A Cloud of Unknowing

There are things beyond my competence, which I do not understand. This does not mean I lack opinions on them.

Aha, gentle reader! You were expecting the next sentence to begin with: “But. . . ” So was I, until I thought about it. The challenge, sometimes, is to stop speaking, once one has said enough.

I’m not up to that challenge, this morning, however. Besides, my admission would be misunderstood.

We are uncomfortable with disclaimers today, it would seem, for one hears so few of them. In most, if not all departments of expertise, the confident are more successful. Confessing uncertainty gets one disbelieved, according at least to the late Osama bin Laden, who said people like to bet on the stronger-looking horse.

I think of a doctor I once visited, who came to a strong snap judgment, which was wrong. Usefully, his mannerisms gave him away – his flippant self-confidence – so I ignored his recommendation of surgery.

Then I went to another doctor, a woman who after her examination said, “I can think of five things that might be causing your deafness. I don’t know which it might be, but we should start with the most likely.”

Within an hour of visiting the pharmacy, I was cured.

Fortunate was I to have had a good nurse for a mother. She prepared me to understand the meaning of the word, “iatrogenesis” (adverse effects of professional medical treatment), and not to trust a cocky doctor. More people should learn this word.

Medicine I mention almost as a metaphor. We are surrounded, in this technological age, by persons offering cures for diseases that range from toenail fungus to the prospective heat-death of the planet. (Forty years ago we were going to die of cold.)

By my late mother’s estimation, more than half of our ailments are misdiagnosed, and more than half of those remaining are mismanaged. Decades later, I have come to think both of those estimates were conservative. And yet, levels of credulity have been increasing.

It is the (progressive) way of the world. To be fair, the world has always been full of snake-oil salesmen, plus perfectly sincere “experts” with hard-earned credentials and a partiality to error. The mystery is that their remedies sometimes work.

My mother again: The human body has extraordinary powers for self-healing, and no one can, or ever will, understand them. Let me add that the same might be said of the planet.

There might even be psychological reasons why two persons with exactly the same symptoms come to different ends – one, say, dying within the prognosticated six months, the other going into remission. Though as an atheist, mama rejected the medical efficacy of faith and prayer, she noticed that it worked more often than despair.

Which in turn means that naively trusting your doctor may be the secret of recovery, in some cases. His wrong diagnosis, and matching wrong prescription, may work, as a placebo, so long as it does not kill you from its side effects.


This will not be the first time I am accused of paradox. There is a long tradition of philosophical sneering at the bottomlessness of things, including our Catholic scholastic tradition towards its end at the Reformation, when it was drying out. A lot of wetness replaced it, but I am trying to avoid both extremes.

Somewhere in the middle, mystery remains, and humility is called for, in the face of realities that will remain bottomless, no matter what we propose to do about them. Respect for reality must necessarily include respect for what lies under, behind, and around it.

Why should we resent the mysterious?

It is there as surely as a wall is there, and as surely as what lies around a corner exists, although we cannot see it. Perhaps it will cease to be a mystery when it comes in view, but until then it, like the future in which it is housed, will continue to be unknown to us.

Death, for instance, provides such a corner, and in approaching it, faith alone can offer any comfort against quite natural, primal fears. Mere confidence, as in a medicine or a doctor, will finally no longer avail us; no placebo will help.

It is true that suicide is recommended, by most atheists, in the event of despair. Against excruciating pain, it would seem to offer a sure way out. Those who subscribe to the promise of nothingness should, however, reflect on their own being.

Who guarantees that nothingness CAN be delivered? Why should we trust in it? Given some life experience, why would we bank on such a simplistic cure? Why obey such a cocky doctor?

Different cultures have offered different cures for the stress of human existence, and ours (what survives of the Catholic Christian culture) has rejected each alternative to Faith.

There is a paradox in that: a big and obvious one, or if you will a subtlety that is face-slapping plain. What we don’t know, and indeed, can’t know, is being openly embraced. Our ignorance, specifically of our own future, is being proclaimed.

Or perhaps I should qualify, that it is being proclaimed only in the traditional Christianity, descended from the teaching of Jesus Christ. Our modern, pagan rituals deny it.

Attending a funeral recently, I was struck to the point of alarm by the sentimental optimism of the participants. They were meeting, confidently, in a Catholic Church. The priest himself spoke of the deceased, and his happy reunion with late family and friends.

He was presuming not only that the deceased was going to Heaven; but also that these others were already there. They included people I had met, and no one ever mistook for saints.

I sensed a scandal. Who made this man a Catholic priest – when in fact he is just another snake-oil salesman? Why was he allowed to dress up like that?

*Image: Extreme Unction by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1639 [Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.