Book Review: The Cloud Of Unknowing

The Cloud Of Unknowing, by Anonymous

A great part of the appeal of this book to many people is trying to uncover the mystery of who wrote it.  This book is certainly a good one, and there are simply very few people in 14th century England who had the right set of qualities to write it, but for now at least the book remains formally anonymous and so once one gets tired of playing guessing games about which Carthusian monk wrote this book, one has to get around to its contents.  I have to say that I have remarkably mixed feelings about this book, particularly because of the way that the author misrepresents the biblical case concerning the active and contemplative lives [1].  One can appreciate that the author is encouraging his reader(s) to cultivate an air of contentment and a lack of the sort of ceaseless business that we find in our own world, and this is probably why the book is so appreciated by so many.  As for me, I could appreciate a great deal of the author’s approach, but there was also way too much influence from Hellenism through Augustine and pseudo-Dionysis for me to be comfortable with it in total.

The book, at least the version I read, had almost as much introductory material as it had actual material from the anonymous author.  This is often a bad sign, in this case, a sign that the book is valued more by readers for its context than for its content.  The editor of this book really wants the reader to know just how much subtle reference to vital writing by various Hellenistic Christian thinkers the writer did without citing it, and of course there is a discussion about the textual history of the book and its role in the Catholic attempts to rehabilitate the thinking of the 14th century in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation and the counter-Reformation which were both inimical to the author’s thinking.  When the material finally gets to the actual writing by the author, the author comes off as someone who is a bit defensive about his book, saying that it would only be appreciated by a small number of people.  Yet despite the author’s theological errors and his mistaken worldview, there is still much to appreciate here, especially the author’s intense focus on humility and the spiritual discipline of prayer and controlling one’s thoughts.  A reader who is interested in what the author considers are the three essential elements of the contemplative life:  reading, listening, and reflecting, is likely to find much of value here.

Ultimately, I do not think it matters at all who wrote this book.  It was a worthwhile book written by someone who was deeply knowledgeable about his religious traditions and also deeply interested in justifying the superiority of his way of life, and being willing to use bad theology in order to do so.  If the author is a bit too steeped in dualism and more than a bit too defensive about the place of the contemplative life in obeying the command to love others as ourselves and to be in the world but not of it, scriptures the author is at pains to reinterpret contrary to their meaning or ignore altogether.  For this reader at least, it is less interesting to play the game of what books were in the library than why he was unwilling to admit his own considerable pride even as he wrote about the need for humility in the face of God being far beyond our ability to comprehend or fathom Him.  Fortunately, as long as one reads this book as an encouragement to development contentment and an attitude of prayerful humility, this book is a good one, even with its flaws.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Cloud Of Unknowing

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s