Somethings We Can Never Know

Today I would like to share with you a guest post from Michael Petrow. Michael is a student of Origen, a spiritual director, and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology. He currently lives in New Mexico where he works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!

How do you live with “not knowing why”?

Origen wrote before Cataphatic and Apophatic theology were different schools of thought. (The schools focused on what we can know about God etc, and what we can’t know.) This is the reason his greatest work On First Principles insists that we must use “discussion over definition”  seeking to explore rather than explain these divine mysteries.  Origen insists that insatiable curiosity is a gift from God. But then towards the end of this massive exploration and discussion he reminds us that curiosity is destined to live without answers and understanding:

Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. And in what despair of reaching a perfect understanding [Paul] uttered this cry, hear him tell us himself: ‘How unsearchable are [God’s] judgments and [God’s] ways past finding out.’ 

He did not say that God’s judgements were hard to search out, but that they could not be searched out at all; not that [God’s] ways were hard to find out, but that they were impossible to find out. For however far one may advance in the search and make progress through an increasingly earnest study, even when aided and enlightened in mind by God’s grace s/he will never be able to reach the final goal of his / her inquiries.

For no created mind can by any means possess the capacity to understand all, but as soon as it has discovered a small fragment of what it is seeking, it again sees other things that must be sought for; and if in turn it comes to know these, it will again see arising out of them many more things that demand investigation. This is why Solomon, wisest of men, whose wisdom gave him a clear view of the nature of things, says: ‘I said, I will become wise; and wisdom Herself was taken far from me, farther than she was before; and who shall find out her profound depth?’” (4.3.14)

I think today, in the Information Age, we all accidentally inherit an over inflated sense of how much we know personally, and as a species. But sometimes life is kind enough to disillusion us. Have you had to face the radical limits of your knowledge? Have you had an experience that brought home to you how much you did not know?

There is certainly a gift in unknowing, and living in the mystery. And there is also, for some, a terror. Now more than ever, in a time of uncertainty, how are you living into uncertainty? How do you live in peace in the mysteries of what cannot be known? What practice or experience has helped you? How can we all find a firm foundation in ambiguity?

Lastly how do we keep from turning uncertainty into a new form of arrogant certainty?

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2 thoughts on “Somethings We Can Never Know

  1. Great article. I think many people struggle in todays so called rational society with the need of hard facts. Everything needs to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. It took me, a person raised in the Western Christian traditions to explore Eastern Christian traditions to get a better idea if the Mystery that is God and how to be at peace with that. I have to remind myself every so often that I can know God, as in having an personal loving relationship, but I can never understand God. That’s a frivolous endeavor that some have spent their whole lives trying to accomplish to no avail. I heard it said once that as humans God created us somewhere between the Angels and the Animals. That saying gives me comfort because it allows me to accept my place in God’s creation and allow the Mystery that is just be.

  2. Thank you Justin and Michael! Such beautiful wisdom. For me, the mantra or saying, “More will be revealed” always comes to mind. This has been my experience and I suspect it always will be. Also, there is a wonderful line in the Big Book that reads, “life is not a dead end street, not something to be mastered or endured.” (Paraphrase) So, somehow in all of this I have found acceptance, beauty, patience and hope in trudging the road to (of) Happy Destiny. 🙏🏻💗

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