Learning Not to Know

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, June 30, 2024

Our ignorance matters, especially in the questions where we haven’t freed ourselves to question. Our knowledge of God is limited, and acknowledging this is required in order to push further into God and the faith. This can sound like valorising doubt, as though it’s ‘stunning and brave’ to doubt key truths of Christianity. It isn’t, and it’s not. Instead, we have to acknowledge the truth of what we do and don’t know—and what we surmise and suspect—before we can keep walking towards understanding.

“In order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by a way … of ignorance” says Eliot in East Coker.

Commenting on this, Matthew Lee Anderson says,

“It is a truth that is easy to write, but difficult to live out. Yet we can only learn when we are free to not know.”

Called into Questions, 26.

Anderson argues that it’s the art of questioning that takes us from the known to the unknown and gives us the opportunity for understanding.

In one sense it’s not revolutionary to say that to learn something new requires us to first not know. It doesn’t sound difficult, we’re all pretty good at not knowing stuff.

Except, we aren’t philosophically or emotionally good at this.

Imagine the scene, and let’s make it a church one:

The church is considering a tendentious theological question. Perhaps there’s a push to change their opinion on the subject in question. Inevitably there will people in the room who would welcome a shift and people who wouldn’t. The group that’s discussing the question will include a number of people who’s livelihood is tied up with the church, giving them financial incentives to go along with whatever the final decision is.

Both ‘sides’ in the room are anticipating that if the position is the opposite, this might have profound financial implications for them. Most in the room will have deep emotional ties to the church even if there are no financial ones, they will be are aware that a decision that they are opposed to is going to give them difficult decisions about whether they ride it out or not.

There are other angles to this but suffice to say that most people in the room have skin in the game. It makes clear thinking difficult. Christian thinking doesn’t need to be dispassionate, but it is difficult to think something through with others when the decision can have burdensome effects on your life that you’re already considering. It prevents you from asking the questions that put everything out on the table and let you start thinking things through from each required angle.

In the church so many decisions can be like this, or feel like they are this even when they aren’t objectively. It makes the freedom of not knowing very hard.

Free inquiry requires spaces where we can be free to be ignorant on the way to understanding. This is not ‘ignorance is bliss’—

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