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More Enigma than Dogma is a celebration of the wonder of awe – the beginning verb of faith. Thus I resonate with James K.A. Smith’s recent post on “The Gift of Not knowing“.

He begins with this poem by Marilyn Nelson, “Nine Times Nine, on Awe”:




The awe of the aesthetic experience,
Part of our universal inheritance,
Makes us basilicas of reverence.

“I think this kind of hunger is familiar: we come to art with that paradoxical desire for an experience we can’t manage. To become a basilica of reverence, one in whom the fullness of mystery resounds, is an experience of being decentered, upended. “Awe” is a posture less of comprehension than encounter. And I find myself reverberating with such awe more in the face of art than theology. Indeed, sometimes what I “know” of God is more of a barrier than a window.”

Ex-Formation and the Wonder of Awe

It is the human experience to be in awe of what leaves us speechless – of what takes our breath away; indeed this is what actually inspires (breathes life into) us. In this information age, Smith suggests we need the spiritual exercises of ex-formation as elaborated by Japanese designer Kenya Hara:

“His book Ex-formation explores the possibility of a communication that, rather than explaining the world, “makes people understand how little they know of the world.” Hara says that “I know, I know” is the mantra of our age: we all want to be seen as in the know, which is why whenever someone tells us something, we almost take it as an affront. “I know, I know,” we retort, and then, rather than exploring something together in conversation, we throw back another piece of information. Communication that informs keeps trading in this economy.

But real epiphanies, Hara says—revelations—would require not informing but ex-forming: modes of communication that bring us to the limit of our knowing.”

The Discomfiting reality of Unknowing

We are uncomfortable with not knowing – or at least not knowing in the ways we want to know. Thus Smith reminds us of something Augustine said long ago in response to Romans 8 – the Spirit sighs with groans too deep for words:

There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance, so to speak—an ignorance which we learn from that Spirit of God who helps our infirmities.

“For many of us—perhaps especially in our cultural moment, after modernity—this learned ignorance is most germane. It’s an unknowing for those who so confidently “know,” who seem to have mastered the world. We need to be unsettled, disrupted, decentered. Unknowing can be its own epiphany.”

Metaphor and Art as a Clue to Un-Knowing

Smith says that “sometimes metaphors make familiarity possible… but sometimes what we need are metaphors that make the familiar strange—metaphors that remind us of the depth of the mystery that is God and grace.” Philosopher Jacques Maritain captures this sense of mystery by saying:

Mystery is not the implacable adversary of understanding. [It] is a fullness of being with which the intellect enters into a vital union and into which it plunges without exhausting it.

No one understands this better than artists, says Smith because “artists know that mystery is not a problem to be solved but a depth to give into. Not a lack of understanding but a plenitude that washes over us, in which we swim, looking for bottom—and Someone grabs hold of us.”

James K.A. Smith is editor in chief of Image. To read his full article go to “The Gift of Not Knowing.”

If you’ve lived honestly for any length of time – if you’ve been teachable and therefore humble – what does your ex-formation look like?

What is the shape and substance of your experience of awe and worship?

What does it mean to you to be a basilica of reverence?