‘beyond’ all things, but it cannot be identified with anything. Without it nothing could exist, without it nothing can be known, yet it itself is unknown. It is that by which everything is known, yet which itself remains unknown.’
To even begin to grasp the experiences that we may be being offered we have to get out of our long established mindset based on reason and scientific verification. We are spiritually impoverished unless we can explore from our own lived experience and set aside discursive reasoning. We clearly need to use our egos otherwise we will be mad but we also need to cultivate our imagination alongside reason. Our intuitive wisdom and our sense of connection with other creatures and with nature needs to be encouraged and developed. Accepting that we cannot know everything and that much of life is a mystery is also an opening up to another way of being.
Sometimes a text seems to speak directly and I found myself much taken by the last two lines of a hymn sung last Sunday: ‘only believe, and thou shalt see that Christ is all in all to thee.’ Is it possible to only believe? Is it possible to trust in ‘unknowing’? Can we set aside prescriptive doctrines and experience what is all around us?