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The enigma of knowing



Confusion is the beginning of Wisdom. Socrates

In the 1930s the esteemed epistemologist Karl Popper clarified an important aspect of what constitutes human knowledge. He asserted that all human knowing is provisional: our best approximation of reality at a particular point in time. Although it may appear obvious now, it was an important break though in our understanding of the nature of knowledge at a time when knowing was closely aligned with factual truth. It enabled the holding of a creative tension between what was currently known and what was yet to be discovered. Truth, it would appear, is not discovered and left undisturbed but is continually discerned in a process that unfolds organically.

At a time when the Catholic Church is being invited to greater humility by the Plenary Council and greater synodality by Pope Francis it may be prudent to acknowledge both the richness and limitations of human knowing, especially when it comes to matters concerning ultimate reality. A progressive understanding of the nature of knowledge will enable the Church to tell its story with boldness and humility. It will also enhance its capacity to honour the wisdom of other faith traditions and, indeed, of other important disciplines.

In the religious sphere the mystical tradition had a nuanced understanding of knowing within the spiritual realm. It posits three dimensions of the soul: intellect, will and memory. Each dimension has an ambiguous quality insofar that it reveals and veils reality at the same time. In this short article the function of the intellect, its relationship to the holy and its role in revelation are considered.

The intellect helps one to understand and relate to the world through the formation of concepts and the use of images. It equates to a knowing by naming and picturing. It is a powerful way to be in the world, enabling a deep understanding, control and manipulation of many aspects of reality. For example, human ingenuity allows for the greening of the deserts; the transformation of stored water into electrical energy; and the ability to look into outer space to witness the birth and death of distant stars. It is easy to see why the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras spoke of man (sic) being the measure of all things

Yet, Christian Scripture points to another truth about what it means to be human. In the Garden of Eden story, the author alludes to the limits of human understanding and freedom. ‘You are fee to eat of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die’ (Genesis 2: 16-17). When it comes to ultimate reality, the intellect is not able to capture it in a concept, picture it in any definitive sense, or control it to serve its own purpose. There is a wonderful creative tension in human knowing that enables people of faith to speak with both boldness and humility with regard to their world view.


'When it comes to ultimate reality, the intellect is not able to capture it in a concept, picture it in any definitive sense, or control it to serve its own purpose. There is a wonderful creative tension in human knowing that enables people of faith to speak with both boldness and humility with regard to their world view.'


The mystics, particularly John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Merton understood the richness and limitations of human understanding and the partial capacity of language to carry the burden of spiritual matters.

They proposed a different category of knowing when it comes to God or, what some call, ultimate reality. They spoke of ‘dark knowledge’ or of knowing by not knowing. It is only by acknowledging the limits of conventional knowledge that wisdom of God emerges in an illumination that is characterized by darkness not light. In less mystical and more religious language, it is knowing by faith. In spiritual discourse it might be described as knowing by letting go rather than by possessing.

The mystics make themselves hospitable to God in the practice of contemplation. Using the disciplines of silence, stillness, intention and attention they create room for the Ultimate Other. Their own bodies become the space where the temples of earth and of heaven unite. They experience God in a profound knowing based upon union, not concepts or images. It is a knowing that is akin to intimacy with rather than knowledge about God. This kind of knowing may be related to the words expressed in Genesis 1:27. ‘Man is made in the image and likeness of God.’ A crude reading of Genesis might suggest that image and likeness are being used interchangeably.

The language may also suggest a double movement in the text. People are already made in the image of God and are invited to grow into greater likeness or unity with God. Indeed, St Augustine suggested that growing in likeness to something is the most profound understanding of knowledge. In Augustinian thought true knowledge cannot come through the senses but derives from a distant memory of the soul’s initial source and ultimate home in God. This particular concept of knowledge is alluded to in the Hebrew Scripture when the psalmist writes about ‘deep is calling to deep’ (Psalms 42:7). It is a wonderful summation of what contemplation really is.

It may just be that our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Australia have a greater facility for this kind of dark knowing. As I understand it, Indigenous Australians studied the night sky by focusing on the dark regions rather than on the stars. That enabled them to discern different patterns to conventional astrology, and, perhaps, to gain different insights into the nature of creation. It could be that the Church needs to learn from the wisdom of the dark and acknowledge the limits of the light if we are to honour the God of Life and share the Christian story boldly and humbly with all people who seek deeper meaning.

The understanding that knowledge is contestable and provisional is now well established and generally accepted. However, scientific knowledge based upon radical doubt, experimentation and falsification now assumes priority, if not exclusiveness, in human knowing. In this culture, claims about ultimate reality are often lampooned as idiocy or scorned as a psychological crutch against meaninglessness. 

Yet in our relationship to the holy we may be called to transcend cognitive understanding and choose trust in its stead, love in ways that go beyond the need to possess so that God may be God, and embrace salvation as our deepest motivation rather than fear or concern for our own security. The symbol of the cross expresses it most eloquently and calls to mind Isaiah’s reminder: God’s ways are not our ways. (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

It is fabled that the oracle at Delhi declared Socrates the wisest Greek of all on the basis that that he professed to know nothing. The Church too can demonstrate its wisdom by embracing its not knowing as it shares its profound treasures.


Gerry O'Neill is an author, spiritual director and Regional Formation Manager for the Sisters of St John of God Ministries. He is former Director of Mission for St John of God Health Care. 

Main image:  Statue of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. (Panagiotis Maravelis / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Gerry O'Neill, Knowledge, Epistemology, Socrates, Church, Mystics


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Existing comments

The poet and theologian Kevin Hart often refers to, and addresses, God as “dark one”. This searching description resonates powerfully for me. I learn about the One I sense is near me by poetry, by the writings of other people of faith (and no particular faith) and by Scripture which is a deep and abiding love in my life. When I say ‘learn’ it is more about a deepening of the sense of God than factual knowledge. I’m content this is so even as I stumble about being unloving and self-absorbed. Thanks for a very fine article, Gerry.

Pam | 17 February 2022  

‘Confusion is the beginning of Wisdom. Socrates’

If this is empirically true, it’s only the truth of a banality. We can surmise that we must live in an anarchy as what follows a Fall must lack the unity between all which must have existed before it.

In the Garden, wisdom would have been the systematic program of disclosure between Wisdom and its subjects receptive and obedient to its wisdom, receiving and building one element of received wisdom upon another, confident of the veracity of each element from the consistency of coherency between the elements. We still have something of that program in our program of disclosure called continuing revelation under the aegis of the Magisterium.

Socrates can be interpreted as saying that wisdom is a product of upward evolution to a state of being and knowledge that did not exist before. This is false because Christianity is a narrative of perfection marred. Wisdom, post-Fall, is a program to slow or stop a devolution as can be seen from the contemporaneous article by Ben Rich which asks why the unifying potential of the Internet is being submerged by its seemingly greater potential to divide.

roy chen yee | 18 February 2022  

“God’s ways are not our ways.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9), but not our ways are not God’s ways.

Beside “focusing on the dark regions rather than on the stars” as it may be the case for the Indigenous Australians studying the night sky, or “letting go rather than by possessing” so as to know for the mystics, or of a ‘total recall” from the Augustinian thought, we may need to focus more on the words in Genesis 1:27. ‘Man is made in the image and likeness of God.’, that is to say, we can know reality, ultimate or provisional more if we know more about humanity, the image and likeness of God.

We know our knowledge is provisional and we do not know a lot. But one place to know more is starting from what we know and have the faith that we will know more.

John Ai | 18 February 2022  
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If not 'the beginning', then at least a necessary precursor to the pursuit of wisdom is that we acknowledge that our knowledge, all of it, is provisional.

Ginger Meggs | 03 March 2022  

Strewth!! I never realised how complex "knowing "really was. To me, much knowledge, including God and his ways and intentions, remains a mystery. I wonder if 2+2 really equals 4! I suspect there are those who believe it doesn't.

john frawley | 18 February 2022  

This is the first time on ES that a contributing author has referred to the great Karl Popper, who was, I think, wiser than Socrates, partly due to the horror he had borne witness to. If Popper had not fled Austria, it was on the cards he would have perished at Auschwitz. It is interesting that incompletely 'Christian' Europe has had a long history of anti-Semitism, pogroms and the ghastly 'Final Solution'. Christianity came out of Judaism. Jesus was a believing, practicing Jew all his life. It is interesting that the spirituality of St John of the Cross and St Theresa of Avila came out of Spain, where once Christianity, Judaism and Islam coexisted, not always peacefully. Both of them had some Jewish ancestry. Early Medieval Mysticism did not become systematised and Scholasticised till much later. Sadly, apart from some circles, like the Carmelites, Mysticism in the Catholic Church is either a no-go zone or heavily systematised. The Catholics also ignore the insights of the Quakers, who are both Christian and true Christian Mystics. The current Pope is, I think, trying to bring the Church back to itself and its own internal treasure: genuine Christian Mysticism. I pray he succeeds.

Edward Fido | 19 February 2022  

Gerry O'Neill has taken Socrates at his word and made ready use of confusion on his way to a resolution; this is not to say there is not a finely honed tactic at work, but, we have to be patient.
As soon as Karl Popper receives a somewhat inflated accolade, Gerry moves on to terms usually associated with Heidegger's work, especially from his 'Essay on Truth.' This may fit with Gerry's purposes but would have Popper and his supporters beside themselves – given Popper's frequent and fierce criticisms of Heidegger.
Then there are the injunctions to the Church – challenges to find ways of being bold and humble – and, at the same time, develop a sensitivity to what it doesn't know when it is expanding on what it does know - its profound treasures. These suggestions stand ready for further comment, but, this time round, are left as elliptical snippets.
However, when we are introduced to the Christian mystical tradition we are given time to move from confusion to clarity – and gradually peel back the layers of Gerry's intent. The mystics are recognised as accessing another mode of knowing; a knowing which is at home with unknowing as a constituent of their quest to encounter God. A quest which imposes its own particular dispositions of silence and recollection but offers an access to truths more satisfying than science and the secular domains can offer.
The problem is not with what the mystics may offer by way of example, inspiration and education. The problem is Gerry has sought to interpret the entire Christian mystical tradition through the lenses of Augustine of Hippo's epistemology.
Gerry may be convinced of the value of Augustine's approach, but he needs to make his case: over reaching comments do not cut the mustard. For instance, global comments such as 'In the religious sphere the mystical tradition had a nuanced understanding of knowing within the spiritual realm. It posits three dimensions of the soul: intellect, will and memory.' Certainly, Augustine articulates this view in 'De Trinitate' but it is far from a unifying notion in the Christian mystical tradition – many mystics show no indication that they had heard of it, while others, such as Aquinas, posited a different set of descriptors.
Augustine is inescapably linked with controversy – largely of his own making. Not for nothing did the second millennium Church acknowledge his brilliance and outstanding expositions - and, at the same time, seek to retire from view some of his erroneous conclusions, while assiduously avoiding adopting his epistemology.

Bill Burke | 20 February 2022  

It is obvious Bill Burke is underwhelmed by Karl Popper. Chacun a son gout. I must confess the best talk I ever heard on Christian Mysticism and the Carmelite approach to it was by a delightful, very much on-the-ball 80 year old Australian-Maltese priest, who was born in that great centre of civilisation and wisdom, Alexandria, still the seat of the historic Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, which covers the whole African continent. He came from within the Carmelite Tradition. He spoke mainly about experience though not technicolour 'experiences'. Stages on the way. The church hall in Coorparoo was packed. The audience included Anglo-Celts and a variety of nations, including many Asians, who are the new face of the Church. There was also an extremely on-the-ball Aboriginal lady, a nurse and part-time chaplain. Another participant, originally from Holland, was also an experienced nurse. This is the sort of religion the Church needs.

Edward Fido | 21 February 2022  

"Confusion is the beginning of wisdom."
The book of Proverbs (9:10), locates wisdom's beginning in "the fear of the Lord", a term that conveys a range of spiritual dispositions in the scriptures: terror, awe (both involve "confusion"); reverence; respect for the sovereign Otherness of God; and due attentiveness to God's creative purpose in the world.
In Judeo-Christian understanding, "wisdom" requires grounding in its transcendent source - God.
Disconnection from its theological context is with us today in the positing of wisdom's adequacy without reference to God - an attitude that facilitates an
all-too-familiar lack of respect for the absolute dignity of human life as conferred by God in its creation as "the likeness and image of God."(Genesis 1:26).

John RD | 21 February 2022  
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Well spotted that the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom.

Anyone can fill his/her own abstract noun into the statement - "______ is the beginning of wisdom" and it would sound authoritative. But not all nouns would make the statement true.

marita | 22 February 2022  

Putting it in simple English, John RD, I suspect what you're trying to say is that many people have lost their sense of Awe and Wonder.

Edward Fido | 22 February 2022  
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I meet many, Edward, who acknowledge "Awe and Wonder", especially in response to beautiful natural phenomena. They usually call it "the numinous", but stop short of explicitly connecting it with God, the creator and sustainer of the universe as accepted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

John RD | 24 February 2022  

Religious discourse isn't intended to be literal: its only possible to address a reality transcending language in symbolic terms.

Paradise lost is a mythic account, not an historical event.

The faithful ain't expected to 'believe' in abstractions; it depends, instead, on the rituals associated with an imagined past and holy place associated with humanity's origins!

To establish credal positions from myths is absurd. The First Genesis account clashes with science (which is why we have a Second Account).

Until early modernism nobody read cosmology as 'literal account'! For the ancients the literal account was inspired by an acute sense of of the frailty and contingency of human experience. Thus it is a narrative that's understood, in both Teilhard & Merton, as 'existential'.

The question then is: why does anything exist, when there could so easily be nothing? Despite the impossibility of a simple or plausible answer, the crucial point is in the quest!

Thus the search for knowledge beyond the limits of what we know is imperative. and beyond the mistakes and the arrogance, the so-called 'false-prophets' and 'soothe-sayers' and 'nay-sayers' (as typifies some here present!) the imperative to search is within our DNA.

It is the search for God!

Michael Furtado | 23 March 2022  

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