The Ultimate Unknown

Danny Martin

As I’ve been reflecting on uncertainty as the essential human experience and how to live with it, I’ve come to feel that the word – uncertainty – is perhaps a way of talking about God, in the sense that God is the ultimate unknown that we continue, nonetheless, to seek. (I’m not talking about any particular concept of God here, Christian or otherwise, but rather the idea of an ultimate source or meaning of life). And perhaps, also,  a better description of this seeking is simply living with ‘not knowing’, not simply as passive acceptance but rather, the opposite – as active, relentless seeking, even while realizing (and accepting) that the goal – finding – will never be achieved. No one, it might be added, ever has ever achieved this goal, at least not in a way that they can communicate concretely, never mind point the way to. As the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado puts it:

Wayfarer, the only way

is your footsteps, there is no other.

Wayfarer, there is no way,

you make the way as you go.

As you go, you make the way

and stopping to look behind,

you see the path that your feet

will never travel again.

Wayfarer, there is no way –

only foam trails in the sea.

Granted, we have our prophets and saints, as well as our ultimate symbols of human living – Christ, Buddha, Mohammed – but even they were not able to say what they had come to know in ways that all could clearly understand. Even the otherwise concrete, politically savvy organizer of the early Christian movement, St. Paul, ultimately had to refer to language of not knowing when he attempted to describe what he was talking about: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man…

It might be said, in fact, that a large part of the Christian movement has been built around not knowing. One particular form of this not knowing is what is called the via negativa: literally a way of speaking about God by saying what God is not. A classic example of this are the words of the 9th century mystic John Scotus Erigena:

“We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.“

The 14th century English spiritual classic – The Cloud of Unknowing – casts some light, albeit the light of not knowing, onto this challenge of living with uncertainty. The Cloud of Unknowing draws and builds on the mystical traditions which focus on this via negativa approach of seeking and discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any definitive image or form. This tradition has inspired generations of mystical searchers from 9th century John Scotus Erigena, whom I just quoted, through the Book of Taleisin (a 14th century Welsh collection of poems), and from  16th century John of the Cross to 20th century Teilhard de Chardin. However, the theme of the “Cloud” had been in the Confessions of St. Augustine written long before, in AD 398. The author of ‘The Cloud’ counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and thinking but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This is brought about by putting all thoughts and desires under a “cloud of forgetting”, and thereby piercing God‘s cloud of unknowing with a “dart of longing love” from the heart.

But what does this kind of mystical reflection have to do with the real world we live in today. Well, in the first place, while the circumstances of our lives have certainly changed over the centuries, the fundamental human challenge of living with the (clearly) limited consciousness and awareness that we possess is essentially the same: we simply don’t know what is going on nor how we should deal with this ‘unknowing’. Anne Pearson highlighted one of today’s forms of this frustrating situation in her comment to the last Blog post when she wrote: ‘….I am just returned from our sanctuary in the wilds of Maine.  We were deeply concerned while there, my daughter and I, because the cold salt waters which still sweep in with such power they envelop us, as always, were clouded for the second year instead of clear to the bottom, and deposited silt on the salt-water Lavender which grows in profusion on the shore, so that the plants could only bloom slightly, their beauty marred.  I hear that the Gulf of Maine is growing warmer at a faster rate than any other body of water in the world.  And I see the political process in this County fraught with antagonism for those who would protect the land and waters.  I cannot seem to let these concerns rest….’

What Anne describes is an example of what living with uncertainty means today – the ecological challenge – and there are many others who encounter it in the forms of war and violence, poverty and injustice, personal trauma and the decline of community: all issues with no apparent resolution, at least no resolution beyond general calls for a better world. For as long as we’ve been around we seem to have created enormous, often life threatening problems for ourselves. And, no sooner have we resolved one set of problems than another set rushes in to take its place. Not knowing, then is the way it is; always has been.

But are there things we can do to help us live with this basic uncertainty; practices that can help us pierce the ‘cloud of unknowing'; things to help us simply stay with it: keep seeking, ‘pierce the cloud with a dart of longing love from the heart.’?

The ground-breaking, irreverent comedian, Joan Rivers, who died this week, used to say, ‘Life is so tough, so you just have to laugh…’ Anna Swir, a Polish poet I came across recently put it in language that more directly addresses our topic:


You will not tame this sea

either by humility or rapture.

But you can laugh

in its face.


was invented  by those

who live briefly

as a burst of laughter.

The eternal sea

will never learn to laugh.

I love this. Maybe the way to pierce our uncertainty – the cloud of unknowing – is with laughter. There is nothing more real, in the sense that you can’t contrive true laughter. It is akin to delight. It seems able to transcend anything. Is laughter divine? Does God laugh?

Or is laughter just one form of the seeking, one way of putting all thoughts and desires under a “cloud of forgetting”? Is simply getting out of your own way what we’re talking about here? Being spontaneous, uncontrived – like a child – and thereby present?

But you have to practice this laughter, or at least you have to find the right elements – people, occasions – where laughter is more likely to happen. Maybe jokes are a form of spiritual practice which suggests that one of the forms of a kind of religion that is emerging today is comedy. Of course comedy has been around for a long time, but today it has moved into hitherto unthinkable fields, like healing and teaching, but also news casting. Comedy Central, with people like John Stewart, is where a whole generation gets its news in ways that allow them to live in the face of the impossible uncertainty that more and more of the news stirs today.

So, is this what it comes down to, this world we live in, this journey we are on, where we don’t know (what’s going on) but still have to live (in the face of this ignorance)? How do you do it? Laugh? Cry? Delight? What are your forms of uncontrived presence?

A final thought, inspired by the tragic death of Robin Williams, is that many are not able to sustain this way, even those apparently most able to do so. Which seems to suggest that there is another critical element needed. For, when such tragedy happens we respond in ways that suggest that it could have been avoided if only….more connection, support, community. What do you think this ‘if only’ is?

God is certainly the ultimate unknowable source of life. But is the Divine not also the life energy that infuses every particle of our being and the world around us, the infinite intelligence of a vast, living web of existence? In this sense, perhaps God is to be experienced rather than sought.