Preamble : Readings were Job : 38:16-21, which confronts Job with the limits of his knowledge; Exodus 13: 21-22 ; 33:7-10; 40:34-38, which speaks of the cloud of divine presence The Cloud of Unknowing [by an anonymous British monk} 131 . This reflection is very indebted- indeed it could not exist at all- without Catherine Keller’s amazing study Cloud of the Impossible. Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (New York; Columbia University Press, 2015). I am also drawing, I’m sure, on Naomi Klein and other writers on climate crisis, and on the little bits of physics I’ve managed to absorb, as an adult, with the help of Brian Greene, Neil Turok and others who try to communicate what they can to non-scientists- Keller however makes more sense of all this than I. My little Sunday reflection can’t begin to do justice to her book- I can only hope some of you will be tantalized enough to order it and spend time with it yourselves.]
This Creation season , we’ve had climate change in mind- As we draw near the end of our creation series- just one week to go- you might wonder where we are going with this. I think we know climate change is real, and that some of it is caused by humans- And we know it’s a problem and something needs to be done, probably many things need to be done-some by us individually, some by us as community and society.
But then, we get confused, Not all the projections about the future pace and effects of climate change are the same- None of them are exact- No one can say exactly what will happen, how or when, Or just what it will take to stop it or slow it enough..
This is where some give up on science. Is everything after all a matter of opinion, and then whose opinion do we believe?
Well, it’s not that simple. Sure, science can measure things and observe things , some things anyway- and we should pay attention to these, they aren’t just someone’s opinion. But science can’t measure and observe the future. Science can make reasonable projections -we should pay attention to them too but we can’t expect them to be exact – polar ice can melt faster than projected, fish or whale populations may fall off unexpectedly, and so on.
Scientists, like everyone else live within nature-they cannot look in from outside or above Modern physics has shown us that we are entangled with what we observe- the observer and the observed affect each other- What you look for and how you look affects what you see. You can look at something when it’s a particle but then you can’t observe its movement. Or you can look at it in motion but then it’s a wave often overlapping with other waves- But you can’t see it both as a particle and a wave at the same time. There’s even a physics principle called the Uncertainty Principle. And- I’m oversimplifying here- much of what happens, unseen by us in the universe, is explained only by the existence of dark matter, dark energy, which no one can see. .[for much of above, see Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, chapter 4, especially 127-145]
It’s as if we live in a Cloud. Not just where your smartphone data and memory go-
But actually physically speaking, we are in a Cloud. Not an empty space, it’s full of all kinds of matter and energy seen and unseen, Known and unknown. As humans, no matter how much we see and know, we live within Mystery.
Here Spirit and Science meet -within the cloud, within mystery. We have words, images for God- perhaps we each have a way of talking or listening to God. But God/the Divine/Spirit is or are – who knows- always beyond our seeing, our knowing, And this has tantalized seekers forever.
Some in the church have tried to nail it down- this is God, , this is what you’ve got to believe- Most churches have statements of belief- creeds and the like- some repeat them every Sunday.. But always some spiritual writers have questioned such certainties.These are just words, images- use them if you want but they don’t express all of God- God is beyond anything we can say or see or hear.
And so the book of Job challenges not just Job but all humans- what do you know?
And so an unknown mediaeval monk spoke of the Cloud of Unknowing – as you seek to know God, you will find yourself up against, or in this cloud- you come to the limit of what eye can see or mind can imagine or mouth can speak. [ much more on this work, Keller, Cloud, p. 78-86. It’s worth also getting The Cloud of Unknowing and reading it yourself- it’s easily available in paperback translation. It’s a classic known to all students of Centering Prayer, as I discovered when I read it a few years ago.]
Nicholas of Cusa, in the 15th century spoke of the Cloud of Impossibility- or I should say- Im/slash possibility. For him too all the language breaks down, the words fall away, you find you don’t know a thing. The moment you try to catch God, the Divine, Spirit, he or she or they or it get/gets away from you. [Keller, Cloud, p. 87-123]
And part of the problem is, God is part and parcel of what you are living inside -You can’t get outside and look at God- And God isn’t outside looking at you. Somehow you are bound up together , entangled together , you and God and all that is. [Keller, Cloud, 146-167]
Forgive me for wandering off into the cloud. But I’m convinced this is as true as Faith can be-
And it helps me, at least.I spend much time journeying with people through what we don’t know and understand – I could pray all I want , however I want, and I still won’t understand it-
Which is why I am not someone who uses easy explanations- I say “ I don’t know”.Scientists will tell you – some things they know, some things they don’t know.Spiritual seekers know- there’s a lot we don’t know.
Truly we aren’t so different from the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. They wanted to know why they were in the wilderness, the place of chaos and doubt and confusion, where they were going , especially when they were going to wind up somewhere they liked better.
They didn’t get a road map or an itinerary. Instead what did they get? A cloud by day and a fiery pillar by night, going before them, always with them. Not light but darkness-
But a luminous darkness, enough to make a way where there was no way.
So we live in a cloud. We do science in a cloud. We make choices in a cloud. We make our spiritual journey in a cloud. A cloud of Unknowing. A cloud of Luminous Darkness. A cloud of Im/possibility.
How do we live with all this uncertainty, this unknowing? It seems that it goes back to Love. [ much on this in Keller, p. 285 ff. and elsewhere].
The Cloud of Unknowing author says you can’t know but you can connect with the Divine by love.
Paul tells us knowledge falls away, prophecy falls away, love never ends [1 Corinthians 13]
The mystic Dionysius the Areopagite tells us Moses must” fall away from what is seen and unseen, into the mysterious darkness” – and that is where the Divine addresses him.
In the beginning- is the relation. [a phrase taken from Carter Heyward, The Redemption of God, who took it or adapted it, I think, from Martin Buber] We live within the Divine as the fish in the sea, the bird in the cloud. [fish in sea- echoes a metaphor in the Sufi poet Rumi]
Even with those humans we love, those humans we trust, there is uncertainty, unknowing, a shadow we never see. Much less do we know what will become of them, what will become of us together.
And yet amid the cloud we love them- And yet amid the cloud we love all our neighbours, known and unknown, human and non-human, .We are in it together with what we see and know,
And with what is beyond our seeing and knowing.
We are not alone -we are in the cloud with God and with all that is-drawn together- entangled- in a network of caring, enough to hold the world dear and hold each other dear.
Even in the cloud, there is love enough to see us through the journeying of our days and the resting of our nights. May it be so as we persist in the work of loving this world.