Two Opposing Clouds

Everyone’s familiar with the cloud (cloud computing). Few are familiar with the ancient cloud. That’s a loss, as we forget how the two clouds oppose one another.

These days, when people say cloud, we imagine cloud computing. It’s a misnomer. The cloud is not an actual cloud. It’s sprawling data centers with disks spinning at enormous speeds using a huge amount of energy, generating enormous amounts of heat and toxic materials.

I’m not saying the cloud is bad. It has many benefits. But it’s based on an unconstrained vision.[1] It’s a vision that assumes organizing all the information in the world can eliminate scarcity, improve human nature, achieve equal outcomes, and create a great society.

But there’s another vision opposing it, what is called a constrained vision. It recognizes our inherent moral and intellectual limitations, relying on the wisdom of institutions (religion, families, commerce) more than the merely aggregating information for ameliorating evils.

A constrained vision harkens back to the Garden of Eden. There, God sets a boundary: do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day you will surely die (Gen.2:17). This is called forbidden knowledge, a kind of knowledge few are familiar with.

In scripture, the truest knowledge is bodily, as in “Adam knew Eve” (Gen.4:1). The first couple were to trust God: evil and good exist. They were warned not to attempt to fully understand the knowledge of good and evil, to bring into their bodies, to eat it.

They ate anyway. It happened as Lucifer, present in the Garden, pushed against God’s boundary, using language expressive of an unconstrained vision: eat this… it surely won’t kill you. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden knowledge of good and evil. It kills them.

But how in heavens’ name does the knowledge of good kill? The answer lies in remembering how Jesus defined good. It happened when a ruler, a man who felt he really understood God, asked Jesus a question. But he slipped, calling Jesus good. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “No one is good except God alone.” (Lk.18:9).

Augustine knew why Jesus asked this question. We cannot fully understand God. “If you understood him, it would not be God.”[2] This ruler doesn’t recognize this. When we seek to understand God, we enter the realm of forbidden knowledge, The Cloud of Unknowing.

That’s the title of an anonymous work by a 14th century mystic, a century when Europe was suffering significant problems. The Little Ice Age was contributing to crop failures and famine. A pandemic was wiping out a third of the population. Institutions of the church and state were failing. These contributed to a series of social upheavals.

And sweeping skepticism. This gave rise to the Enlightenment, an unconstrained vision. People were pretty confident that if we broke free of tradition and institutions, “figuring out” on our own what to believe about things, including God, life would get better.

But God is no thing. Things are created. God is not created. He’s eternal, infinite. Created beings are finite. The degree of difference between God and us is infinite, so God is beyond the comprehension of human beings. That’s why the ancients said God is ineffable.

Ineffable means inexpressible. Paul discovered this shortly after his conversion. He was taken up to the third heaven where he “heard inexpressible words” that he was not permitted to speak (II Cor. 12:5). Not permitted means forbidden, a constrained vision of knowledge.

John had a similar experience. In the Book of Revelation, he most often uses the word like to describe what he saw. It’s like this, like that. John sounds like a millennial (kidding), but he saw how the eternal God is ineffable.

This is the mystery that John Chrysostom, a contemporary of Augustine, recognized. “You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension.” So did Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). He said that by his nature and immensity, God “surpasses every form that our intellect reaches.”

But not our bodies. “We know only a portion of the truth,” wrote Paul, “and what we say about God is always incomplete. We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re in a fog…” (I Cor. 13:8-12), a cloud. When Jesus consummates our marriage to him (a full-body experience), we become “fully known,” knowing fully. The cloud clears.

The last writers who recognized The Cloud of Unknowing were Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and John of the Cross (1542-1591). They embody 1,500 years of church tradition that said the full knowledge of God, who alone is good, is beyond us, forbidden. A constrained vision.

A vision T. S. Eliot recognized is lost today. Instead, an unconstrained vision rules, leading folks to assume there’s no such thing as too much information. Eliot disagreed. Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

It’s lost in our failure to recognize two opposing clouds. This is why most Christians fail to see the two clouds espouse two opposing approaches to scripture. In a constrained vision, contemplation. In an unconstrained vision, observation. A whopping difference.

We’ll ponder this difference next week.

 

[1] Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (Morrow, 1987)

[2] St. Augustine, Sermon 52, 6, 16; and Sermon 117, 3, 5: PL 38, 663.

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3 Comments

  1. “I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. I do not seek to understand that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand”

    https://tomperna.org/2020/04/21/10-quotes-from-the-father-of-scholasticism-saint-anselm-of-canterbury/

  2. Mike, I have not had the opportunity to read Sowell’s article/book. Is he asserting “The cloud is a vision that assumes organizing all the information in the world can eliminate scarcity, improve human nature, achieve equal outcomes, and create a great society?” I have not heard that before and it certainly seems to be an overreaching claim. I certainly do not see it that way. The kingdom of God is the only entity that makes that claim with any compelling rationale.

    On another coincidental note, it is interesting that God’s presence to the Israelites escaping the tyranny of Egyptian rule was recognized as a bright cloud leading their way. Excuse the pun.

  3. Tim, Good question.

    Sowell, who I don’t believe has any religious inklings, contends that an unconstrained vision has given rise to an unconstrained vision for society and politics, including unfettered technologies, government programs, autonomy of individuals, etc. This is similar to what C. S. Lewis describes in “The Abolition of Man.” “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue” (p. 83). This is a constrained view of society. But with modernity (i.e. the Enlightenment), Lewis contends that society seeks to be “emancipated from all that” (p.71). An unconstrained vision. Hope that helps a bit.

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