Turning the Cloud of Unknowing Upside-Down


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What might it mean to live perpetually on Holy Saturday — that is, in the tension between suffering (cross) and solidarity with the suffering (resurrection)?

[Image:”Creative Commons Cloud to Cloud Lightning” by ThaliaTraianou is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0]

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing suggests that there is “a privation of knowing” that exists between us and God. We are never at a point where we can really know God. The best that WE can do is acknowledge the cloud that separates us from God. The author also suggests that we need to keep a cloud of forgetting beneath us. This keeps us from getting trapped by all those things and associations that direct us away from God. Dorothy Soelle suggests that this is likely what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t be anxious…”  The cloud of forgetting keeps me from holding on to the oughts and shoulds of “religion”.

While the Cloud of Unknowing was probably on target for its time, I think that I would now say that the metaphor presented is actually upside-down. A ‘cloud of forgetting’ needs to be maintained above, providing a canopy of protection from all the images of an existent, powerful God of strong theology (and to protec from the musings and protestations of the Long Robes). Beneath is a ‘cloud of unknowing’ which is penetrated only by the projectile of insistence — that is, those nagging nudges, irrepressible invitations, consistent callings that move me to pay attention to and interact with marginalized people, situations, and circumstances which present themselves to me on a daily basis.

What is the origin of these insistences? From whence do they arise? Those of us in religious traditions tend to suggest that they come “in the name of God” (to which we probably ought to add “Perhaps”). The truth, however, is that the origin of such insistence is beneath the cloud of unknowing (“a privation of knowing” their origin). Such is the radical, weak theology of John Caputo and the insistent projectile that has penetrated my heart and mind.

Caputo writes, “So the present is exposed to the arrivants, to who or what is coming [to insist / call / invite / nudge / nag], as well as to revenants, those who are coming back [to spook / haunt]. We live in messianic or spectral time, responsible to both the living and the dead, both the living and the still to come, to the whole community of saints. We live in the space between a memory and a promise.” (p. 21, It Spooks) To put it simply, we live between spooking and insistence. The question remains, what is it that spooks me? By what / who am I haunted? What lies beneath the cloud of unknowing?

My first thought is that I am spooked by the traditions / values systems / worldviews of my family – the Brenners and the Deeters. These have become manifest by the way Mom and Dad (as well as grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins have interacted with me, much (most?) of which I internalized without thinking. To this add the educational, cultural, and religious institutions and systems which helped instruct and form me by making me aware of other possibilities of value clusters and worldviews.  An underlying dynamic of all these spooks has been power, control, and patriarchy.

Fortunately, there was been a sub-culture of insurrection that has insisted upon me — characterized by participation, fairness, integrity, and wholeness. The roots of those subversive values must for me lie in a) the Israelite insistence on care for widows, orphans, and strangers, b) Jesus’ Way of putting the poor first in our thoughts and actions, and c) an insurrectional insistence that seems to dwell somewhere in the collective human psyche.  Clayton Crockett (It Spooks, p.109) writes, “I am an intellectual and unfortunately not an activist.” I would slightly amend that statement for myself, “I am a reflectionist and unfortunately not an activist.” Like Crockett, “I seek ways to understand processes and situations so that actions can become efficacious, although it is easy for [reflection] to become an end in itself.” Some of that which haunts me was initiated and maintained in the name of God. Perhaps. (Although for most of the generations of the past there was no “Perhaps” to it.)

In prospect and retrospect (‘arrivants’ and ‘revenants’) there has been and will be such a mixture and confusion of influences that I could never be aware of them all, let alone separate them out into managable understandings.  I must be content to live beneath the canopy of a cloud of forgetting (protection from the haunting that descends upon me) and above the secure undercover of a cloud of unknowing (privation of knowing the source of the insistence that arises within me).

Kierkegaard (Practice in Christianity) insists that we dare not jump too quickly from cross to resurrection. For me, it is more straight-forward and emphatic — we live perpetually in Holy Saturday, caught on the knife edge between cross and resurrection. It is here, in the meantimes, in the in-between times, that we are insisted upon to engage in the suffering of the world (cross) in order that we might respond with some semblance of solidarity with those who are suffering (resurrection). Holy Saturday is the day of insurrection, the day lived in anticipation of the Commonwealth of Peace and Justice, the day in which we follow the Way of Yeshua. Holy Saturday is today; it is every day. Living in and through perpetual Holy Saturday is made possible by liturgies of remembrance (telling the stories of those who, having gone before us, have lived creatively and faithfully with insistence) and sacraments of insurrection (letting reverberate the echoes of hope for the Commonwealth of Peace and Justice).

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