John Maxwell, renowned leadership expert, New York Times Bestseller List author, well-known speaker and septuagenarian says that as he has matured, the things he truly “knows” can be summarized with the five digits on one hand.
Those are the things he knows that he knows and he can’t be budged on those points. But he has learned to let go of everything else he thought he knew.
How do we know what we know? And how can we even begin to know what is unknown?
As a culture we have a lot of language around “knowing”; aphorisms, cliches, and stereotypes we’re all familiar with.
Knowledge is power. Ignorance is bliss.
If I only knew then what I know now.
You’re such a “know-it-all”.
It’s who you know, not what you know.
We have a heavy emphasis on knowledge and we financially reward those who obtain and apply knowledge.
We want to know. And perhaps more importantly we want others to know that we know, especially when we’re teenagers!
I love knowledge, studying, researching, and reading. I’m a learner.
But I wonder if we’ve elevated knowledge to something it’s incapable of providing.
Do we look to knowledge, as a society and as individuals, as something that will sustain, save, and validate our existence?
A good friend of mine recently said, in love and honesty.
You know Brad, you spend a lot of energy making sure you don’t look stupid in front of other people.
In a heartbeat, I immediately saw the truth of his statement. And as I pondered it I felt sad thinking I do spend a lot of energy making sure I don’t look stupid. Maybe I could have spent that energy in more valuable ways, being of greater service to others.
It’s like I’m holding onto knowledge as a means of safety.
If I hold enough knowledge then knowledge will hold me.
I’ll be surrounded by insightful authors and ideas. I won’t be alone.
Two ancient prayer practices brings old-new insight to how we understand knowledge, at least in a spiritual sense.
Ways of Knowing
Kataphatic knowing is the use of images, words and thoughts to guide and cue our knowing. Our senses pick up on what is seen and from that we gain a sense of knowledge or discernment.
Obviously this is really helpful and necessary.
Apophatic knowing is a knowing drawn from silence beyond words.
I love how Richard Rohr describes it:
Apophatic knowing is the empty space around the words, allowing God to fill in all the gaps in “unspeakable” ways.
This type of knowing requires access to another set of senses, the ability to perceive reality in ways that can’t be formally taught.
I personally enjoy the formal process of learning. But in the silence and the spaces in between the words there is another kind of knowing that can direct and guide me towards knowing what is unknown. Knowing by “participating with” instead of “observing from a position of separation. Knowing, subject to subject, instead of subject to object.
In the fourteen century an anonymous Englishman Christian mystic wrote the book “The Cloud of Unknowing”, a spiritual classic that helped readers understand they could have a direct experience with the Divine.
At the time this was a radical and revolutionary idea because the religious system controlled access to the Divine.
The author was proposing something different.
You don’t need an education or special status in the community. It only takes a sincere and open heart.
With great simplicity he wrote that if the cosmos is a mystery, as soon as we put words or images on it, it becomes something other than the mystery. If we reveal the mystery then the thing we just revealed is no longer a mystery.
None of us has enough knowledge to say, “I now understand the mysteries of the universe, this is how it works.”
What we can say is “this is my experience.” But a mystery remains just that, a mystery.
Is there anything I can securely rest my hat on? Or like John Maxwell, can I know at least a handful of things to be true?
I think to get to that point, where we distill our knowing to its essence, we have to reach the limits of our personal resources. I have to close all the books, shut down my computer, stop all the Google searching, and I have to come to an end of how I think it works.
What is required to know what is unknown is to come to the end of ourselves; to know that I don’t know.
The 1997 movie “Contact” starring Jody Foster illustrates this experience beautifully in the story of Foster’s character, Dr. Ellie Arroway.
After a life-altering encounter in outer space Dr. Arroway tries to explain what she experienced at a government inquiry.
Here’s that scene from the movie:
Foster’s character and so many others through the ages have said the same thing:
I cannot refuse what has happened to me. This is my experience. I know this happened and I wish you could see this too.
Thousands have gone before us. We are in good company to step into the unknown.
And that much I know.
Join me in this episode as I get honest about my need to not look stupid, consider different ways of knowing, and visit outer space with Jody Foster to boldly journey to the place of unknowing.
Media & Resources mentioned in this post:
- An article on apophatic and kataphatic prayer and “The Cloud of Unknowing”
- The Cloud of Unknowing
- Contact, The movie
Music by Outside the Sky & Brad Toews.