“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Radical Agnosticism

The Greek word, gnosis, means “knowledge,” so agnosis means “not knowing,” and agnosticism means “the way of not knowing.”[1] An inquiring heart-mind may lead one to genuine agnosticism—which is to say, agnosticism as a spiritual path.
                Let’s take a deeper look at this path.
As Stephen Batchelor points out in his excellent book, Buddhism Without Beliefs,[2] the power of the term “agnosticism” has been forgotten. He says it has come to signify not to ask the great questions at all: To say, “I don’t know,” when you really mean, “I don’t want to know” or “I don’t care.”
Agnosticism, then, as it is usually found, is both uninspired and uninspiring. Often it is blended and confused with atheism or nihilism and tends to be just more b.s. (belief systems). In fact, many agnostics are highly-opinionated intellectuals—and what could be more oxymoronic than an agnostic know-it-all?
From where I stand, agnosticism is not an excuse for spiritual or moral laziness. My own agnosticism is not really another ism or creed, but a method or practice; a way of inquiring that deepens my relationship with everything. Such agnosticism is as passionate and challenging as any religious path.  (In fact, it can BE a path unto itself.)
Indeed, Thomas Huxley, the British biologist who invented the term “agnostic” in 1869, called it the “agnostic faith.” It is the faith or confidence that it is honest and legitimate to not know, to not subscribe to a set of rules and meanings; to not, as William James put it, “prematurely close our accounts with reality.”
True agnosticism remains intensely loyal to the irreducible mystery of our condition, what Rudolf Otto called the Mysterium Tremendum Et Fascinem—the tremendous and terrible wonder of the world. But agnosticism as a valid spiritual path is rarely engaged, even by those who claim to be agnostics.
I am an agnostic of the ultimate degree. I could wear a question mark around my neck as religious jewelry. To distinguish my life-way from the dull apathy that passes for agnosticism, I call my path radical agnosticism. Not radical as in the French Poodle Liberation Army, but radical as derived from the Latin word radix, meaning at the root, fundamental, primal.
            Agnosticism is radical when one not only does not know any special dogma about God, but, indeed, one does not even know what knowledge is.
What is a thought? What is memory? What is consciousness itself?
Where is Earth? Where is space? Where does experience take place?
When is time? When is now?
Who or what is “I”?
Where is the boundary between myself and anyone and the whole cosmos?
I, for one, do not know. I confess, with my whole heart, my whole body: I really don’t know. I don’t know what I am, or what you are. I am simply being what I am altogether, without clinging to body and mind as if any part or function or experience is a final identity.
Consider this: There is a world of difference between being able to name or describe something: a thought, a dream, a memory—a maple tree, apple tree, rhinoceros tree—and knowing what that thing or event or experience IS. Likewise, measuring the properties of a thing, its mass and chemical makeup and so forth, is absolutely not the same as knowing what it is. Nor is knowledge of how something works—say, that phosphorus combusts spontaneously in contact with oxygen—the same as knowing what it is.
It doesn’t matter what language is used to represent experience—from Hieroglyphics to English to advanced mathematics; and it doesn’t matter through what lens one perceives the universe—through shamanism or sexuality or astrophysics—one still cannot objectively know the wonder that is experience itself. Existence itself. Consciousness itself. This is our amazing condition, this present and Perfect Mystery. Unique, incomparable, indefinable, illimitable.
            To behave like know-it-alls just because we possess highly developed languages and sciences and arts—all of which are mere symbols or descriptions of reality—is an arrogance that would be laughable, were it not so harmful. We’ve confused our own representations and abstractions with real life, like mistaking the red lines on a map for the highways.
“How far is Chicago from New York?”
“Oh”—holding up your thumb and forefinger—“about this far.”
Evelyn Underhill, a great mystic of the past century, cautioned against this basic error of misidentifying reality with mere perception:
“This sense-world, this seemingly real external universe, though useful and valid in other respects, cannot be the world, but only the self’s picture of it. It is a work of art, not a scientific fact; and whilst it may possess the profound significance proper to great works of art, very slight investigation shows that it is a picture whose relationship to reality is at best symbolic and approximate, and which would have no meaning for selves whose senses, or channels of communication, happen to be arranged upon a different plan. The evidence of the senses then, cannot be accepted as evidence of the nature of ultimate reality.”
Ordinary folks, too, have come to understand this liberating wonder. Years ago,
I wrote a newspaper article called The Opposing Side of Euthanasia—about spouses who choose to care for someone until “death us do part.” One of the persons I interviewed was a retired economics professor who was 74 at the time and had just spent a couple years caring for his dying wife. He said something that has always stuck with me:
“For most of my life I fought against mystery, thinking that answers were available and I could obtain them. I don’t feel that way any longer. Now I’m comfortable with mystery, I’m reconciled with my own fundamental ignorance.”
Giving ourselves permission to not know can open us to what the 14th-Century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, called “Divine Ignorance.” He taught that such unknowing is our essential condition—not caused by sin or anything else—but uncaused, innate and immutable. Clearly, then, this native condition is not a temporary lack of knowledge (such as not knowing a cure for cancer) that may be resolved in the future by further research and information. Rather, our eternal situation is the inability to grasp the ungraspable, the mystery of our true identity, which is prior to and beyond all learning and conception and meaning.
The Nobel-laureate physicist, Werner Heisenberg, recognized this principle when he said, “In science we realize more and more that our understanding of nature cannot begin with some definite cognition, that it cannot be built on such a rock-like foundation, but that all cognition is, so to speak, suspended over an infinite abyss.” 
What would happen—how would it feel—to let go of all our hand-holds, our foot-holds, our mind-holds, and leap into that abyss? Has anyone ever done this? Is the leap survivable with sanity intact?
Indeed, I have made the leap myself. So have numerous other mystics across many cultures and times and places. (And my pet rock tells me that I’m still relatively sane.) Listen to what this total surrender felt like to the 10th Century Greek Orthodox Christian, St. Symeon, the New Theologian:
The more a man enters the light of understanding, the more aware he is of his own ignorance. And when the light reveals itself fully and unites with him and draws him into itself, so that he finds himself alone in a sea of light, then he is emptied of all knowledge and immersed in absolute unknowing.”
By now, you may be thinking, “And this is good news?” Actually, it is wonderful news: This contemplation of Mystery has the power to liberate us from the phony bonds of all our concepts, opinions, judgments, memories; from all limited identities superimposed on Life As It Nakedly IS. Our awareness opens into a vast, free space that allows room for the life-force[3] to flow and play. But because Eckhart’s term “Ignorance” suggests negative connotations, I prefer to call this awakening, “Deep Wonder.”
Practicing Deep Wonder brings on a crisis in consciousness, where words and thoughts fail and the independent self (“the knower”) capitulates. The grace of dis-illusionment shines in such moments of utter honesty. The scaffolding of the self-construct no longer holds up, and one falls helpless into the Heart of Reality. Then one lives as Reality, not through knowing, but through natural surrender.

             Having pointed to the liberating principle of our inherent Mystery, I must emphasize that Deep Wonder is not at odds with education and knowledge. Please hear this: I am a lifelong student and a huge fan of the natural sciences and the humanities—I am not anti-learning!
As an evangelist for wonder, I would never encourage anyone to abandon learning or critical thinking. Wonder and learning are lovers. Indeed, this path is not suited to anyone who does not have the ability to think and feel intelligently for oneself. Deep Wonder (radical agnosticism) does not mean “anything goes,” just as encouraging a wide-open mind is not to suggest that your brains should spill out in your lap! Such freedom is for Mature Audiences Only.[4]
Radical agnosticism can be summed in the profound confession: “What I Am is beyond all knowing.” This declaration expresses awe, not feeble-mindedness. It is an epistemological statement—that is, it refers to the structure of knowledge, which in turn, refers to the structure of the universe. Just as the eyes cannot see themselves, consciousness cannot become a separate object to itself, in order to know itself.
In other words, we can’t draw a circle around our existence and define it, because there is no distance, no independent platform, from which to view our total being and process. Thus, the real Self is not identical to anything perceived by the bodily senses or conceived by the thinking mind, because such are mere objects to awareness. Our True Identity always remains unqualified, pure capacity; it never becomes a “something.” Everyone already is the Perfect Mystery, Consciousness Itself, Totality, God.
So all that stuff that you presume is the real you (female, 20-something, tall, overweight, Hispanic, shy, college-educated, etc.)? It is all only surface functioning—a moving wave upon the ocean of real identity. What you are at Heart includes every level of functioning: body, mind, soul and spirit. So to identify only with the body or mind is to forget the vastness of Whole Being. When you awaken to your real nature, it blows the lid off this reductionist image of yourself, forever.
Radical agnosticism unfetters the being from bogus self-images and brings clear seeing. But it does not offer an alternative set of meanings and beliefs to replace the ones it flushes away. It is not consoling. And nothing is glossed over: not sorrow, not pain, not death. At the same time, it leads one to intuit our limitless, Original Nature—so open and empty it both inspires and sucks one’s breath away.
Therefore: I don’t know. You don’t know. Neither did Gautama, the Buddha. Neither does the President of the United States. Nor will the citizens of the farthest-flung future civilization. Life will never stop living so that we can pin it down, own and control it. And I, for one, am thrilled to let life be greater than all my knowing. I am willing to live at infinity with an uncovered heart.
If you feel moved to taste this freedom (to “Drink the Ganges in a single gulp”), then just see clearly that, already, in this moment, you do not know what a single thing is!
Now abide in this sheer truth and never forsake its present amazement.

[1] An old pun is that agnosis means “not knowing,” therefore, diagnosis means two people who don’t know what’s wrong: you and the doctor.
[2] Batchelor, Stephen, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, Riverhead Books, New York, 1977.
[3] In Eastern traditions, this emancipation of latent energy in the body-mind is called “the awakening of kundalini.” But descriptions of currents of radiant life-energy flowing in the body-mind can be found in every tradition.
[4] Remember the Heaven’s Gate cultists who killed themselves in order to be transported to a Hale-Bopp spaceship (after packing clothes for their discarded bodies!)? Those blighted souls displayed defective reasoning, not wonder. We cannot afford to be fools about this business of life. 

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