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Knowledge vs Experience

 Should the wise answer with windy knowledge, and fill themselves with the east wind? Should they argue in unprofitable talk, or in words with which they can do no good?        Job 15:2-3

I am a life-long lover of knowledge and learning. There are usually several books on my nightstand and other reading materials scattered throughout the house with which I actively engage. My interest in the spiritual nature of creation has dominated my curiosity since early adulthood. I am not as interested in organized religion as much as in the connection between spirit and body, the point where the tangible and visible merges into the ethereal and invisible. That point seems to be a nexus from which magic arises.

A thirst for knowledge in the written word, however, cannot provide the experience the words describe. By overly focusing on head knowledge, we neglect our other two centers of intelligence – the heart and the body. It is common to focus on one of the three and have only a partial life experience because of it. Too often, I anchor myself to head knowledge at the expense of the rich, emotional life of the heart and the visceral, sensual life of the body. I reach a point where my learning stagnates. For a well-rounded life experience, I know I need also to feed my heart and body, and book-knowledge alone cannot make that happen. This manifests in modern-day religion when we confuse God’s living, dynamic Word with the words written in the Bible and other spiritual texts. If we do not allow God’s Word to permeate our mind and heart and body, we come to know the words on the page but never the living experience the words describe.

The anonymous 14th Century mystic and author of The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote, “I encourage you, then, to make experience, not knowledge, your aim. Knowledge often leads to arrogance, but this humble feeling never lies to you.1” This author makes a not-so-subtle accusation that knowledge lies to us, but experience does not. It is not that knowledge provides something that is not true, but rather that head knowledge only provides part of the truth. We miss a lot when we live in our heads. One illustration is the difference between reading about the fragrance of a rose and actually holding the thorny stem between our fingers and smelling the flower. The former is only a description of the actual experience – perhaps not a lie, but certainly not the whole truth. There is another slap in the face to knowledge-obsessed folks like me from this author: “Knowledge leads to arrogance.” This is illustrated in the passage from Job. We can actually obtain an intellectual grasp of written materials, so we feel we have mastered them, that we own them, that we know everything about them. In reality, we cannot master, own, or know much about anything in its essence. The more we experientially learn about something or someone at its core, the more we realize there is actually very little we can put into words. One of my teachers, Jim Finley, says that we can say a lot about someone we do not know well. But once we’ve known someone for a very long time we do not know what to say about them. Words cannot contain such knowledge. Deep and sustained experiences humble us.

The fact is that head knowledge is a collection of words, and words are metaphors with no immediate contact with reality. Words represent something, but they are not the thing itself. While they are important and necessary, words provide only partial truths. Head knowledge without heart or body knowledge is an intellectual exercise subject to becoming shallow and deceptive. Bodily experience without intellectual context or loving guidance from the heart can lead to all sorts of heathen, abusive tendencies. Living from the heart without intellectual context or bodily grounding leaves us in emotional turmoil, paralyzed by the seeming insensitivity of the world around us. A contemplative life actively works toward the integration of mind, body, and heart.

A contemplative life, then, is a balanced life. It experiences what is with the head, heart, and body, requiring that we sometimes pause to allow one or more of the intelligence centers to catch up. In my case, my head jumps ahead of my heart and body when I am not intentional about being present with the entirety of my being. The purpose, meaning, and beauty of human incarnation is found in the total experience.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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[1] The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 224-225.

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Beyond Words

Be still, and know that I am God!  Psalm 46:1a

Be StillI am a man of too many words. I think in words, I speak in words, and, too often, I experience life through the filter of words. I attempt to capture beauty in words and in doing so I invariably lose much of the wonder I try to describe. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. I experienced the sunset in this picture a couple of weeks ago at the Lake of the Ozarks. I would only detract from the splendor by trying to describe it. Even the picture does not capture the experience, however. A picture is a two-dimensional recreation of a single moment. A sunset occurs in four dimensions, the fourth being the 30 or so minutes it requires to manifest fully.

I enjoy using words to share the insights and wisdom I occasionally find. A part of me knows, however, that the more words I use, the farther I stray from the essence of what I attempt to share. Consider a finger pointing at the moon, where the moon is truth and the finger is its description. The purpose of the finger is to point, to lead others to experience the moon for themselves. Unfortunately, we too readily focus on the words – the finger – instead of the truth – the moon – to which they point. I fall into this trap regularly. I tell myself if I can only find the right combination of words, I will capture an experience for eternity. Certainly, the written word can be beautiful, inspiring, and artful. But words cannot capture the totality of a beautiful experience.

Words are symbols we create to represent something else. The word rock describes a part of creation. Adjectives can make it more precise: a small, smooth, round, brown rock. Even so, the rock and the description of the rock are not the same. We simply cannot capture reality in words. Reality is experiential, and words are just marks on paper. Like the sunset above, reality happens in space over a span of time. If we want a description of an experience, words are great. If we want the experience, however, we must be present. Words can lead us to believe we have experienced something we have only read about.

Saint Francis of Assisi, a 13th Century monk, wrote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In general, we talk too much, and our words can actually inhibit understanding. The Psalmist tells us to “Be still” if we wish to know God. We cannot find God in a dictionary. Neither does God live in books, including the Bible, even though that text is our primary resource for learning about God. We experience God by seeking and listening, not to the words of the voice in our head, but by responding to the pull on our heart. To find God, we must eventually move beyond words.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be still and know.

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