atheism for lent, day 18: covid edition, pt. 3 (late)
Day 18 was actually yesterday, but it also happened to be one of my worst covid days yet. I had no brainpower or energy for anything. All I did was binge-watch Season 8 of The Flash, which I haven’t really enjoyed since Season 4. But I’m curious as to how it all turns out, and so I keep watching, even though the writing and character development have been thoroughly submerged in the toilet since Season 6. I can’t brain at a higher level than that right now anyway.
So, the text for AfL’23 Day 18 should be FUN.
Said text is Chapter 6 of the 14-th century anonymous mystic work The Cloud of Unknowing. This “prayer guide,” written in Middle English, advocates abandoning all attempts to understand, define, or qualify “God” and, instead, giving oneself over to utter unknowing — thereby gaining a tiniest glimpse of the nature of God. The writer invites us into unknowing, and we don’t know who the writer is. Deliciously ironic, or all part of the writer’s brilliant scheme. I don’t know.
God, says the writer, cannot be known or thought — only loved:
“By love [God] can be caught and held, but by thinking never. Therefore, though it may be good sometimes to think particularly about God’s kindness and worth, and though it may be enlightening too, and a part of contemplation, yet in the work now before us it must be put down and covered with a cloud of forgetting.”—The Cloud of Unknowing
If I still believe in God as existing at all, it’s definitely from a mystic perspective, “God” as unknowable, indefinable, ungraspable, unpicturable. This does not mean unimportant, irrelevant, or ignorable. That said, I don’t have much understanding as to how I can love “God” without holding some concept of what I’m loving. The Unknowing author wants me to “strike at” this “thick cloud of unknowing” with a devout, longing love. But even the sentence construction “I love God” — Subject-Verb-Object — automatically turns “God” into (at the very least grammatically speaking) into an object. Which, if I’m not mistaken, is the very sort of idolatry the mystics want desperately to avoid.
I’ve heard Peter say that “God” is the site where we unconditionally and selflessly love others. That makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s something I can do. I know that much of mysticism is about being, not doing. But if the being doesn’t, at some point, lead to doing…if my being doesn’t eventually lead to my functioning in a certain manner as an active presence presence in this universe…then I’m not sure what the being is good for. Existence alone isn’t enough. It doesn’t satisfy. It doesn’t heal. It is needful, yes. The being must precede the doing, otherwise I am doing all willy-nilly with no anchor or point of orientation. “Faith without works is dead.” Being without doing is pointless. Being without doing might still be living, but it’s not thriving. And it doesn’t help anybody.
So. How to love God without verbing an object?