Living with Ignorance

German theoretical physicist Max Planck was told by his professor not to go into Physics as “almost everything is discovered already”. So Planck said he did not want to discover anything & just wanted to learn the fundamentals. He went on to originate Quantum theory & won a Nobel Prize. – a recent fact that came to my attention.

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It is the nature of the modern world, it seems, to pride itself on its knowledge. We are given “news of the world,” and imagine that the slim, slickly-crafted minutes of editing-room caricatures constitute “knowledge” of what is taking place at any given moment. I am far more persuaded by the comic personality, Fr. Guido Sarducci, who once offered his “Five Minute University,” in which he promised a college degree accompanied by all the information one would remember five years after graduating from college. Thus, economics would be, “Supply and Demand.” What we have in the modern world is not “information” but a “point-of-view.” That point is a make-believe position in the universe from which we think we see everything. If modernity were an author, it would only produce novels with an “omniscient perspective.” It is, therefore, quite surprising when we discover our own ignorance, and yet more frustrating when that ignorance will not yield to knowledge upon demand.

This is instructive for Christian believers. We know a “tiny something” about God. We also have a window of communion with Him by which we may have a different kind of knowledge (non-informational). Mostly, what we have with regard to God, must be described as ignorance. I believe this ignorance is quite important and its recognition to be utterly essential to the spiritual life.

An old alcoholic once told me, “The only thing you need to know about God is – you’re not Him.”

I would say that it is not the “only” thing we need to know – but it’s a very important thing.

Orthodox theology traditionally speaks of “apophatic” theology, meaning, a theology rooted in what “cannot be spoken” (or, the “inexpressible”). Anything capable of being approached with reason is capable of being spoken. Therefore, I assume that Orthodox theology grasps that there is a knowledge that can be known in a manner that cannot be expressed – one that transcends reason – and it is this sort of knowledge that is most essential for our life.

Some years back, my wife and I stood beside the Grand Canyon. I had bought a small camera for the trip and felt a deep frustration as I tried to take pictures. Every picture I took, no matter how I pointed the camera, no matter how I adjusted the lens, was a failure. Every picture was entirely accurate. However, no picture could capture what I saw and felt. The Grand Canyon, and the experience of standing on its edge, cannot fit in a standard camera (if any). I think that reason is somewhat like that. It can do an amazing job of expressing and understanding certain things. It cannot, however, do everything. If there is a “reason” that can comprehend the whole of things, then it is unknown to human beings.

“All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Mattl 11:27)

Christianity is a “revealed” religion – “apocalyptic” in its very nature (“revealing that which is hidden”). Though Christians speak of Christ as the “fulfillment” of the Old Testament Scriptures, He is a revealing of that which is “hidden” in those texts. It is not unusual for some to mistakenly treat Him as though He were the obvious continuation of the story and to begin their “reasoning” about Christianity based on what they largely see the Old Testament story to be. The Christian tradition (rightly understood) reads the Old Testament “backwards,” through the lens of what is made known to us in and through Christ, for He is the “interpretation” (exegesis) of the Father (Jn. 1:18 θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.”)

If we begin with Christ Himself, what then do we know of God?

We know that God loves us, that He is utterly committed to our true well-being, that His love is self-emptying and sacrificial. We know, in Christ, what the “image” of God looks like, and what it means to be created in that image. We know that the self-emptying love of God, shown forth on the Cross, is the “wisdom, word, and power” of God. In Christ, we know the nature of the “good.”

It would be possible, obviously, to expand this list, though I think the character of that knowledge would remain the same. What we do not know are many of the “large” questions that so enthrall the modern mind. We crave the “omniscient” perspective. Jesus does not give this to us. His disciples were particulary drawn to questions surrounding the “last things.” “Will You restore the Kingdom at this time?” Christ demurs, telling them that such things are known “only to the Father.” Apparently, not knowing such things is inherent to being human.

I believe that there are great philosophical questions that are opaque to our questioning. The book of Job raises the specter of the “problem of evil” and leaves it wrapped in the mystery of God Himself. I have yet to hear anyone offer an answer to the question that satisfies. I believe that there is a “shame of ignorance” that accompanies the question, a dynamic that explains why it so often produces anger. This very shame, however, is the raw edge of our own nakedness, a point where our existence as creature meets the silence of the Creator.

In my own life, I have stood at that point many times. More than that, I have stood beside others as the questions raged in their hearts. I have listened while God was compared to a heartless beast and torturer, the most evil of all. And the silence abides. My ignorance and my speechlessness are, however, a true part of me. They represent much of the powerlessness of my creaturely existence. “You cannot make one hair white or black,” Christ reminds us. (Matt. 5:36)

We have all largely been formed in a culture of consumerism. It is not surprising, therefore, that we approach God as consumers. We want to “kick His tires,” discuss His program, find out what makes Him tick and why He does what He does. Ignorance is the bane of a consumer’s existence. God, however, is not a product for consumption. He is rightly approached in a relationship of “offering.” He gives to us, and we give to Him. It is a different mode of existence.

It seems to me that ignorance and powerlessness go together (just as knowledge is often a tool in our drive for dominance). Both are treated as shameful in our culture as we celebrate mastery and success. As years have gone by, I am increasingly convinced that the shame of my ignorance is deeply bound up in my salvation – my union with the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In a world of masters I see violence and oppression. In such a world only the foolish dare be ignorant. May God give me the grace to remain a fool, and may He receive it upon His heavenly and noetic altar as an odor of sweet fragrance, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

29 comments:

  1. Dearest Fr. Stephen,

    This essay today is a perfect occasion for me to thank you (again and again) from the bottom of my heart for your influence on my life through this blog. You helped me accept my own weaknesses and powerlessness in so many areas of my life. You gave me ‘a blessing’ not to be so involved and to need to have an opinion about everything. And most of all to surrender my life completely to God – I didn’t really have another option, but your guidance and permission were very helpful and reassuring.

    Thank you again, may God continue to bless your work.

  2. I went and saw the movie Man of God last night. Throughout his life, St. Nektarios was asked why he didn’t fight the slander he received and how he was meant for more than what he was doing (such a worldly, consumerist message!). He never received an adequate answer for what was done to him. And he lived as a Saint and was greatly loved throughout his life.

  3. And I second Agatha’s thanksgiving, Father. I would not know how to be silent (as much as I am, anyway) if not for your writings! This blog has been a wondrous place and great benefit for me.

  4. Father,
    As is always the case, you postings have made me think. I am curious to know if you had read any of Aquinas’ work.

  5. I had the same Grand Canyon experience as you. I tell everyone not to take a camera. No camera, no lens in the world has the ability to capture the awe of the Grand Canyon. I tell people to just stand there and breathe it in.

  6. Beautiful reflection, Father – always a timely reminder.
    I wonder if another reason why you’ve never heard a satisfying answer to the ‘problem of evil’ – and nor have I – is that God is good, and that both our ability to know Him through communion and to reason about His creation are thus good. To explain evil then – to give it a rational explanation – would be, in effect, to try and make it good, to make it fit as a good part of God’s creation. But evil is not good, it is not part of God’s creation, and it is ultimately irrational – so we can never understand it. We can only choose to reject it in our own actions, or suffer through its effects by choosing to be with God, as God has given all sufferers a path to communion with Him through the cross. I cannot understand why evil exists because evil is not understandable – rather than try and force my mind to encompass and conquer that which it is not meant to, I should humbly choose communion with God, and trust that I will be given to understand that which is needed for me to understand. Does that sound like the right track, Father?

  7. My encounters with God, Father, leave me a bit as you were left at the Grand Canyon–no picture or explanation is possible. Not really. Beautiful and moving in a deep and abiding way I shall never forget. Nevertheless they have kept me in the Church, striving despite my own sin and continued falling into it despite “knowing better”. Plus the general hard heartedness of the world.

    The sugar coated nihilism that promises a “better world” through death, greed and destruction.

  8. Thank you, Father. It is hard not to have an opinion, especially when the result impacts your own life. But there is a great deal of freedom in “choosing” to be ignorant about most of what goes on in the world. I don’t mean ignorance of the suffering that people are experiencing, but ignorance of the “causes” of that suffering, and, thus, ignorance of who is to “blame” for that suffering. Christ only asked us to minister to the suffering, not to eradicate the cause of this suffering or those responsible for it.

  9. Father,
    I believe to have a truly inquisitive mind, is to have both an open and humble mind.

  10. Two quotes have been very helpful to me lately:
    “By love God can be held; by thinking, never. ”
    And in matters involving the Trinity and the Incarnation, “not all things are unutterable or utterable; not all things are unknowable or knowable. ”
    Living by Faith in this truth brings peace and wonder.

  11. Just before the crucifixion Christ said to the apostles, “I have many more things to say to you, but you are not ready to hear them now.” This is the verse that your blog reminds me of Father. Recently in contemplating this verse, I became aware of the necessity of the incarnation in our connection to truth. Absolute Truth is timeless. Kind of like a train that doesn’t stop in your town. But according to this verse there is a connection to time in the discernment of truth. At the same time there is also the necessity of not knowing a whole truth, as you have said. What connects us to the timeless/timely truth is the God/man Jesus Christ.

  12. Thank you Father. It seems to me what you are saying is intrinsically linked to faith, and this must needs be deliberate
    1 Cor 13
    9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
    10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
    11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
    12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
    13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity

    Isn’t it St Gregory of Nyssa who links this somehow to the necessity of time, its nature, and our creaturely nature? Or is that just fused in my head somehow? Certainly without time and learning there would be no repentance

  13. Father, I have recently come across the work of Iain McGilchrist, who has done pioneering work on the left brain/right brain difference.
    He has conclusively shown that the difference is not so much functional, as that the two hemispheres have different world views and ways of understanding the world. Whilst the left hemisphere emphasises ‘getting things’, control, grasping/controlling things and focussed vision (of both kinds), the right hemisphere emphasises interconnection, the broad view and meaning.
    His thesis is that the right hemisphere, where wisdom, culture, art and religion resides, should be in control, but that Western society has been hijacked by the left hemisphere, leading amongst many others) to a loss of the broader picture, the replacing of knowledge by information, the replacing of skill and judgement by quantification and replication, of reality by abstraction, and reasonableness by . . . (drum roll) rationality.
    Whilst one should read his blockbuster The Master and His Emissary to fully appreciate what all this means, what he does not do is to explain what this means for what you discuss in your post. But I’m convinced there is a connection; that our obsessive overemphasis on rationality and left brain thinking in the West is making it impossible to properly engage in thinking about God (and ourselves, and life), or even to properly engage with God (or ourselves, or life).
    I said in a previous comment that by the death of my child God shattered the concrete slab between my head and my heart. Another blessing was the breaking open of the dark room in which I had increasingly kept my right brain. And it prepared me to eventually become Orthodox, and to appreciate why the great theologians write beautifully (sometimes in poetry) and meaningfully about the ineffable and the unknowable.

  14. Francois,
    St. Porphyrios famously said, “In order to become a Christian, one must first become a poet.”

    To a certain extent, the success of technology (through the amassing of capital, etc.) has fed the “left brain” into a kind of madness. Back in the day, it was frequently discussed whether music programs should be cut in local schools (art and music were always the first to go). Plato held that music was necessary to education for the development of the soul.

    We have lost our ways in so many things – reinventing our world according to first one ideology and then another – none of which actually know what it is to be truly human. I contrast that with some wonderful private schools (classical and such) that are, at least, asking the question on a serious level.

    Your comment makes me think as well of the work of Dr. Timothy Patitsas at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline (GOA). His book, The Ethics of Beauty, put beauty front and center in the healing and salvation of the soul.

  15. A Northern European mindset predominates much of Western thinking?

    Beautiful Starlings,

  16. Fr. Meletios Webber, clinical psychologist and Orthodox monk, speaks to the same point ( Head and Heart)in his book, Bread and Water Wine and Oil. He describes the ways that the head and heart see Reality and how to begin to release the heart from its domination by the always judging/analyzing head. I highly recommend it and have read the first half of the book at least 7 times. His discussion of the Sacraments in the second half of the book is based on this teaching about Mystery…something the heart can understand but the head tends to reject. One memorable point: the red letter words of Jesus are words the heart resonates with and the mind discredits (love your enemies, turn the other cheek, etc.)

  17. Fr. Freeman, James,

    James, you said it much quicker than I could have. I think the Original Sin/Guilt system is a way of making evil into a good. The Reformed use an analogy often that without the backdrop of night/darkness, the stars would not be visible, or without the black velvet of the jeweler, the diamond would not show so many facets. It is true, and extremely important that we do agree, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good,” which is not the same as “God foreordained because He needs evil ultimately as a contrast partner.” Still, while I agree with Fr. Freeman, I still think once you add foreign concepts to the Bible, you introduce an imaginative difficulty that is much harder to overcome than what is already present in the Bible.

    Say I have Christus Victor as my basic go-to idea of what’s going on in the world: progress, set-back, slow-growth, until the full-bloom, until the baby is born after a long pregnancy as Jesus describes. Pain is inevitable with hope, sorrow while rejoicing.

    Now, say instead I have a view of Penal Substitution/Election/Predestination/Inherited depravity etc. There will be consolation, in fact the system is designed for consolation, that every event I face in life is meticulously arranged for my damnation or hopefully for my salvation. But, for the non-consoled, who feels the inherent incoherence, there will be anger or confusion.

    Neither view is completely satisfactory for the experience of pain, but one may cripple you for life.

    Thanks,
    Matthew

  18. My friend, Warren Farha, the owner and soul of Eighth Day Books cannot keep The Ethics of Beauty in stock. But he has a stock now should anyone be inclined to buy from him, a promoter of beauty, rather than the souless Amazon.

    People make pilgrimages to store as to a shrine. It is a place of wonder and peace even when there is constant activity as now in restocking season.

    Just going there and sitting is feeding one’s soul.

  19. Ah, Michael! you know the owners!
    Next time I’m hunting for a book I might ask you to look if you’re in the vicinity. I’m too far to visit. But I always check their online bookstore to see if they have what I’m looking for and will purchase from them if they have it. Sometimes I look in their search term and do not find what I’m looking for, and then just start browsing around and find it. I also purchase from monastery bookstores and from seminary or university presses if the author is affiliated with these institutions.

    I know it’s not needed but I too will endorse the Ethics of Beauty as well.

  20. Dee, yes, I know the owner. See him at Liturgy every time I go. His wife directs our choir beautifully. If you call 8th Day they will order a book or find it for you. Folks have come from Japan and visited, at least according to the guest log.

    The store is a truly blessed place and Warren works hard to make it that way. Although he would likely blush if he knew what I am saying.
    It is a place of joy and easy to pray there. Icons all over the walls.

    It is a place where the soul remembers and peace is at hand even when bustling. If you do come, you will be at home. An old Victorian house in the middle of Wichita. An area surrounded by a great deal of Wichita history.
    There are few places on the earth I would rather be.

  21. That is what Warren does, Dee. A true blessing to know Warren, his wife, children and grand children.

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