A Little Book of Unknowing Universalist review

I read Jennifer Kavanagh’s book A Little Book Of Unknowing in the course of a long train journey from Edinburgh and was so engaged by it that by the time I had reached London I had finished it in its entirety. As the title indicates it deals with our human urge to know, not just about the date of the Norman invasion or how metal expands when heated but also the deep existential questions: how did the universe come into being, how can we lead a good life, and what happens when we die? The author considers different ways of knowing, of searching for truth, and briefly looks at the relation between science and religion. She goes on to deal with the reality of not knowing the ultimate answers and not being able to control our own lives or predict the future. Kavanagh continues with some proposals about how to live in the state of unknowing and uncertainty, how to trust, how to have faith. Much of the rest of this book is about prayer, meditation, mindfulness and ‘letting go’. There is a chapter devoted to darkness, ‘the visual equivalent of silence’ and a further few pages on acceptance. The writer’s style is fluid, articulate and sensitive. Although she draws on a wide range of sources, this is by no means a purely academic treatise and she bravely draws on her own life experiences to illustrate her points. As you might expect from the title, the Bible gets little or no attention; this is written in true modern Quakerly fashion where nothing is accepted on authority and all conclusions reached are from the here and now of existential experience.

I particularly appreciated the comments on human subjectivity and the related issue about the impossibility of universal agreement about the certainty of ‘facts’. It seems that recent research (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/365} confirms that individuals experience different physical realities at a neural level. ‘We cannot say (what individuals)… hear when they listen to a song of a thrush’. She adds (I paraphrase here) that every person forms his or her own provisional model of reality which is updated in the light of his/her own experience; she makes the obvious link with science and research, roundly doing away with the proposition that science and religion are implacably opposed. I found myself endorsing her view of prayer, which to me seems not the attempt to control the future by drawing the attention of an absent-minded or forgetful deity to a matter needing his assistance, (my words, not hers) but rather as silently orienting our attention, of opening ourselves up, of leaving room for the spirit to work. She attempts to define spirituality by quotes and this is one I preferred: Rowson and McGilchrist “Spirituality is simply a question of having an open enough mind to see that there are things in the world that transcend what we can know and fully comprehend, that are not fully accounted for in a reductionist, materialist account.” That’s socked it to Dawkins and co., I thought! Particularly challenging (personally, not theoretically) was the passage about our need to control the future, to be in charge of our own lives. “I found that the way forward was not about making decisions, but of allowing things to unfold realising that matters would become clear”. For me the most powerful passages were firstly, the account of the author’s own life; following a practical and spiritual crisis she gave up the day job, as it were, and began to follow the practice of opening herself to what might come, leading to consequences that surprised her. Secondly, I was surprised to learn that our ‘modern’ unknowing can be sited within the tradition of the via negativa dating back to the fourth century.

I’ve struggled to find any negatives in this small book. My only caveat, a small one, is that there are questions for discussion at the end of chapters. I understand that these are intended for discussion groups, but dislike them as it gives an impression of labour, duty, homework almost, instead of an intensely absorbing read that speaks to us of our condition. This is a deeply felt, deeply personal account of the author’s spirituality. It could act as a kind of position statement for many modern Quakers and I see it as a must-have for Local Quaker Meetings’ libraries.

Jackie Bedford

simon | Amazon

Not as wonderful as meeting and chatting with Jennifer in person, but pretty impressive all the same. She continues in her books to nourish both the spirit and the ever inquisitive mind with ease and panache. So many of the insights ring true. Highly recommended.

 Ann Taylor | Amazon
Well worth reading and benefiting from its Wisdom

Jennifer Kavanagh has produced a gem here and I am very glad I purchased it. Anyone interested in the contemplative lifestyle would find this helpful.