In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld addressed the lack of evidence concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq with a statement that became the poster child for the administration’s mishandling of the war. The former Secretary of Defense famously said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

I don’t use this to write about the immorality the Iraq War, but to simply to adapt this philosophically adept phrase to the spiritual life. There are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns in the Christian life.*

The Christian known known realm includes scripture, tradition and reason, among others. While modern scholarship has caused some doubts, scripture and tradition is still a known known of Christianity. The Jesus of scripture is a known known. We even debate (reason) the known text of scripture and the writings of a theologian as to how it is applicable to life today. This is the realm of apologists, ethicists, historians and linguists. Pretty much every argument between Christians and Atheists on the internet takes place on the court of known knowns.

There is also the realm of known unknowns, the stuff we know we don’t know. This would be the realm of the afterlife, the soul, the existence of angels — everything “spiritual” and “supernatural”. It can be anything as profound as the resurrection of the dead, or silly, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This is the realm of pious old ladies, medieval theologians and the branches of Christianity emphasizing experience.

Lastly, there are the unknown unknowns. This is the dark realm of mystery. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith lands here, surpassing all the ethical known knowns. The medieval writer of The Cloud of Unknowing insists that the soul must immerse herself her these unknowable unknowns in order to grow. Here, faith is absurd, contradictory and considered very dangerous to the community that only knows known knowns. In the land of unknown unknowns, true faith and true doubt become indistinguishable. This realm is occupied by the Mystics and by both true believers and true doubters.

Yet, these are all related. Consider the Holy Eucharist. The known known of the Eucharist is the bread and the wine — what we taste and see. The known unknown of the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ which can only be apprehended by faith. Yet, there is still more unknown unknowns because it is considered the holiest of mysteries.

Consider the next person you see. The known known of that person is their smell, their touch, the color of their hair, how their voice sounds, etc. The known unknown would be their soul, which we believe in but do not see. Lastly, is the unknown unknown is the mysterious, unknowable imago Dei carried at the core of their being. 

The known knowns only reveal a portion of the unknown unknowns. While the bread and the wine reveal to us a portion of a deeper truth, the unknown unknown of the Eucharist swallows up the feeble known knowns. What we know about the Divine is infinitely infinitesimal compared to what we don’t know, even taking knowing the Son of God into account.

Herein lies the problem: most of us are only concerned with what we know. We know what we know so well that we think we’re experts at it. Indeed, what we know has finer detail and far more nuance than those pesky unknown unknowns. Most Christians are utterly fascinated by the known knowns, not even aware of the possibility of unknown unknowns. Therefore, we live in a world entirely of our own making. We exist in a realm where we are the masters of all we see.

For much of my spiritual life, I, too, was only concerned with the known knowns of scripture and God’s promises in the world. Then, when I began learning the way of the Christian Mystics, I was fascinated by the known unknowns, becoming catholic in theology and believing in a “one-story” universe. Yet, this level of understanding was built on the solid ground of scripture, reason and tradition.

Now, I think, a new way is opening up to me — perhaps it has been opened for years — the way of the unknown unknowns. It is only built on the true known knowns and on the known unknowns. Perhaps I’ve been drawn out to this mysterious darkness where all is absurd; where everything is, at once, meaningless and meaningful; and where all is nothing and nothing is everything. This place where doubt and faith kiss.

The thing they never tell you about the unknown unknowns is that they’re scary as hell.


*: The philosopher Slavoj Žižek critiqued it because it lacked a fourth category: the “unknown knowns”, what we know but are psychologically incapable of seeing at the time. I’ve left his astute fourth category out, for now.