The Cloud of Unknowing – Thoughts on Torah portion Pekudei 2016
The Cloud of Unknowing , written in the late 1300’s, in middle English by an unknown Christian monk, deals with the mystical knowing of God. The book, like others of its type, charts a path to knowing God that dispenses with biblical theology, and ignores theology in general. In a word, my type of book.
Like many of the great books I have read, it was assigned reading for a class in college. Like many of those books, it gave me a language and a way of knowing that has shaped my life since.
I have often taught: there is believing in God, and there is knowing God. Believing in God usually means subscribing to some set of propositions about God –unique and one, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent, etc. Believing usually entails some formal attitude toward the Bible and other holy texts, and a host of other details of belief.
Knowing God, as taught in The Cloud of Unknowing and other mystical texts, dispenses with the attributes of God, with systems and details of belief, and asks us to strip ourselves from the categories of the mind and enter into the cloud of un-knowing. Un-knowing is a way of Knowing God. Un-knowing means to relinquish what one knows with the mind, for just a moment, and sink into the depths of one’s soul, into a chamber without language, without meaning, a chamber of the pure substance of the self. The mind has no object to think about here. Thinking is suspended. You don’t know anything. You have entered the Cloud.
The Cloud, of course, is what Moses enters when he ascends Mt. Sinai. It is a cloud that descends upon the Tabernacle in the desert, described in our Torah portion. In Exodus 40, the Tabernacle is erected, everything is in place, and the mystical presence of the Divine (the Kavod) rests upon and in the Tabernacle. God tells Moses that he may not enter, because the cloud and the Kavod fill the Tabernacle.
One way to read this, mystically, is that Moses could not enter the Tabernacle as long as he knew he was Moses. When one sinks into the inner cloud of unknowing, your identity is forgotten for a moment. The self is effaced. There is only knowing without knowledge – the unknowing. When Moses forgets he is Moses, then he can enter.
When we are stripped of our mind and enter into the silent chamber of unknowing, the only thing to know is the divine presence. You don’t have to call it the divine presence, of course, because to call it anything is to not know it.
We have to refer to it, though; point at the nameless presence. This is the treacherous path of spiritual and religious language – we have to use language to refer to the experience, but from a mystical perspective, language ultimately only points, it does not name. From a mystical perspective, taking the names too seriously is a kind of idolatry.
We can enter the Cloud, and know the divine through the unknowing, but we can’t live there for long. We have to come back out, live and love, struggle for justice righteousness, know truth, and create beauty. A mistake of some mystics is to think that since one has entered into the cloud of unknowing, the ultimate reality, that the mystical unnamed One, the unknown divine, is the only reality. I think the inability to know more than one world is what makes peoples only mystics on one hand, or only materialist atheists on the other hand.
Some people can’t handle the truth: that there is a material world and a spiritual world, that they overlap one another, and that it is in the soul of the human being where the two worlds embrace.
The authentic spiritual life is to know these two worlds, to experience both fully, and many worlds in between, but not aim for a unified theory. If you find a unified theory, fine, but just don’t take it too seriously.
The authentic religious life is to learn and live a symbolic, shared language spoken by a faith community. This language and this community help us traverse these worlds and build and hold a space and place, a Makom, where we can each at our time and pace, enter into the Cloud of Unknowing.