The Truly Ignorant


I was talking to one of my students while having coffee. He is getting ready to graduate and he admitted to me that he is not the strongest academically. I think it would be fair to say that on a certain level there is truth to that. But on a couple of levels this is decidedly untrue.  First, he has been one to take his learning and really apply it. So many I know simply don’t do it. Some seem to have a disconnect between their learning and their behavior… such that they appear to be unaware of that disconnect. Others perhaps are aware of the disconnect but stubbornly refuse to be affected by their training. My student really has applied his learning. That is extremely commendable, and one I can feel great pride in over one who gets high grades but in all other ways gains little from education.,

Second, he has truly embraced his ignorance. Now that sounds a lot like a back-handed compliment, or back-handed insult, but it is not. Let me try to explain this. Consider two students (whose names are completely made up). One is Tom, and the other is Mark.

Tom has learned a lot of things. He has gone to class and embraced his training in Biblical Studies, Missiology, Ministerial Leadership, Systematic Theology, and more. Tom comes out of his training experience knowing lots of stuff. In fact, pretty much anything you ask Tom, he will give an unambiguous answer. Tom is “The Answerman.”

Mark, on the other hand,  came out of the experience very differently. He wrestled with the process. He struggled with some interpretations of Scripture passages and doctrines given in class by professors who were appeared not to be afflicted by any sort of doubt.  He finds that he is full of questions. When he asks others some of these questions at school he gets strange looks. Some, perhaps, wonder why  they would have to answer questions that “everybody knew.”undebatable.” Others could look quizzically at him wondering how a person who calls himself a Christian could not have this long ago clearly resolved. Mark is “The Questioner.”

I have known many people are Answermen. In fact, I often feel the temptation myself. I think there are different types of Answermen.

  • KISS Answerman.  KISS stands, as you probably know, for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” They have a few simple answers for pretty much everything. For example, some give the answer of “It’s God’s Will” for many many things. Why is their suffering? Why does God allow sin to linger? Why are some saved and others not?  Seem seem to have picked up their theology from car bumper stickers (God is good all the time.  Let go and let God) The problem is that such reductionism is not so much  an answer but a way of squelching questions.
  • Boxed-in Answerman. The boxed-in Answerman has a clear understanding of what is inside his box. He, however, is completely unaware of what is outside of his own knowledge-base. His “world map” has boundaries and beyond those boundaries is nothing.  Essentially, he is ignorant of his own ignorance.
  • Naive Realism Answerman. Naive Realism is the philosophical view that what one perceives is reality.  I will apply it here. A NR Answerman is unable to or unwilling to recognize that his own beliefs could differ from reality. Such a belief about reality is certain naive.
  • Fear of Doubt Answerman.  This person believes that admitting to doubt is wrong, and so denies such doubt.  I remember seeing a Tweet by a pastor that said that doubt was tantamount to blasphemy. While I am sure that further discussion would have clarified that he thinks some forms of doubt are acceptable, even healthy, I struggle to think of any use of the term “doubt” that would be blasphemous. I suppose on might argue that doubting God’s goodness or love is blasphemous, but characters in the Bible (especially the Psalmists) openly doubted these qualities about God. God appeared to take no offense.
  • Sub-culture Answerman. Some do not separate their answer from the “party line” of their denomination, or their school, or some other sub-cultural group. If they doubt, they certainly never share such doubts. And many sub-cultures promote such conformity. I remember taking Systematic Theology in seminary, when our professor was teaching the various views of the atonement. He was not particularly demanding as to what we should believe. That was nice. However later, I discovered that many Evangelicals felt that only one of those theories was true, and all of the others were false. I found that strange since pretty much all of the ones we studied could be quite supportable both Biblically and Theologically. Also, the one that was supposedly the “Evangelical” view appeared to have some doubtful aspects. It was hard to see why a legal metaphor would be seen as more Evangelical than other metaphors of the atonement in the Bible.

When I speak of doubt, I am not promoting a “believe nothing” attitude. I am also not recommended staying in a cloudlike state of unending doubt (such as the being known as God in the Hitchker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Doubt should, however, be given its due. Doubt provides the foundation for faith. Doubt is also the foundation for exploration and for theological development. All good theology is contextual and contingent.

A friend of mine liked to visit a JW family and talk Bible and theology with them. The matriarch of the house claimed to fully understand EVERYTHING in the Bible. Could she? I doubt it. Most likely she had symptoms of any or all of the categories above. Perhaps she had the reductionistic “KISS” viewpoint, linked to a boxed-in naive realism. Perhaps her denomination pressured her towards a sub-cultural fear of doubt as well. Regardless, she had nothing more to learn because she BELIEVE that there is nothing more to learn. That’s rather sad, when you think about it.

A well-educated person should recognize his or her limitations. In fact the better the education, the clearer the insight one should have in one’s own limitations. Good education doesn’t always provide one with better answers— but it should always lead one to better questions

Knowledge should not puff up. The truly ignorant are those who are unaware of their own ignorance… closely followed by those who try to hide it.



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