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The Wound of Knowledge

| 15.12.04
The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books that, while difficult to digest, nonetheless opened up vast vistas of thought currently unknown to me. While I have done some reading about Christian thought from the Reformation to the present, and even did my master's thesis on religious radicalism and revivalism among American frontiersmen, I had never really done even a cursory reading of the patristics, the mystics, or the monastics of the early Christian centuries. I felt a bit out of my element, but I was still fascinated by the differences between the thought of these early Christians and typical conventional Christian thought today.

If this book made one impression on me, it was that while the pursuit of spiritual understanding and experience of God has remained fairly constant over the centuries, how they have been understood has radically changed over time. Furthermore, modern day Protestantism in both its evangelical and mainline forms seems far removed from the earliest thinkers!

What follows here isn't going to be my typical book review. Instead I'm going to just leave my notes and quotes in an unfinished form. These are the ideas that jarred me, grabbed me, and fascinated me. Take from them what you will. They have certainly given me further food for thought, and have impressed upon me the need for further readings in this area. I hope they will take hold of you, and inspire both reflection and further study. The items in quotes are from the book. What remains are my responses to what I read.


"...the goal of a Christian life becomes not enlightenment but wholeness –an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theater of God's creative work." (p. 12)

God is hidden.

To grow is to become more capable of both pain and love –just as the way of the cross represents extreme love and extreme pain.

What role does God play in our suffering? Ignatius of Antioch visioned God as a devourer, "to be in front of the wild animals [in the Colosseum] is to be in front of God." (p. 25)

"Thus martyrdom comes as the natural culmination of a more prosaic process of unselfing..." (p. 27)

Life is not suffering, but a task to be borne diligently and with grace, service, charity, culminating in a death symbolic of that life.


The second century is the beginning of real systematic theology. Paul and Ignatius are letter writers, not theologians. Much early theology was a reaction to Gnosticism. Some of the problems early theologians saw with gnosticism was that it conceived the world as accidental, demeaned parts of human experience as illusory, meaningless and --most importantly-- irredeemable. Finally, it saw God as separate from creation.

Ireneus of Lyons (c 130-200 CE)

"There is no sort of human activity that automatically generates the vision of God, but there are actions that make one 'apt' for the vision of God" (p. 36) Acts of the whole person, not just the spirit emphasize that the connection with God's salvation is in our humanness, not in an attempt to escape from it because Christ transforms Adam's failure into the Imago Dei.

"...creative will is at the heart of human reality, as it is at the heart of God's reality; so that salvation is the encounter and union of these two wills, when human beings will to be God wills them to be." (p. 41)

Clement of Alexandria (c 150 -215 CE)

Christian gnosticism sees instruction as Christ's role. Unlike the view espoused by the heretic Gnostics, God cannot be manipulated through correct ritual. However there is still the conviction that God cannot be known -- "knowledge" of God is not the gathering of facts about God but the stripping away of what is known, finally "bearing God in himself and being borne by God." (p. 44) According to Clement, faith leads to gnosis, gnosis leads to love, and love leads to God. (p. 45) The faithful adherent is marked by a readiness to instruct and enlighten.

Clement was one of the first to write about wealth not being a problem for Christians, provided that it was seen properly as being irrelevant to ones spiritual state. While this eliminates poverty as a requirement for Christians, it is still a marked contrast to some modern notions of wealth as a sign of godliness, or "prosperity gospel."

Origen (c. 185-254/5 CE)

Love and spiritual knowledge go hand in hand, "the inner wound of love" drives us to seek direct and personal experiences of Christ. Origen's emphasis is on firsthand versus secondhand experience. Knowing Christ incarnate is the beginning of a progression that ends with knowledge of the eternal Word. The progression is from physical to spiritual. Physical and spiritual are major themes with Origen, with the spiritual always being superior (or perhaps the culmination of) the physical. Perhaps most famously Origen is known for saying that there are two ways to read the Scriptures, the physical (literal) reading and the spiritual (allegorical/symbolic) reading.


Rowan Williams interprets Athanasius thusly: "the Son has not only to live a human life, but to die a human death, since without this, death would remain an area untouched and untransfigured by God, and we would never become inheritors of immortality and incorruption." (p. 59)

Gregory of Nyssa emphasized participation in the Divine as participation in what God does. "The man who shares with the poor will have his share in the one who becomes poor for our sake." (p. 63) Imitating what God does instead of who God is was foremost because for Gregory God is beyond intellect, and God is beyond being itself. The mark of having God in oneself is a life of compassion for others. Spirituality is visioned as one whose being is expanding and falling into an infinite God.


Augustine of Hippo

Confessions was published in 401 CE. Augustine was groundbreaking in that he was the first to show an interest in childhood as significant in spiritual autobiography. A neo-Platonist, Augustine thought that the good in us is part of God, and our true selves lie in God. Yet unlike most neo-Platonists, who were logical and passionless in their arguments, Augustine recognized the irrational.

"To become Godlike is to accept crucifixion by the destructiveness of the world. There is, then, no route to God that does not pass under the cross. . ." (p. 91)

"The risk of irrationalism and quietism is great." (p. 95)

"Augustine's is rather the inscrutable God who speaks out of Job's whirlwind and makes himself known in a dying man. . ." (p. 97)


Anthony (c. 305 CE)

St. Anthony was the founder of the monastic movement --"a time is coming when men will go mad when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'" (p. 103) Monasticism was a way to preserve Christianity from any cultural inroads, to attempt to assure against a version of the religion that is synonymous with culture.

"The monk has come to the desert to escape the illusory Christian identity proposed by the world; he now has to see the roots of illusion in himself. . . " (p. 105)

"Everyone has equal claim on the Christian's unconditional service, because of the unconditional self offering of Christ to all." (p. 111)

I ask, "where is the monastic vision of Christianity expressed today?" Conventional Christianity --the type taught in most churches and on display in most Christian bookstores seems to be totally synonymous with a capitalist, consumerist, market driven culture of overconsumption. There seems to be a book and a Bible study about every little whim, marketed to every little niche. When does a Christianity that has taken on all the trappings of our culture cease to be Christianity?

Benedict of Nursia (c 480-547 CE)

While most famous for his Rule, it was not strictly or uniformly applied until the Cisterian reform at the end of the 11th century.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153 CE)

Cisterians - a form of monasticism that had very clear definitions and rules for living, was of mass appeal to the uneducated classes. Only the love of God gives us proper perspective on loving self and neighbor. (p. 118)


Dionysius the Aereopagite: "God is God, surpassing alike language, intuition, and being." God is too real to exist as things exist. God manifests through emanations. Seeking God is the abandonment of both sense experience and religious experience.

Maximus the Confessor (d. 645 CE)

"The eternal Word first empties himself of his divinity to become human, then empties himself of instinctive human passions in accepting suffering and death. Human beings are called to share in his human kenosis, responding to the divine kenosis: we must empty away our lives in order to grasp what he has done. . ." (p 130)

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE)

For God, being and acting are the same --for us there is a gap between these. We need to be stimulated to act. God can be his own focus.

In contemplation, therefore, is the "passage from 'rational' consideration of intelligible realities and the direct contact with divine truth; at the final level there is no concept for the reason to work on, therefore no work for the reason to do." (p. 138)

Meister Eckhart (c 1260-1327 CE)

A disciple of Aquinas, Eckhart emphasized that purity of soul, or "virginity of soul," causes God's spirit to conceive in them and become a child, the son of God. This is the model for the contemplative. "The true following of Christ is the following of the whole Christ, the eternal Word as well as the historical figure." (p. 143).

"The Trinity is God, but not Godhead." This concept is not clear to me. It seems to tease at the idea that there is a "God beyond God," meaning that the real God, the God that Is, goes beyond any of our conceptions of God, including the Trinity.


Martin Luther (1500s)

"A God who could be loved, prayed to and trusted even as he smote and killed. A strange and terrifying God; yet a source of life and hope." (p. 157).

Luther was also a proponent of the idea that only "in hell" can one hear the good news. Given the context for Luther's spiritual breakthrough this is not surprising. Perhaps this is also a point Luther shares in common with Lars Levi Laestadius, a nineteenth century Finnish revivalist and pietist who is said to have preached extreme hellfire and damnation in his sermons so that the subsequent repentance and conversion would be deeper and sweeter.


St. John of the Cross (1542-1591 CE)

Dark night of the soul, dark night of the spirit. "Illumination is the running-out of language and thought. . ." (p. 181)

"No 'spiritual' experience whatsoever can provide a clear security, an unambiguous sign of God's favor." (p. 182)

God as the enemy and oppressor of the spiritual seeker --union with God is annihilation of all the dross within a human that is not of God.

"God himself breaks and reshapes all religious language as he acts through vulnerability, failure, and contradiction." (p. 189)

Those are my notes. I finished this book with no strong or clear sense of what exactly the "Wound of Knowledge" is supposed to be. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that since according to these Christian thinkers God cannot really be known in the sense that we think of knowledge in the modern age, knowledge is a problem, or "wound." On the other hand, Christian spirituality in this period also seems to favor the idea that direct experience of the Divine involves the annihilation, or letting go, or burning away of all that is not Divine. Therefore as one is granted "knowledge" of God, ones old or false self is wounded in the process.

PUBLISHER: Cowley Publications, Massachusetts (1991); ISBN: 1-56101-047-2

I've Moved!!!

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