Jesus said to them: “Is not this why you are wrong—because you do not know the Scriptures of the power of God?”
Sigmund Freud’s analytic critique of monotheistic religion is entitled: The Future of An Illusion. The basis of his critique is that the teachings of religion and the very notion of God are all essentially a matter of “wish fulfillment.” He contrasts the tenets of religion, which we cannot observe or verify, with those of science. Almost one hundred years later it could well be said that his critique of religion could well be applied to aspects of our contemporary consciousness and of a type of “scientism” itself. If it is true, as it most certainly is, that our religious beliefs are motivated in part by our need for safety and protection and the desire of a “father” to take care of us, it is no less true that our need for certainty, control, and potency over what is beyond is lies behind our unrealistic view of our own rational powers. Whatever its form, human beings will continue to attempt to assert control over what is beyond them. If awe is, indeed, the primordial human disposition, we shall always be in awe of either powers beyond us or of the illusion of our own powers of control and self-determination.
In today’s encounter with the Sadducees, Jesus challenges their disbelief in the resurrection of the dead. He does it by pointing out their limited and fundamentalistic interpretation of the scriptures. Mystery is a threatening realm for human beings. Although we are spirit at our core, we walk uneasily in the spiritual world. Although we participate in it, we are always to a significant degree “strangers and aliens” in it. So, be it in the realm of our religious institutions or in the realm of human cognition and understanding, we are always attempting to control what is beyond us by reducing it. The Sadducees come to take their very self-definition as a group in their doctrine or dogma of the denial of the resurrection. In recognizably human fashion, they come to see themselves in opposition to the beliefs of others. As conflictual as this may be, it is also a much more comfortable stance for human beings than living in the “learned ignorance” which is the appropriate stance before the Mystery.
There is always a danger with “belief systems” that the system itself become the object of our awe and worship. When a group becomes identified merely with what it does not hold or allow, it has ceased to be a way to worship and relationship with the Mystery and instead has become a refuge for the wish fulfillment of the fearful and arrogant. Yet, this is not merely a danger for religious groups. Reflection on the basic dispositions of our secular cultures reveals that the same illusions remain in force within them. We have the conviction that human behavior will in time be recognized as merely the effect of physiological processes. Because certain areas of the brain are involved at the moment of certain emotions, reactions, and actions, we readily conclude that these are their causes rather than their effects. We presuppose that the very noble effort to increase understanding about how the world works will in time lead to our ability to control the workings of nature. Paradoxically, it is these attitudes which have led us to a decreased rather than increased sense of responsibility for the shape and formation of our natural world.
Fundamentalism and doctrinalism in all of their forms lead us not to deeper understanding but to an inevitable reductionism, a refusal of whatever aspects of reality do not conform to our own rigidly held beliefs. As “beings-in-the-world” we are to receive form from and give form to the world, not arrogate to ourselves judgment of it. Jesus tells us that we are judged by the same norms by which we judge others. This is true not only in the next world but in this one as well. We are condemned to live in the world that we create. If our minds and hearts make the world small, then our own lives and the lives of our various communities of belief will be small. If we courageously open up to reality, visible and invisible, making space for what we can and cannot know, our worlds will be inclusive of what we understand and do not understand and so infused and formed by Mystery.
As we all live lives of desire and of wish, we are, each of us, illusion prone. In the ways we speak about the universe and physical reality, in the ways we speak of and “define” God we are always speaking out of our own needs and wishes. As a result, anything we think, or think we know, is always partial. What we think or say about something is not the reality itself. This is why a teacher of mine would always remind us that “The client always reserves the right to self-interpretation.” We may think we know and understand another, but we never do. Thus, all of the great wisdom traditions ultimately call us to humility and to silence. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Strangely enough, there is a great peace and freedom in “not knowing.” Today we might call it holding our thoughts, beliefs, and convictions with a “light grasp.” Over the millennia and into today, human beings kill others who do not subscribe to their way of thinking. Even in our own culture, we can readily believe our freedom of our religion and our beliefs are not respected when others do not hold to them. This does not mean we do not “hold” to what we believe, but, it does mean that in a distinctively human way we also humbly accept the possibility, and even likelihood, that we are mistaken. We often attempt to resolve this inherent ambiguity and tension by fundamentalism on the one hand and relativism on the other. It is very difficult to both give ourselves wholeheartedly to what we believe is right and to live with the possibility that we are wrong.
It is Pope Francis who may, in our time, give us a true model of such conviction and humility. He reminds us, in word and deed, that it is loving our neighbor that overcomes the ambiguity. It is actually going out to seek the lost and love all persons that keeps our beliefs from becoming stifling and limiting illusions. As we attempt to love and serve the world with others, however their beliefs differ from ours, we discover among us the truth of Pentecost. Where, at Babel, our ways of speaking separated us, to live and worship “in spirit and truth” is to discover our shared participation in the Mystery, however we think and speak about it. We do not think ourselves into ecumenism. Rather, we act ourselves into communion when we share with all persons of good will in the effort to transform our human reality by our love for one another.
Since, however, the worship of God, who is to be worshiped “in spirit and in truth,” has to rest on positive affirmations about God, all religion, in its worship, has to ascend by means of an affirmative theology in which it worships God as one and three, as most wise and most good, as “inaccessible light,” as life, as truth, and so on, and thus religion always conducts its worship by faith, which it more truly attains through learned ignorance. It believes that this whom it worships as one is all in one; that this whom it worship as inaccessible light is not light as is corporeal light, whose opposite is darkness, but is most simple and infinite light, in which darkness is infinite light; ant that this infinite light always shines in the darkness of our ignorance but the darkness cannot comprehend it. Therefore, the theology of negation is so necessary to the theology of affirmation that without it God would not be worshiped as the infinite God but as creature; and such worship is idolatry, for it gives to an image that which belongs only to truth itself.
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All these points, which should now be very clear, lead us to conclude that the precise truth shines forth incomprehensibly in the darkness of our ignorance. This is the learned ignorance for which we have been searching, and, as we explained, by means of it alone we can draw near the maximum and triune God of infinite goodness, according to the degree of our learned ignorance, so that with all our strength we may always praise God for showing Godself to us as incomprehensible, who is over all things, blessed forever.
Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, Book One, Chapter 26, 86,89