The Soul of Knowledge – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Fall Preaching Series 2015
Monastery Chapel of St. Mary & St. John, Cambridge

Wisdom 7:15-22
Psalm 139:1-9
1 Corinthians 13:8-12
Luke 10: 17-23

“If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’re going?”

I should have seen this question coming. I was in a second interview for a position at a small, faith-based, non-profit organization. I was inspired by the work the organization was doing, offering non-religious educational and social services to new immigrants. It was the height of the economic recession, I was a recent graduate from Harvard Divinity School, and I was hungry for a job doing work I could believe in.  Though some of the fine points of my own faith differed from theirs, I was hopeful that, with some skillful, interpersonal ecumenism, I could stand on common ground with these fellow followers of Jesus.

Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I had been asked this question before. There is a “correct” answer. It’s: “Yes. I know that I’m going to heaven because I’ve been saved by Jesus Christ.” I could have said yes. But I knew that for me to say yes in that moment would be to shrink the untamable God I had come to love after years of seeking down to the contours of a theological shoe-box.

I took a deep breath, and heard myself say, “I don’t know.”

I continued, “I don’t believe that I can know the mind of God in that way. But I do know that I love Jesus Christ with all my heart, and I trust that nothing can separate me from that love.”

To my surprise, I was offered the position, and spent several gratifying years working there.

Tonight’s topic in our preaching series is “The Soul of Knowledge.” These days, there are two common assumptions about knowledge and religion that you have probably encountered. The first assumption often finds a home in places like Harvard Square, where the pursuit of knowledge is an obvious priority, and there are many, very smart people. This is the assumption that if you dare to enter a building such as this chapel, those inside might see your hard-earned knowledge as a suspicious liability and expect you to adopt an unquestioning faith as its antidote. The second assumption is typified by the question I was asked in my job interview. It presumes that a Christian who is right with God will walk through life from start to finish clad in dogmatic certainty, itself a form of irrefutable data. The good news that you probably already know is that these two are not the only options. But you may have noticed that following Jesus on the path between these extremes has its unique challenges. For your consideration, I’d like to delineate some features of a Christian posture toward knowledge informed by the early Church and the monastic tradition that can help us navigate the journey of faith in a land of extremisms.

Ancient and medieval monastic communities, like the early Christians before them, understood knowledge to be a personal, experiential familiarity with God and God’s works rather than theoretical speculation about them. Grounded in that basic premise, they more or less took the following for granted:

Knowledge of creation – including the study of all the human arts and sciences using God’s gift of our curiosity, our physical sense perception, reason, imagination, intellect, and our most subtle intuitions – can bring us closer to God. We need only keep our eyes, minds, and hearts open to God in the midst of these pursuits. In the words of an ancient prayer, “God is everywhere present, filling all things.” God awaits, eagerly, to be discovered in and through the endless complexity and wonder of creation. We might pause to reflect on our own areas of deepest knowledge, the tools that help us embody that knowledge, and the workspaces where that knowledge comes to life. The monastic novice is told, “Your cell will teach you all things.” How often do you seek and find God in your cubicle or classroom, your laboratory or study carrel, your laptop or your oven?

Our knowledge of creation, of ourselves, and of God exists in dynamic tension with revelation – those facets of God and God’s ways in the world that the Church perceives most clearly in the story and person of Jesus Christ. Christ is for us the loving self-disclosure of God’s mysterious heart, the key and cornerstone of all knowledge, the eternal Teacher. As our passage from Luke suggests, it is by trust in the self-disclosure of God the Son that we participate in his eternal, relational knowledge of the Father. How might revealed facets of our faith give your roving or wrestling mind a place to stand still? What facets of God’s revelation of self in Jesus do you find hard to receive? Have you tried asking Jesus to teach you more?

Acknowledging what we do not and cannot know by the use of our human faculties of knowledge is a sign of wisdom. This surrender in faith to the reality that we are not God and that God is pure and ultimate Mystery is at the heart of the Christian journey. All of our knowledge is provisional, incomplete, and partial, the sacred knowledge as much as the secular.

At the same time, the knowledge of God and the things of God that we do have is at least as real as our knowledge of the world perceived with the senses and intellect, and we can await its consummation with hope. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, Paul writes, but then we will see face to face. But on this side of eternity, is there a way to polish the mirror, to see just a bit more clearly? On this topic, a number of contemporary spiritual writers and even some neuroscientists contend that we possess two ways of knowing reality: a discursive, self-conscious, linear cognition and a mysterious, non-discursive, intuitive counterpart which opens within us when we are least self-conscious and gently centered within a larger picture.[i] Much monastic literature on prayer stretches our usual language and mental categories by abandoning the word “knowledge” altogether for the paradoxical imagery of blindness and unknowing. This second way of knowing God can only be realized through our voluntary and loving consent to be known by God, a consent to a reality already holding us in Being. This is not reducible to a technique, but cultivating practices of unknowing can open the heart to it. Sitting in silence or reading a poem, knitting a scarf or memorizing a Psalm or climbing a mountain with this gentle intention framing the activity can bring us to the threshold of this way of knowing, which surfaces less often the more we succumb to the urge to text or tweet each moment rather than let the mind surrender its boredom into God’s embrace.

In the end, knowledge is not enough. Knowledge – like technology – is like a very good, very capable servant. Love is its true master. Without love, our knowledge is lifeless. In the service of love, it finds its place and purpose. Our founder Richard Benson wrote, “It is the heart which must teach the intellect to know God by loving Him, not philosophy which can teach the heart to love God by knowing Him… It is the child-like voice of the loving heart which will cause the porter to open the door, that simple souls may come in and know what the princes of this world could not understand.”[ii] In other words, when we say “I don’t know” with a heart full of love for God, then “blessed are the eyes that see what we see.”

[i] See especially Maggie Ross’s Silence: A User’s Guide, pgs. 10-22.

[ii] Letters of Father Benson, pgs. 251-253.

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  1. Eunice Schatz on September 20, 2022 at 09:14

    The three words “I don’t know” have become an essential mantra for me as I age. They continue to yield a patience, a listening ear, even an eager curiosity—all essential as I continue in a nursing facility.

  2. Susan J Zimmerman on November 12, 2020 at 18:24

    …there are ‘mystical experiences’ and not to be confused w/moments of synchronicity w/our prayers etc….at age 70, i have had just one in my entire life but it gives an assurance that is powerful!

  3. Liberty Ford on November 12, 2020 at 10:05

    In the follow-up email, how apt to your interview reply is that the button to click is “confirm follow”.! 🙂

  4. Susan Zimmerman on November 6, 2018 at 17:43

    … wisdom (Chesed) knowledge (Binah) understanding & (Daat) knowledge= ChaBaD House

    … What da you ‘think’?

  5. SusanMarie on November 6, 2018 at 06:41

    Thank you for this wonderful sermon! I will keep it and read it many times. Not knowing is truly a gift and knowledge so often gets in the way of our faith. Over the years I have been asked some variation of these questions: “Are you saved?” “Are you a believer?” “Tell me the moment when you knew you were saved.” I’ve been baffled by these questions, and those who ask expect an answer. It’s their way of deciding if I’m a Christian, and it always makes me sad. If I respond to the “believer” question by saying I’m trying to be a follower of Jesus, that is clearly disappointing to the one who asks. We live in a dualistic society where there seems to be a right and wrong answer to everything. Very little room for the contemplative soul that seeks the presence of God over knowledge and theology and apologetics. And I have, at times, been part of that problem. Your sermon is an affirmation of the “place of unknowing” in which I want to stand.

    • Sylvia Tospann on November 12, 2020 at 02:52

      I agree with you full heartedly…..Keith‘s wonderful words, his thoughts are a reminder that we do not know and that there are many ways to seek God. And the truth is, we do not know ‚where we are going‘…. where our soul will be or will go to after we die. My hope is to be able to face this great mystery that we call God and for me is pure Love.

    • Liberty Ford on November 12, 2020 at 09:57

      IMHO, your answer that you’re trying to follow Jesus has probably been an unexpected blessing to the one who asks. You’re both asking “how?” Room for some fellowship there!

      • SusanMarie on November 12, 2020 at 13:57

        Interesting… I never thought of it that way. I hope you’re right, because that’s the only answer I have!

  6. Joanne Wilson on February 3, 2018 at 08:58

    Br Keith, I have come to look forward to your messages. Still a novice in Centering Prayer I continue to appreciate it is the practice not the content that yields gracefilled fruit. It is like entering a foreign country that I now see my last 20 years of a practice of lectio divina have been calling me toward…a paradox from words to wordlessness. Loved your 2nd to last paragraph.

  7. Jennifer on October 18, 2015 at 11:23

    Thank you for describing so well what I often feel in my journey of faith. I went through a phase several years ago where I was very much interested in progressive theology. I can sum that all up in a quote from one of the books I read, attributed–I think–to a Native American tribal elder in introducing a story of his people: “Now I don’t know if it this is exactly how it happened, but I know that this story is true . . . “. Today, I don’t feel the need to read about theology, as important as that is. I feel the need to read the Word. As the Psalmist says: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; where can I go to meet with God?” I hope that as I continue this journey with God, He will show how to share more of His love with others.

  8. Ruth West on October 16, 2015 at 01:15

    Br. Keith, I can see that you have real depth to this message. Thank you. Your last paragraph is echoed in I Corinthians 13. Many years ago I was given that chapter to memorize as penance after confession. I needed it! It still speaks to me.

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