The Benefits of Ignorance

I have had conversations in recent comments sections on the role of reason in the Orthodox life. I readily acknowledge that no one lives without some use of reason – but I contend that most of what forms the content of our life in Christ is not reason. The faith does have to contend with attacks and challenges from many arenas – and yet its success will not be established by the superiority of its arguments, but by faith in Christ. Arguments are often unfruitful in “reasonable” exchanges, for the form of Orthodox reason often differs from the form reason takes in many places. Alisdair MacIntyre has, to my mind, firmly established the growing incommensurable character of the many “rationalities” of our culture. Orthodoxy speaks itself most properly when it speaks “as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). This difficult apologetic requires that deep speak to deep. It is a very difficult discipline, but it saves both the speaker and the hearer, whereas argument may destroy them both. This article is a reprint, with small changes, on a theme I have addressed a number of times.

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Of course, I have to begin this post with the acknowledgement that I am an ignorant man.

Having gotten that out of the way, I want to spend just a few moments on the benefits of ignorance. Several years ago I was blessed to have a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko while we waited in line to greet the new Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Fr. Thomas is the retired Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.  He has taught a generation of priests.

Our conversation turned to writing. My comment came from my reflection on the experience of writing this blog. I noted that the more I write, the less I seem to know. Part of this realization flows from the fact that I try to restrict my writing to those topics of which I have some knowledge (experience). His smiling response came immediately: “Someday you won’t know anything and then you’ll be holy!”

It was not entirely spoken in jest. There are many forms of knowledge – or many kinds of knowing which our limited language describes as “knowledge.” For Christians the most dangerous form of knowledge is that which we simply acquire through reading and study. It is largely just information. Of course, if you have enough information you can manage the illusion of actual knowledge.

I know a lot of numbers, but I am not a mathematician. I have met mathematicians. Most of what they know is not about numbers – strangely.

There is no great sin in ignorance – or at least there is far less sin in ignorance than in knowledge. The simple truth is that we will not know anything of value until we first know that we do not know. In the competitive world of American Christianity, this is hard. It is not hard for ignorant people to argue – but it is very hard to argue while at the same time admitting that you are ignorant.

This ignorant man has spent a lot of years acquiring “knowledge” (falsely so-called). Knowledge of the sort that is readily available is not at all the same thing as knowing God – the only knowledge that has worth (though every true form of knowledge flows from that single knowledge). Somewhere in the course of my life I came to the place of spiritual exhaustion – I wanted to know God badly enough that I didn’t want to know something else in His place. So I became an ignorant man.

Today I know very few things. And though I write almost every day – if you go back and read what I have written you will see that I know very little. I say many of the same things to different questions, for they are the answers I know.

Thus when I wrote a while back that I had never seen a case of righteous anger – I did not mean to say there was no such thing, only that I’ve not seen it in 57  years of life. I have seen anger that would seem well justified (the anger a husband has over the senseless murder of his wife). But I have seen the same anger kill the man who bore it.

I was born into an angry world. “Jim Crow” South was full of anger. Whites were angry at Blacks and Blacks were angry at Whites. We were angry at Communism. We were angry about the Civil War. We were angry at poverty (especially our own). Others were angry at those who were angry and the injustice of the entire system.

I remember an Abbot, a friend now deceased, who said that after the Vietnam War many young people came to the monastery – “They were so angry about peace,” he observed.

I served as an Anglican priest while the Episcopal Church inexorably jettisoned its traditional doctrine. I was consumed with anger. My anger did not save that Church and did me (and likely many others) great harm.

It is not just anger that works in such a fashion. Any of the passions could be chosen. An ignorant man is frequently on the losing end of battles with the passions. It is therefore important for an ignorant man to be aware of his ignorance. Can such an ignorant man argue theology? Not to any benefit.

The great good news is that Christ came to save ignorant men. We are easier to save if we admit our ignorance up front. Our opinions are so much dead weight. I know very little of God. I know that He is good – beyond any grasp of my knowing. I know that He loves in the unfathomable measure of the good God entering Hell in order to bring us out.

I have been in several versions of hell and rescued numerous times. Ignorant men are always getting themselves into stupid, dark places.

That God is good, that He loves us without measure, that He will go to any lengths to rescue us – I know a little about these things, though even of these things I am mostly ignorant. But I will not tire of speaking this good news. Ignorant men everywhere may be glad to hear it.

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18 Responses to “The Benefits of Ignorance”

  1. Chris Says:

    Amen on several fronts. As I try to grow spiritually the more apparent my ignorance becomes to me, and to others I’m sure.

    Anger….why waste our time on it? From politics, to work and family life. Plus, most things we spend energy on being angry about are really nothing but small insignificant things, or at most things we cannot control anyway. For me anger typically boils down to selfish pride within me. Even when I think it’s righteous anger I eventually realize it was foolishness and pride within me.

    There is indeed a difference between truly knowing God and knowing of God. I spent so many years trying to learn about God through reading and study. I eventually realized that this will only take you so far, and not very far at that. I now know that I do not truly know God yet. However, if the only way to truly know God is by being more simple and ignorant in the eyes of the world than I already am, then let my ignorance and simplicity grow a hundred or a thousandfold. I desire to truly know God and God alone. That desire continues to grow daily and it is frustrating process for it is hard to let go of “knowledge” and admit ignorance.

    Thank you for your words on ignorance. I can relate.

  2. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you again for this post. (Speaking of the true knowledge of God that comes by experience, I have just finished reading the autobiography of St. Terese de Lisieux. What a treasure!)

  3. Nonna Says:

    I have spent the last handful of years fighting an illness… one that is slowly progressing, but unexplained at the moment. During these years I have had the time to come to some blatant observations about myself… I am very ignorant in anything that has real meaning. I am small, weak, and unfortunately, rather useless. Before my illness I was confident in myself – particularly in my ability to acquire knowledge… my family is proud of it’s intellectual abilities. Losing the ability to use my mind well was very difficult at first – but I’ve discovered it just brought to light the true depth of my ignorance. Acquiring knowledge actually hid the fact that I knew nothing of any importance…

  4. Darlene Says:

    Well, Father, perhaps I am just going through a contrary period in my life, but there are some things you’ve stated to which I must take issue.

    For an ignorant man, you have much to say. More than many. Furthermore, I’m thankful for that. But to present yourself as an ignorant man is misleading, and comes off as false humility. Please understand, I don’t think you are attempting to accomplish such a thing. However, it reminds me of a common scenario that many women have found themselves in. Here it is. Upon entering the women’s restroom, I observe several females vying for a space in front of the mirror in order to primp. There stands a gorgeous (by most any human standard) young woman fretting over herself. “I just look so horrible,” she exclaims (or something to that effect). She begins eliciting the opinion of her peers. “Do you think I look horrible? What about my hair? Oh, I’m just so fat, don’t you think?” (yadda, yadda) But all her peers standing around know she is gorgeous and in fact would love to look like her. But, they play the game. “No, you look fine,” they reassure her. What they really should say is, “You’re drop-dead gorgeous and you know it. What we wouldn’t do to look like you. Knock it off.”

    Father, you must know that you are not really an ignorant man, don’t you? Otherwise, if you are then why should I listen to anything you have to say? Why should I bother reading your blog? Why should you write a book and even expect anyone to buy it?

    The Proverbs instruct us to seek wisdom and knowledge, the kind that saves and enlightens our darkened minds. Granted, as we grow we come to realize that much of the knowledge we acquired in this world is, as St. Paul would say, “refuse.” Nonetheless, there is such a thing as godly wisdom and knowledge. King Soloman had it, and so did Joseph when he stored away the grain for famine. And what about the wise virgins who were ready to meet their Lord?

    I cannot think of you as an ignorant man, Father. Surely you have more wisdom and knowledge than you did as a teenager. Or are you implying that you become more foolish and ignorant with age?

    Sorry, I just don’t get the point you are trying to make. Then again, perhaps I can’t see the forest for the trees.

  5. Andrew Battenti Says:

    🙂

  6. easton Says:

    but darlene, even the most intelligent, knowledgeable, wisest person on earth KNOWS really nothing…but maybe he has to be all of those things to know that.

  7. Morgan Guyton Says:

    St. Paul said that he was the “greatest of sinners” and fully meant it and experienced himself as such. I don’t think it was false modesty even though objectively speaking, you could certainly argue that there were worse sinners than he. The closer we get, the more far away we feel. That’s been my experience anyway. Thank you Father Stephen. I’m blog-rolling you. Fr. Gregory Blevins suggested your blog.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Morgan,
    Being “blog-rolled” sounds kind of Northwoods Canadian – though I think that means “log-rolled.” After the internet goes down, and we’re back to writing on papyrus, the world is going to puzzle a lot about our wonderfully specialized vocabulary for the net.🙂 My thanks.

  9. Prudence True Says:

    It seems to me there is great relief in the acknowledgment of our own blessed ignorance.

  10. Tasty Tidbits 8/17/11 « Tipsy Teetotaler Says:

    […] Stephen blogs on the benefits of ignorance. […]

  11. jdballard Says:

    “The acquisition of knowledge always involves the revelation of ignorance – almost is the revelation of ignorance.” – Wendell Berry

  12. Byzantine Jewess Says:

    @ Darlene, I think you raise a fair point, but if I may add, in a non-blowing-my-own-horn sort of way (😉 ), as someone who has gone to both a backwater high school, an Ivy League college, and so on down the road of higher ed – the further I go, the more irrelevant much of it seems. And I say this as someone who feels that her “vocation” is as an academic – I love it. I love knowledge. But as for ‘true knowledge,’ of which I assume Fr Stephen speaks? I, like most of us, am very ignorant.

  13. yeamlak fitur Says:

    I remember once a friend responded to one who told her that she is not reading the scripture everyday and her faith is in the wrong track; she repled; “if my parents and grandparents faith which did them nothing wrong by worshipping the Lord as He is supposed to be worshipped then let me be called wrong.” She also said ,”I do not like to argue but rather worship Him as He is my creator.Father I always like your point about ignorance; thank you!

  14. Daniel Lewis Says:

    Chris writes:

    “There is indeed a difference between truly knowing God and knowing of God. I spent so many years trying to learn about God through reading and study. I eventually realized that this will only take you so far, and not very far at that.”

    Amen to this. I cannot begin to tell you how many years I spent in this mode of thought before finding Orthodoxy. And now my younger brother begins his journey at Moody Bible Institute, and I fear him falling into the same trap I did…

    One of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy is the emphasis on relationship versus “knowledge” (of the book sort). I had plenty of “knowledge”; a Bible degree will do that.(But oh! how much was wrong with what I knew!) But I never knew Christ fully, not as Orthodoxy teaches to know Him.

    Father Stephen, I would like to add that your blog has deeply enriched my walk with God, and shown me just how little I know. Thank you, and may Christ have mercy on us both.

  15. Andrew Battenti Says:

    We did not know true humility, and we had no way of knowing Him. Well said indeed. May that mercy extend to the whole world.

  16. Al-Arabi Says:

    Salam father,

    I hope you receive this in good health. Again, I’d like to voice my appreciation for your articles. The sense of the sacred profuses here, and indeed, Orthodoxy is beautiful, and Beauty does love it mashallah. I noticed that you mentioned father Kallistos, and I was wondering whether you encountered any works by the philosophia perennis since you echoe many of their sentiments, and from what I can tell, have very warm relations with members from the Orthodox Church (includign Father Kallistos.) I refer here to worldwisdom.com as one source.

    God’s blessing on these good days.

  17. Victor Says:

    This blog entry made me think of the following link.

    http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/525347

    I find it helpful in a number of ways….

    – The progress I’ve made….
    – How much I know…
    – How important i am…

    Somewhere in the far left side of that scale…

  18. Drewster2000 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    This was a wonderful post. I have felt this way for some time. And of course there is a huge irony to it: either you see your own ignorance and you get it – or you simply don’t and no one can show it to you, except the Lord of all things.

    drew

    P.S. I heard that Met. Philaret of Moscow did a “Commentary on Genesis” but I have not been able to find this document. Do you know anything about it?

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