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The writer of The Cloud tells the receptive reader how to nurture and develop the religious inclination: “Only see: all rational beings have in them two principal active faculties, one a faculty of knowledge, and the second a faculty of love; and God, their maker, is forever beyond the reach of the first of these, the intellectual faculty; but by means of the second, the loving faculty, he can be fully grasped by each individual being.”  Faith, in other words, is a matter of the correct epistemological terminology. When we talk of knowing or believing things, we need to understand that we use these verbs in different ways depending on the object of our knowledge or belief. Knowing a scientific truth is already a different form of knowledge from knowing a mathematical truth. Belief in the truth of a well-evidenced scientific theory is plainly quite different from belief in, say, the pre-eminent value of the works of a celebrated artist, or belief that one is loved by a near relation. Belief entails a subject and an object; the important thing to understand is that it is the nature of the object which defines the character of the belief. The Cloud teaches that the way in which to further a belief in God is not by an evaluation of the evidence for and against, but by loving Him; and it does not matter that our view of the loved object is obscured: “If you wish to stand and not fall, never relax your purpose, but beat continually upon this cloud of unknowing that is between you and your God with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens”.

The Cloud author was a follower and translator of an early sixth-century divine, who probably lived in Syria and wrote under the name of — indeed claimed to be — the very Dionysius who had stood before the altar to the unknown God and been converted by Paul’s sermon in Athens. This writer, known to modern scholarship as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, advanced what became known as the via negativa, an approach to God which emphasises His unknowability, by apophatically stripping away all the concepts traditionally applied to Him, and worshipping what is found to remain. The residue is, in Roger Scruton’s phrase, “the unclothed subject, from which all marks of identity have fallen away”. Charles Stang’s recent book on Pseudo-Dionysius explains that the whole of his theology narrates the self’s efforts to unite with the “God beyond being” as a perpetual process of affirming [kataphasis] and negating [apophasis] the divine names, in the conviction that only by contemplating and then clearing away all of our concepts and categories can we clear a space for the divine to descend, free of idolatrous accretions. His description of this union with the divine as the descent of “unknowing” ultimately derives from Acts chapter 17. Thus the sixth-century writer takes on the name of an Athenian convert to suggest that his entire mystical enterprise, which aims to worship and eventually to unite with the unknown God, finds inspiration in Saint Paul.

A stark expression of the discipline is provided by the 9th-century theologian John Scotus Erigena: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.” This method of contemplating God is to be found in Aquinas and St John of the Cross, Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. In the words of Richard Hooker, a 16th-century theologian and Master of the Temple:

Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade too far into the doings of the Most High; whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of his name, yet our soundest knowledge is to know that we know him not as indeed he is, neither can we know him; and our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence, when we confess without confession that his glory is inexplicable, and his greatness above our capacity and reach. He is above, and we upon earth; therefore it behoves our words to be wary and few.
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