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On not knowing
The intellectual and the mystic can agree
In 1971, the theologian Karl Rahner famously predicted that the Christian of the future would have to be a mystic. What Rahner meant was that the traditional religious culture would not sustain a lively faith, in a post-industrial world; people would either have a deep religious commitment or no faith at all.
Rahner had a precise understanding of mysticism. The mystic, he said, is someone who has had “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our experience.” I prefer to take my definition from the man whom some have called the prince of mystics, St. John of the Cross. John spoke—from experience—of “a higher knowledge of God,” of a “dark night” that is “an inflow of God into the soul,” purging the soul of “habitual ignorance and imperfections, natural and supernatural.” According to John, Christian mysticism is a certain dark—indescribable—knowledge of God, a gift that finds its expression in love. I believe many people have experienced such a deep, satisfying sense of God’s presence in their lives but have not had the language to describe it.
Intellectualism and mysticism would seem to be the extreme poles of mental life, with the former indicating clarity of thought and the latter an extreme state of grace. Yet in the Catholic instance (for I am thinking of the Catholic intellectual), there is an interesting interplay between the two.
As with mysticism, one can think of intellectualism as a way of being. The intellectual life is dedicated to the pursuit of learning, accompanied by the conviction that learning brings forth meaning. It has always been an integral part of Catholic tradition, reflected in the willingness of the early patristic adherents to engage in dialogue with Greek philosophy. It is exemplified by the value that Aristotle brought to the thought of Thomas Aquinas. It is reflected in the willingness of Cardinal John Henry Newman, CO, to challenge intellectual liberalism in a reasoned way, and it has survived in our own time in those such as Benedict XVI and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor who have confronted, in the arena of intellectual discourse, what Walter Lippmann called, generations ago, the “acids of modernity.” Catholic intellectuals join this conversation when they understand that what comes to us as God’s gift in revelation sheds light upon and enriches what the human project achieves by the use of mind.
Catholics who wish to follow the intellectual life begin with the tacit or overt conviction that one can know truth in some imperfect way and, further, that the pursuit of any truth is an incremental and lifelong journey. They aspire to truth by a variety of paths: by reflection on the culture in its current iteration; by exploring issues of aesthetics or the world of science; by adjudicating the fundamental ethical norms appropriate to society and the individual; by reaching up to the mind of God as revealed to mankind by faith and reason; and by attempting to harness ideas into some kind of coherent whole.
At times, the mystical way of knowing coincides with or is complementary to the intellectual vocation. Those who have accommodated to both, such as Augustine of Hippo, recognize that God is “most hidden from us and yet the most present amongst us” (Confessions I:4). God is the object of a lifelong search but is also known to be present in love. In the late 20th century, this assertion was similarly expressed by the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan, when he gave as his final precept (of five) for authentic living, after “be reasonable,” “be in love.”
The mystical path has something to teach those on the intellectual path, and it is this: The search for the finality of truth is Truth, and in that search there must be humility. We acknowledge that we cannot possess the fullness of Truth but can only inch toward it by degrees and by fits. Similarly, every insight into the truth of things allows us to see a part of the whole. It urges us forward while reminding us that we have not yet arrived at whole understanding. In a sense, the intellectual life is a life of desire.
The great mystics share a fundamental insight that, for all we can say about the experience of the final form of knowing, there is much that we cannot say. In this life, we are on the way of truth, never completely in possession of it. Beware the intellectual who can explain all and provide direction for all. Such a person is not an intellectual but a fanatic. The mystics, in their knowing, do not know how to say what they have experienced. St. Paul caught it perfectly: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Those who wish to be or who consider themselves to be intellectuals must learn that, in undertaking the intellectual pursuit of truth, they embark on a journey for a lifetime—the intellectual life must inevitably be an unfinished labor. Rather like the mystic, the true intellectual learns that the full embrace of what we can know and express is limited by our human capacity. T. S. Eliot got it right in his Four Quartets: “Words strain / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place / Will not stay still.” And so the mystic reaches for the oxymoron (God is “todo y nada”). And the intellectual strains for analogy, metaphor, and linguistic novelty.
The harmony between mystics and intellectuals can be described like this: When intellectuals begin to grapple with ideas in order to gain understanding, they grow aware of the horizon of unknowing that extends ever before them—and aware, too, that their goal recedes even as they advance to meet it under the penumbra of hope. Mystics follow a somewhat analogous path, in that their yearnings are never complete in this life; their experience of the presence of God is always tentative, elusive, transitory, and full of promise. Like the Christian intellectual, the mystic lives in the “not yet.” How might their paths converge? Aquinas gives an interesting hint in his Summa Theologica. He begins by defining contemplation as principally pertaining to meditation on God, and then he says that the contemplative can be predisposed to genuine contemplation by a reflection on any truth—Thomas’s way of saying that the intellectual task of seeking and stating truth is a prelude to the encounter with Truth.
The paths of the Christian mystic and the Christian intellectual move toward a common end, which is the Source of all truth. Their shared way has been well underscored by a 20th-century monk who was both an intellectual and a contemplative, and I will give him the last word. In New Seeds of Contemplation (1961), Thomas Merton, OCSO, wrote: “Contemplation, by which we know and love God . . . beyond the reach of any natural understanding, is the reason for our creation by God. . . . It is the fulfillment of deep capacities in us that God has willed should never be fulfilled in any other way.”
Lawrence Cunningham is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Seven Deadly Sins: A Visitor’s Guide (2012). His essay is drawn from a talk he gave in the Heights Room on April 10, sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Center.