Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ultimate Unkowability

morning mystery in the desert

Back in the 1800's as the "Age of Science and Reason" was coming into full bloom, the worldview pervading most Western cultures was: "we can figure it all out," -everything, everyone, everywhere, how it all came to be, how it works, all able to be figured out. 

Interestingly enough, religion and theologies were not immune from this "explain it all away" mentality of the scientific age. The 19th century gave birth to religious fundamentalism - the Bible became the "literal" source for explaining it all - how it began, how it all works. Doctrine and dogma were viewed as sources for understanding and explaining who and what God is all about- everything able to be figured out.

For many years now, I have been interested in studying the common wisdom that all world religions share. I have been convinced that as we all travel our separate spiritual paths, we can all learn from each other.  

Yesterday in my reading, I came across an idea that was very eye-opening to me. Perhaps THE most common element shared by all major world religions is that ultimately we don't "know" anything about God. Ultimately we are unable to know "anything" about God.  We all share a common belief in God's "ultimate unknowability." 

The 19th and 20th century attempts at figuring God out that prevailed in Western religions have led us down a slippery slope, a dead end path- making us think that we have comprehended the God who can never be comprehended. 

As I see it, our "modern" exercises in "figuring God out" are ways for us to control a scary and uncontrollable God by making God into our own human image. 

However, Eastern religions have never fallen into the trap of explaining and defining God, and Western religions have only been doing this for the past few hundred years.  It was all very different before the age of science dawned and Western culture became imbued with a worldview of "figuring it all out." 

The early Christian theologians of the first centuries, the great Christian mystics like John of the Cross - all were very outspoken about God's ultimate unknowability - "anything you can ever say about God- God is not." John of the Cross said that the higher one ascends on the spiritual journey, "the less one understands." 

In the Hebrew tradition, when Moses asks for God's name he learns that God has no name - God is beyond names - God is ultimately unknowable. The great 13th century Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Moses Maimonides) explains that God has no attributes - God is infinitely more than we can ever imagine.

Al-Ghazali, one of Islam's greatest thinkers in the 11th century, writes that the "essential nature of God transcends all that is comprehensible."

In the book I was reading yesterday about the common wisdom of world religions, the author makes this interesting point.

Over the years religions of various sorts have argued endlessly and disgracefully with one another.  But what if a Christian sat down and said 'Well actually I do not know much about God and everything I do say is so inadequate as to be false'? Then a Jew or a Muslim might also say 'it's funny you should say that, I do not know much about God either.' How could they then have an argument?  And if they did have an argument, the winner might be the one who proved that he knew less about God than his opponent. (Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed).

I have studied theology for more years than I care to remember, and I must honestly say that I really don't know a thing about God. God is a mystery far beyond my comprehension - far beyond anything I can ever imagine, transcending all that is comprehensible. The more I walk the spiritual path, the less I understand. 

I can only live in awe of the mystery. As the morning sun rises in the desert skies, I am filled with a sense of unexplainable presence -overwhelming power, and the fierce all-embracing energy of untamed love. 

my book on amazon


  1. A lot of what you're talking about here reminds me of what I call "Spiritual Junk Food".... Trying to explain the spiritual realm in ways that make us feel more comfortable with what are probably false perceptions of our own reality. "You can see it almost anywhere, wonderful spiritual platitudes that make you feel good for a moment as they dull your longing to find greater meaning in your life and to fulfill your soul’s desire." (

    Truth can’t come from the mind, it is a gift from Grace. But we can empty ourselves of all our misconceptions and illusions and make ourselves more available for Grace to have its way with us.