The poet Marilyn Nelson, honored by Image with the 2019 Levertov Award, ends her poem “Nine Times Nine, on Awe” like this:
The awe of the aesthetic experience,
Part of our universal inheritance,
Makes us basilicas of reverence.
I think this kind of hunger is familiar: we come to art with that paradoxical desire for an experience we can’t manage. To become a basilica of reverence, one in whom the fullness of mystery resounds, is an experience of being decentered, upended. “Awe” is a posture less of comprehension than encounter. And I find myself reverberating with such awe more in the face of art than theology. Indeed, sometimes what I “know” of God is more of a barrier than a window.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously suggested there is an atheism that is more faithful than much that passes for theology. He was especially critical of what he called “ontotheology,” his name for those forms of religious thought that invoke God to solve a puzzle or fill a gap in our intellectual systems—the God summoned to explain things. Heir to a critical lineage that includes Pascal and Kierkegaard, Heidegger rails like a prophet against this “god of philosophy”:
Man can neither pray nor sacrifice to this god. Before the causa sui, man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance… The god-less thinking which must abandon the god of philosophy is thus perhaps closer to the divine God. Here this means only: god-less thinking is more open to Him than onto-theo-logic would like to admit.
If this god of philosophy—the god of solutions, the god who affirms our biases, feels exactly what we feel, hates exactly who we hate—if this god is an obstacle, an idol of our making, an Oz-like curtain that presents us with a substitute, then “god-less thinking”—getting rid of the obscuring curtain—would be an unveiling. Ridding ourselves of the domesticated gods of our own making might finally make us vulnerable to an encounter of transfiguration, where real divinity could break loose and overwhelm us. Indeed, such vulnerability and proximity to a “more divine” God might not even be thinking. It might be an unknowing. Unknowing might be a way to relate to God anew. You might call this mystery.
In our information age, we need spiritual exercises of ex-formation. I’m alluding to an approach developed by Japanese designer Kenya Hara. His book Ex-formation explores the possibility of a communication that, rather than explaining the world, “makes people understand how little they know of the world.” Hara says that “I know, I know” is the mantra of our age: we all want to be seen as in the know, which is why whenever someone tells us something, we almost take it as an affront. “I know, I know,” we retort, and then, rather than exploring something together in conversation, we throw back another piece of information. Communication that informs keeps trading in this economy.
But real epiphanies, Hara says—revelations—would require not informing but ex-forming: modes of communication that bring us to the limit of our knowing.
He suggests an analogy: Imagine a guidebook to New York or Venice or Cairo that doesn’t just catalogue sights to be checked off but helps us appreciate how elusive the city is, that tantalizes us with the unknown. Wouldn’t a person returning from a trip with that guidebook better understand the city than a Lonely Planet devotee who has conquered the list?
“How do we unknow a preexisting image?” Hara asks. How do we unknow the world? We might ask, how can we unknow God? And how can we do so faithfully, for the sake of our relationship with God?
This is not the arrogance of modern bravado; it is an ancient question—the quest for what Augustine called “learned ignorance.” Commenting on Saint Paul’s assertion in Romans 8 that the Spirit sighs with groans too deep for words, Augustine remarks: “There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance, so to speak—an ignorance which we learn from that Spirit of God who helps our infirmities.”
For many of us—perhaps especially in our cultural moment, after modernity—this learned ignorance is most germane. It’s an unknowing for those who so confidently “know,” who seem to have mastered the world. We need to be unsettled, disrupted, decentered. Unknowing can be its own epiphany.
Jean-Luc Marion, a contemporary French Catholic philosopher, has articulated this afresh in a series of original books over the past twenty years, including his provocative little study of art, The Crossing of the Visible. An encounter with transcendence, he argues, is an experience of a certain kind of incomprehension—an instance of being decentered, discombobulated, out of control.
Marion’s account contrasts everyday experiences with what we might call liminal encounters. In the everyday, I walk into the room, sit on the chair, and pick up the coffee mug. These phenomena are familiar to me. I have a long history of making sense of them (“constituting” them, the phenomenologists would say). I come to them with a “horizon of expectation” in which chairs and cups easily fit. I don’t even have to think about it; my grasp of them is automatic. They “give” themselves to me in ways I can handle.
But then Marion points to cases of phenomena that overwhelm my horizons of expectation, that give themselves in ways that elude me, subvert me, leave me reeling, so that I’m not quite sure what to make of them, or her, or Thou. These are what he calls “saturated” phenomena, because to encounter them is to be awash, flooded. A wave of givenness comes crashing over me so that I can’t quite constitute what gives. This is not an incomprehensibility that stems from a lack but from a surfeit. This, it seems to me, is a way for us to think about mystery.
A certain kind of blindness, Marion suggests, can be its own epiphany. Some things we can’t see because their plenitude overwhelms us. The light “bedazzles” us, Marion would say. This is true of revelation, the revelation of “a face that I love, which has become invisible not only because it dazzles me, but above all because in it I want to look and can look only at its invisible gaze weighing on mine.”
I think this is why light is such an enduring metaphor and experience of God. “In your light we see light.” “Light from light, true God from true God.” Why there is a blindness that is a revelation. This is a failure to grasp that is its own kind of seeing—to be awash in an oblivion that is a way to remember the wildness of God.
This brings me to a peculiar sort of poetry.
I’ve been spending time with a unique book. Some of you will have heard of Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), a German mystic (of sorts) from the later Middle Ages. Now, I wouldn’t recommend an Eckhart-only spiritual diet, just as I don’t think apophasis should be the only, or even the default, mode of the Christian life. But I find there are seasons when the koan-like musings of the mystics are just what I need to elasticize my soul’s capacity for God again.
Lately I’ve been dwelling with Eckhart, but in a fresh way thanks to a creative project called Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart, in which Jon Sweeney and Mark Burrows have “versified” Eckhart’s insights from sermons and journals, introducing the poetic form of the line break to generate a new sort of disclosure of Eckhart’s wisdom.
That wisdom will remain hidden if you approach it with ontotheological demands. The more divine God adumbrated in these mediations hides from the god of the philosophers. These are encounters you have to let wash over you. Resist the analytic impulse; don’t try to assess or correct. Try to dwell with the fecundity of what’s suggested here.
Sometimes you have
to break things
if you want
to grasp God in them.
In the breaking,
we allow what’s holy
to take form
The soul that wants nothing but God
must forsake everything,
If I hope to find You,
I need to let go
of all I think I need
to know, turning
from what I desire
to become the
Sometimes metaphors make familiarity possible, and that is important for any meaningful relationship. But sometimes what we need are metaphors that make the familiar strange—metaphors that remind us of the depth of the mystery that is God and grace.
The Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain succinctly captures this positive account of mystery as plenitude: “Mystery is not the implacable adversary of understanding. [It] is a fullness of being with which the intellect enters into a vital union and into which it plunges without exhausting it.”
No one understands this better than artists, I think. Artists know that mystery is not a problem to be solved but a depth to give into. Not a lack of understanding but a plenitude that washes over us, in which we swim, looking for bottom—and Someone grabs hold of us.
Featured image: Kenya Hara, from the Senseware exhibition at the Milan Triennale.
James K.A. Smith is editor in chief of Image.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.