A Little Book of Unknowing
Book by Jennifer Kavinaugh
Reviewed by Regina Renee
This “little book” is a high-level survey of a very big subject. As such, it will leave most readers wanting more. Fortunately, the book’s strong organization and its wealth of source materials combine to make it into a solid guide for readers who want to locate in-depth works on “knowing” and “unknowing” by a broad range of great minds, including Rumi, Thomas Kelly, and Matthew Fox.
As Kavinaugh states in her introduction, “This is not a book about theology or a particular religion. Its frame of reference is a faith-filled life that is available to all . . . Nor is it an in-depth book about mysticism, but a little book about a particular way of being in the world.” As such, Kavinaugh does not presume to resolve discrepancies among the various authors she references, nor does she presume to analyze or draw conclusions. Instead, each chapter presents several evocative quotations on a particular aspect of knowing / unknowing, and follows those quotations with simple questions like, “What do you know?” and “How do you let go of certainty?”
The book begins with an account of the origins of the concept of unknowing, best known as deriving from The Cloud of Unknowing, a book written by an anonymous 14th century author, but which in turn draws from even deeper roots in the austere spirituality of the 4th century Desert Fathers and Mothers. The book goes on to present various aspects of knowing / unknowing in eleven chapters, which include: The need to know, Expectation,
The creative spirit, Reclaiming the dark, and Acceptance. Underlying all seems to be the prayer, “Thy will be done.” Kavinaugh’s purpose in this book seems to be to remind us to pay attention to how we devote our time, that we don’t need to know everything, that we need to be open to the possibilities – and that those habits of mind can transform our spiritual lives. I agree with her.
This book will appeal to mystics from various faith traditions (including Friends, Buddhists, and Native Peoples), as well as those who seek a more transcendent experience of daily life. Much of the book considers relationships between contemplation and worldly activity. For Kavinaugh, one major reason to actively pursue unknowing is to make us more faithful in the ways we live out our beliefs. Historically, early Friends had a great interest in this topic. An important part of the mystic tradition, the concept of unknowing is also an important component of Friends’ faith in continuing revelation.
I recommend this book as a short, well-organized overview of writings on this important topic. An excerpt from A Little Book of Unknowning (2015) is available at: westernfriend.org/media/little-book-unknowing-excerpt. ~~~
Regina Renee is a former classroom teacher, and current public librarian. She is passionate about social justice, intellectual freedom, labyrinths, and popcorn. Yes, popcorn. She serves on the Board of Western Friend and attends Mountain View Friends Meeting. You can find more of her writing at friendreginarenee.blogspot.com and on Twitter @FriendRsquared.