Thursday, May 25, 2006

Learned Ignorance

This is a topic that is a little esoteric and might even raise the question "So what?".  But, it's interesting to me and it's my blog. So, I'm going to write about it!  I have spent the majority of my adult life in intense pursuit of knowledge, more specifically, knowledge about God and religion and theology.  I have read the Bible and books about the Bible all in an attempt to get to know God better, know my place in the world and to figure out where I'm going when this brief existence is over. loves me.  My iTunes is full of more Podcasts than I can possibly keep up with.  Now, as I'm in my middle 40s, if I were to draw a line down a sheet of paper and write the "answers" on one side and the "questions" on the other side, I kind of feel like the question side is growing longer while the answer side is getting shorter.  Things I used to be "certain" of, I'm no longer certain of. Sometimes I feel like I'm not just running in place, I'm actually slipping backwards.  Sometimes I feel like this:

But, most of the time, it's this verse that would apply to me:
As I've studied and gotten more into the contemplative life, I've kept running across this concept of "dark night of the soul".  I've felt it a few times when God just seems so distant and silent and everything just seems to be in vain- especially pursuing Him.  But, this isn't exactly the same as the feeling of just "not knowing"- the feeling that all of my efforts to understand God and my relationship to Him don't actually lead to certainty.  The efforts actually lead to increasing uncertainty.

I've  had people tell me that "book knowledge" is worthless.  We should just love God with our hearts and be content with that.  Kind of a willing blissful ignorance. But, that directly contradicts what Jesus said in the above verse in Matthew.  Jesus studied Torah (as did all Jews).  Paul tells us to study to show ourselves approved.  Surely, educating ourselves has some merit when it comes to seeking God.  And, in Jesus' words, pursuing understanding of God (some translations translate this as "with all your mind") is a way of loving God. 

This is certainly not to say that people with higher intelligence have an easier path to God.  I think that us intellectuals (yes, I called myself an intellectual and since you're reading this, you're probably one too) have a more difficult time grasping the things of God than others.  I believe that children and the simple minded are often closer to God than we are.  We have too much stuff to get in the way.  We have to clear out the preconceived notions, calm the fears, slow the mind and get still to know God.  Getting still is nearly impossible for me.  It takes a lot of work.

We've all run across people who were so full of themselves that they couldn't be told a thing.  They are so puffed up with knowledge that they are unpleasant to talk to and couldn't possibly learn because there's simply no room for new ideas. We've all met the person who had life-changing experience that they think gave them the only real way to God. There's a danger that as more and more is revealed to us, that we might become like that. I was reading Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out the other day and he communicated the idea of poverty of the head (and poverty of the heart) extremely well.  These are two poverties we should all strive for.  I'd like to share just a little of it with you:
Poverty of mind as a spiritual attitude is a growing willingness to recognize the incomprehensibility of the mystery of life.  The more mature we become the more we will be able to give up our inclination to grasp, catch, and comprehend the fullness of life and the more we will be ready to let life enter into us...  an articulate not knowing [emphasis mine], a docta ignorantia, a learned ignorance...But education to ministry is an education not to master God but to be mastered by God. 
In short, learned ignorance (I like that term) makes one able to receive the word from other and the Other with great attention.  That is the poverty of mind.  It demands the continuing refusal to identify God with any concept, theory, document or event, thus preventing man or woman from becoming a fanatic sectarian or enthusiast, while allowing for an ongoing growth [emphasis mine] in gentleness and receptivity.
Similarly, Henri addresses poverty of heart, which is willingness to embrace other experiences free of prejudices, fears and clinging to our own experiences as the only way. 

When I read this, my heart (and mind) jumped for joy. I guess I must be on the right path because I can definitely relate to this poverty of the heart and poverty of the mind concept.  There's been this nagging fear that I'm actually slipping away from "the faith" into apostasy.   As I become sure about less and less. The fear that whispers into my ear is Satan is leading me from blessed assurance into ever more questions; like he did when he asked Eve "Did God really say that?" 

For those of you who keep grasping climbing, questioning and never rest, fear not. I forgot where I read this so that I can give proper credit.  But, I once saw an explanation of spiritual development that likened it to mountain climbing.  When you are reaching for that next handhold there's always the moment when you could lose it all and come crashing down.  As we grow spiritually, we have to be willing to let go of closely held ideas and emotions before we can make room for new ones.

So, sit down,  take a moment and let's all embrace the learned ignorance.  Then, let's get up and keep pressing forward.


No comments: