I believe in “learned ignorance.” In my ongoing work as an American missionary and professor serving abroad, I hold this Socratic stance has been healthy for my students, colleagues and me. After decades of reading, study, travel and writing, to be able to admit “I don’t know” is liberating. Such humility calls me towards evermore thinking and questioning; calls students and scholars who hear me to discover the courage of their own voices and values.
On “Learned”: In saying that humans are “inventors of the negative,” literary critic Kenneth Burke advises that we often define words and concepts (especially the most abstract) by what they are not, rather than by what they are. In the social sciences, we can best describe strategies and solutions that have failed rather than those which will succeed; in the humanities we can say with assurance why a “bad” play, novel or art fails, but are at a loss to explain an unexpected “hit”; in theology, we can more likely decipher what a holy text is not saying than what is says, and church doxa often admonishes us not to violate boundaries of received tradition rather than bidding us to venture over them in response to a prophetic “calling” beyond ourselves and our acculturated, comfortable ways.
On “Ignorance”: Especially when thinking of the ultimate questions of life’s meaning and what awaits, we want, indeed we hunger for, “blessed assurance”: We desire to secure our worldly and heavenly futures by avoiding risks. This makes us vulnerable (following Irenaeus as understood by Vogel) to commit the sin of haste, to quickly seek “closure” in all things. In so doing, however, we close ourselves off from future knowledge, growth and even the ability to love. By embracing fear, my study would become a white-washed tomb of “rotten perfection,” not a space of inquiry and invitation.
In faith, I have followed a life-path of seeking the greater unknown over securing the lesser known. Constant struggle over earthly and eternal risks and rewards, belief and disbelief surely remain, yet unceasing reliance on God’s grace will sustain.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.