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Love and the Hidden Whole

The Cloud of Unknowing is a penetrating bit of writing by an unknown mediaeval mystic, composed to counsel a young student in his quest to seek God.  The author warns that God “may not be known by reason, He may not be gotten by thought, nor concluded by understanding.”  In fact, the author declares, He can be found only by love.  God goes by many names in many cultures – and some cultures decline even to name the divine presence – but the understanding that objective knowledge will fail us in our attempts to find God is a familiar one.  We might similarly observe that reason is not a suitable means for those seeking to find reality.  However earnestly you might try, you cannot reason your way into the present.  You find it by loving it.

So we might say that God and reality are both blanketed in a “cloud of unknowing” that can only be pierced by love.  This can be unsettling for us, because our culture tells us that knowledge is supremely powerful, and that if you examine anything closely enough you can know it.  Unfortunately, that methodology doesn’t apply to the all-encompassing whole: move in close enough and it disappears, whether that whole is God or reality, and all you are left with is pieces.  The world’s wholeness is hidden from sight, as though in a cloud.

Whether we feel the mystery of world’s wholeness as nature, or God, or the present, or The Great Spirit, we could turn the issue around and ask what we might surmise about it – not directly, but by looking at the facts of the world.  Supposing we were to ask, “What does the wholeness that harmonizes the world devote itself to?”  The evidence is in plain sight.  For instance, it is clear that however we feel that hidden wholeness, it is devoted to diversity.  No two people are exactly alike, no two leaves are exactly alike, no two waves that wash along the shore are exactly alike.  The world is a wild profusion of diversity endlessly reinventing itself.  Nothing exists that doesn’t bespeak a love of diversity.

It’s also clear that the underlying wholeness loves change.  All that exists in the world around us is transient.  There is no fixed ‘reality’ – there is only the present, poised on the ceaseless flux of transience and change, as the world leaves what it once was and leans into what it will be.  We might say that the love of transience is not withheld from anything in all the cosmos.

These two evident loves – of diversity and change – bathe everything in their radiance, such that there is no reality separate from them.  How odd, then, to turn our gaze from nature to human nature, and observe that two of our deepest fears are of diversity and change.  In general we feel uneasy in the face of diversity – we flinch from it: diversity of dress, custom, accent, race, belief, gender …  We tend to fear difference.  Nature plays between the poles of male and female as a pianist tickles the ivories up and down the keyboard, yet we are more comfortable if men and women conform to one of two gender identities.  What nature adores, we mistrust.

Similarly, we fear change.  The more change threatens, the more we cling to the status quo.  That even happens when the status quo puts our future at risk.  We would rather hold fast to our oil dependence, our consumer culture that turns everything it uses into garbage, our entitlement to eat whatever food we want, when we want it – we would rather ask the technocrats to invent yet more ways of propping up this status quo than to back away from it into a way of life that is less grasping, simpler, more grounded and more harmonious.

Our fear of what nature so abundantly loves puts us in conflict with it.  So rather than being present to reality, we hold to our fantasy about it.  The first step in healing that disconnect is something that must begin, I think, on an individual level.  The issue is how to open our hearts to this teeming, miraculous world, to honor and celebrate its transience and to wonder at and appreciate its luminous diversity.  Anything less than that will reinforce our disconnection; and that disconnection is allowing the world to perish around us.

7 thoughts on “Love and the Hidden Whole”

    1. Well, I appreciate the nudge – because, perhaps like you, I am wary of fantasies, especially of the gloom and doom variety. In fact, I’m wary of all fantasies that exert their hold on us. In this case, though, it’s simply true. I wish it weren’t. The fantasy that people are holding onto lies in the status quo that plows on, business as usual. I think our focus on climate change hasn’t served us very well – because it’s just one piece of a very big cascade effect. Do you know the book, The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert? It’s such an impartial, un-hysterical, clear-eyed look at the big picture of what is happening. And what is happening is a many-sided assault on all aspects of the biosphere that is ushering us into a major extinction. This isn’t speculation – it is happening now. We are in the middle of it. To turn from that reality is to hide inside a fantasy. I still believe that if we can re-imagine what it means to be human, come to a renewed understanding of it, we can mollify what is happening – and, if anything, perhaps that is where I’m guilty of fantasy. Dum spiro, spero ….

      1. sunsetbreak2 .

        As a matter of fact it is speculation, and you are projecting a short term pattern into the future, while ignoring a larger pattern which you are choosing not to project into the future.

        Most scientists would agree that biodiversity is the best (and only) measure to determine whether or not some mass extinction or end of the world scenario is really unfolding as you claim. Now it may be true that there are less species on earth this year, than last year, but it is also true that there is more biodiversity now than at any other time in the history of the world…be it 100,000 years ago, 1 million years ago, 10 millions years ago, or a billion years ago. So basically you have decided to ignore the bigger trend and the bigger picture and are focusing on some micro trend and you are projecting it into the future via speculation and hypothesis.

        Even if I accepted your speculative theory, it certainly couldn’t be said that we are in the “middle of it”. It would take quite a while to reduce bio-diversity to the levels of a billion years ago and worse case scenario we are in the top of the 1st inning with no outs. We are certainly not in the middle innings by any stretch of the imagination.

        Bio-diversity is the PRESENT FACT…..lack of bio-diversity is your speculative FANTASY. Earth is thriving, many forests are thriving and expanding, and a few are not. I can focus on the few that are not, or I can focus on those that are, or I can see both simultaneously in the context if the entire history and flowering of the earth and the Universe. Whatever your speculation may be, this claim that the earth is “perishing around us” is not a present fact. It could become a fact someday, or not, but the FACT remains.

        1. Sunsetbreak2,

          I’m sorry, but you appear to me to be woefully ignorant of the global biodiversity crisis and the anthropogenic degradation of ecosystems and the biosphere. It is, to me, absurd for you to accuse Philip of ignorance.

          You’re so articulate! And yet so very ignorant. It’s a shame. I don’t understand it. It is you who are engaging in fantasy, not Philip.

          1. JRiver,

            The biosphere as a whole is in crisis? Prove it. Are you having trouble surviving and reproducing? Are you in danger? Is your offspring in danger? How do you measure this ‘crisis’?

            If the biosphere is presently in danger as you claim, then logically you are in present danger as well, as am I. Yet here I am, and this body is not sensing any danger at the moment whatsoever, nor am I seeing any far off dangers whatsoever. In fact survival(in its totality) is easier than ever, despite there being challenges of course.

            Safety is the present FACT, and DANGER is the speculation/extrapolation. Although maybe for you your daily life is filled with danger and crisis and thus for you the WHOLE is felt as ‘in crisis’.

  1. I’m not sure what you are saying here. Are you arguing that because you are well fed, the biosphere must be fine? That reminds me of the inveterate optimist who fell off a 300 foot cliff, and halfway down thought to himself, “Well, so far so good.”

    1. It also reminds me of a line from the piece above, “The more change threatens, the more we cling to the status quo.”

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