Cloud of Unknowing

People in every culture, it would seem, believe in an afterlife of some kind or, at the very least, are fuzzily, comfortably unsure. These are irrational beliefs, undeniably, and seem to result either from religion or or some other mechanism designed to protect us from the terror of inexistence, thus are, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of self-consciousness. We don’t know what it’s like to experience a lack of sentience or consciousness; we can’t imagine what it might feel like to be dead – indeed the contemplation is itself terrifying. In fact, it might not feel like anything – and therein lies the problem.

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Charon forcing the damned into crossing the Styx

The common view of death as a great mystery is an emotionally fuelled desire to believe that death isn’t the end of the road. We might cheer mentally with Thelma and Louise, but afterlife belief and subsequent behaviours and attitudes exist it seems to soothe what would otherwise be a psychologically crippling anxiety about the ego’s inexistence. I watched “I, Robot” for the umpteenth time this Eid and was struck by the fact that the only difference between the sentient robot and all the others is that it alone was aware of its own existence and presumably consequent mortality…

We need to know, and therein lies our undoing. From the anonymous 14th century Carthusian monk’s mystic work “The Cloud of Unknowing” we find..

‘Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love […] and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God.’

The derision of the anti-intellectual over such mystic posturing is well known, but where is the intellect after oblivion comes?


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