The Freedom and Peace of Not Knowing God

“The moment you you teach a child the name of a bird, that child will never see that bird again.”   -Krishnamurti

May 1, 2012.  My oldest son is a great list maker. His latest is a list of all the animals he has seen in the wild. On a recent trip to a swamp in Florida, he brushed off his second sighting of an alligator because it was already on the list.  He’s a true modern scientist. I wonder, sometimes, if he sees the animal or if he just sees the word on the list.  How often do we do the same with God?  Perhaps we brush off a sighting because we think we already have Him (Her, It?) on our list, in our church, or locked in a book on our shelf.

In my reading class this spring, we spent a month studying the brain. It is remarkable what we know about that pile of white nerves between our ears. We have so much information, lists, animations, charts. We can pinpoint where memories sit and speech comes out. Still, the more we read as a class, the more I felt like all those charts and studies were somehow just about giving things names.  It was all information.  Can we say we know something just because we’ve given it a name and found its location?  Just because I can take apart a frog does not mean I know a frog. The very idea that we can know the “issness” of a frog, feel like a frog, understand what it means to be a frog, is ridiculous. Impossible. Even after naming and labeling every single cell in a frog’s body, we will know nothing about the actual experience of a frog.  Sometimes, we are so caught up in proving to everybody what we know, we forget the truth: we don’t know.  At the core of our being, we know very little.  We experiment and experience, we’re full of information, names, and lists, but when we try to lock reality down into a book or a chart, it’s like grabbing a tornado with a test tube.  Well, if we can’t really know what is going on in our heads, how can we know God?  We have a huge knowing problem in the spiritual world, especially with God.  Lots of talk and very little knowing.

Some of our greatest tragedies have arise when we think we know.  That’s how we get wars, inquisitions, crucifixions, and genocides.  The prince of theologians, Thomas Aquinas, after years of writing about God, put in the introduction to his complete works, “The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable.” Mystics agree. They say that the most of what our mind can understand about God is to understand what God is not.  Catholic Mystic Anthony DeMello says, “You are surrounded by God and you don’t see him because you know about him. The final barrier to the vision of God is God–the God concept.  You miss it because you think you know.  That’s the terrible thing about religion….There’s far too much God talk…and too little awareness.”  Like my son and his lists, his desire to know and label gets in the way of his actual experience with life.

Quakers know a thing or two about the freedom of not knowing.  Perhaps that’s why their church services are an hour of silence with no priest.  What a better way to acknowledge the ultimate mystery.  Some days, when I attend my standard “talkie” church service, I wonder what the heck we’re really talking about.  How much do we sound like an arrogant 17th century doctor propounding endlessly on the medicinal benefits of leeching and not bathing?  Why must we have ridiculously long and detailed creeds that insist we know that Jesus was flesh and spirit, that Mary was a virgin, that He descended and ascended and sits on the right hand of God.  Why cannot we accept, even relish in, not knowing?

Perhaps we can’t not know because we are constantly assaulted from all sides by others who claim to know.  After all, nothing is harder than to admit not knowing–especially at a cocktail party full of witty people talking books or politics.  It is even harder for a church to admit it does not know.  For many people, the entire point of church is having a place where they are told what they are supposed to know.  But that’s not spirituality, that’s indoctrination.  Spirituality is about thinking and discovering.  All too often religion is about memorization and recitation.

In one of DeMello’s talks, he tells the parable of the blind man who insists on being told what green is like.  His friend obliges him by describing it as best he can: silky like cloth, crisp like an apple, and soothing like music.  Miraculously, one day the man’s sight is restored.  His friend asks him, as they are sitting in a lush garden, “so now what do you think of green?”  The man replies, “it’s wonderful, I just heard some this morning.”  Even when we think we are unstuck, we think we finally know, we are often still stuck.  By thinking that we know, believing we have the answer, we often miss the truth in front of us. Give up knowing!

An idea of God is so impossible, so outside our mind, that we have to come up with all these big-sounding, but very limiting, concepts:  The Ground of All Being. Unconditional Love.  Mother Earth.  Creator.  Physics.  The Un-moving Mover.  Pure Mystery.  Some models are good.  Some are limiting.  But they are all names, or models.

Perhaps we’d do better to chuck all these names and models and just not know.  I find many of my agnostic and atheist friends are merely reacting to the ridiculous assertions by their peers that God can be pointed out in a crowd. Perhaps those wise agnostics and atheists are trying to remind us of the fool who, when shown the moon by the wise man, left thinking that the moon was a finger in the air.

The answer of course, is awareness and humility.  Be aware of how little you really know.  Take some time this week to meditate on how much you don’t know.  Do not be fooled by the fact that you can name it and dissect it.  Do you really know it?  It might make you anxious at first.  Let that anxiety melt into peace.  There is very little we can truly know about others, about the world, about ourselves.  There is a freedom in not knowing.

But isn’t our goal to have some sort of ultimate connection with God?   How can we love, worship, adore, honor–whatever word you want–a God we do not know? That’s the real mystery.  Through meditation and letting go (give up and die!) we make room for God to reveal Herself.  Meister Ekhart argued that detachment was the greatest of virtues, even detachment from God, because it was the only way to make space for God in our lives.

“The most beautiful thing which a person can say about God would be for that person to remain silent from the wisdom of an inner wealth.  So, be silent and quit flapping your gums about God.”  Meister Ekhart.

Give up and die to knowing…and enjoy the mystery.  Take some time to meditate this week on all things you do not know.

A lot of the above thoughts were inspired by (and directly stolen from) the talks of Catholic Mystic Antony DeMello, which can be found for free at