Prayer to the Cloud of Unknowing

The ‘reimagined’ Battlestar Galactica (BSG) included a great deal of symbolism and analogy; some subtle, some clunky as blazes.  A large part of the show’s philosophical facet involved the clash of religion between the Colonials’ polytheism, represented by the Olympian gods, and the monotheism of the Cylons, who worshipped a creative, sustaining and destructive deity they simply called ‘God’.

caprica-cylon-religion

Cylons, being at least partially synthetic, have the ability to ‘download’ their consciousness into new, identical bodies when the existing body dies.  This technical immortality has a significant impact on the general shape of their religion.  But there are occasions when the download doesn’t work. In such cases, the individual consciousness undergoes bodily death in the same way that humans do.  In one particular instance, a group of Cylons infected with a lethal disease are disconnected from the download system and left to die.  Before they succumb, they’re seen to engage in a group prayer called the ‘Prayer to the Cloud of Unknowing’.

What I didn’t know until today is that the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ is actually an old idea in Christian mysticism: long pre-dating BSG, it’s the central concept of a book, by that title, written by an unknown author in the middle ages. The book describes the method by which a contemplative seeker might manage to glimpse an impression of God, given that God is entirely outside the human experience and beyond our limited capacity to understand.

This is an old notion of God.  It goes back even further still, to the very earliest ideas of divinity – at least of divinity as a discrete concept.  It pre-dates all attempts to reduce God to a ‘big human’ as a great many modern religious believers do (“God loves us as a father loves his children”).  Watching fundamentalist Christians and militant Muslims holding forth with their decrees about “what God wants”, it’s easy to forget that this is actually a relatively new idea.

Taoism, in the Tao Te Ching, tells us that “the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao”.  We cannot know God by names and definitions: these are too limiting.  We cannot approach God by analysis and reasoning: only by quieting our minds can we place ourselves in a receptive state, and only when this state is sufficiently deep – perhaps after years of dedicated practice – might we hope to gain even the most peripheral, fleeting sense of divinity.  And no matter how hard we try, we will never ‘understand’ God.

In 1078, Christian monk named Anselm of Canterbury wrote a now-famous description of God as “That than which no greater can be conceived”. Again, by this definition we can only define God by what it is not: we can sense the shape of the ripples in the water around it, but we cannot see the thing itself.

Theology, then, can be an act and declaration of unknowing. But what would the militants and fundamentalists, by they religious or anti-religious, do with themselves once they were robbed of any excuse for the aggression and intolerance they love so much?

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