Science, Mysticism, and the Power of Unknowing

by | Jul 25, 2023 | 6 Pure in Heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).

Do you believe that knowledge drives science?  Think again.  Unknowing drives it.  Scientists ask questions and make observations with great care to rule out prejudice and alternative explanations. They test possible answers, but whether their findings support the hypothesis, they raise doubts and test new questions.  The good scientist never knows, always wonders, insists on uncertainty to fuel the search for ever-elusive answers.

Unknowing similarly drives mysticism.  During contemplative prayer, mystics suspend preconceived ideas to open their experience to whatever is.  They ferret out inner obstacles to this openness, detaching from objects of desire that distract from the utterly mysterious God.  The darkness of pure unknowing remains, and there the mystic waits, open to God’s self-disclosure in God’s time.

Scientists and mystics differ in the direction of their inquiry.  Scientists limit their study to the natural, observable world “out there,” standing in pristine separation.  They detach from personal stake in the results, and they see their subject, nature, as utterly indifferent to them.  They use rational analysis to separate true from false.

Mystics observe a more open field, refusing to limit reality to observable nature, taking whatever is.  They venture deep within to get there, and while they detach from distractions to keep that field open, they stake their lives on the search.  They listen as reality addresses them personally even if silently, and they answer personally.  Love leads them to discern true from false.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” (Isaiah 55:8), God said through the prophet to announce hope in a mercy no human can muster.   Reality seems indifferent, the world merciless, hope a fool’s risk, but only in taking that risk, only in opening the heart in faith can we see the data of grace.  Moses and the whole weary, confused, numb slave nation of Israel did not see the Red Sea part until they risked it all and arrived at the shore.

Contrary to the myth of the scientist’s purely objective standpoint atop the ivory tower –and most scientists agree that is a myth — we don’t get a morsel of data without the bias to look for it.  Faith is that bias.  When the truth we seek is a matter of ultimate concern, such as the meaning of our lives or loves, it takes more than a look.  It takes a leap.

Depression flirts with resignation to the darkness, refusing to look, much less leap.  Now I understand why God called me to contemplation at such a seemingly unlikely time, when my whole life hurt and every hope seemed twisted into a nightmare, when I felt more desperate than ever for definite answers.  I needed to return to unknowing, not to the solutions that used to work but did not any more.  God called me back to reality.  To my astonishment, I found at the heart of things not a black hole, but love.

Related Posts

Love Knows the Incomprehensible God

Knowing God Whom You Cannot Prove

Mystic in the Mirror

This post is a slightly modified version of a post originally published on August 17, 2015.


  1. Jerry Terui

    This resonates in my heart. Love, too, is a mystery, isn’t it? And at least for me, its reality (and mystery) keeps expanding as I grow older.

    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      Thank you, Jerry. Aging can be a wonderful contemplative process if we allow it. And yes, love is a mystery, and we continually learn more about it. When the author of 1 John wrote, “God is love,” (4:16), ultimate mystery is in the subject and predicate. It will take eternity to comprehend that.

  2. Irma Rose

    Hi Marshall
    This is beautiful and inspiring.
    I was raised as a catholic when questions were discouraged. In College I went to a retreat with a progressive priest. I told him religion did not make sense to me. Instead of lecturing me, he asked what did I want to do in my life. Help people, I said. “That’s your path, follow it” cultivate the unknown where you will find answers.
    Thank you so much!
    My love to Wanda.

    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      Wonderful story! Thank you.


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