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The Art of ‘I Don’t Know’

I don’t know as much as I say that I do. Then again, I tend to say “I don’t know” a lot more than most people in my profession – at least those I’ve seen. I’m a pastor in the Midwest which, I am learning, means that I am supposed to be an expert on certain things. People want precise answers to complex problems, simple structures explaining the mystical, a box for their God. I hate that part of my job. Mostly because I’m horrible at it. The paradoxes of Scripture are numerous and there’s more than my finite mind would like to allow for. I prefer life nice and neat, wrapped up in a predictable way to keep God tidy. Problems of a good God and the suffering of the world, how God is all-knowing yet prayer can change his mind, how we are predestined yet have free will … these are things that emit an “I don’t know” every time from my end.

And I think that’s the right answer. It’s really not a copout. It’s frustrating to me when others want to offer concrete answers to these sorts of things, as if they truly know. I think there’s an art to saying “I don’t know.” In fact, I think I just said it – I am an expert (in training) in the art of “I don’t know.” From the descriptions we use, let’s look closer. We are natural. God is supernatural. If I use the same prefix from a famous superhero (man vs. Superman), this implies God is above the natural, or beyond it, perhaps. We are finite. God is infinite. We are ordinary. God is extraordinary. He’s beyond us in ways that we cannot grasp. “His ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts,” we are told in Scripture. So why is it that so many of us try so hard to figure him out, narrow him down, into a specific course of action that he must follow. And when God doesn’t follow it, then there’s something wrong with him.

I’ve been reading a lot of this Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is incredibly wise and compelling in his simplicity. But he has a lot to chew on about this very subject. He writes in his book “Being Peace”: “Guarding knowledge is not a good way to understand. Understanding means to throw away your knowledge. You have to able to transcend your knowledge the way people climb a ladder. If you are on the fifth step of a ladder and think you are very high, there is no hope for you to climb to the sixth. The technique is to release.” While the goal for awareness and understanding is different for Hanh as a Buddhist than from my own self, I can take wisdom from him. Releasing the things that we think that we know is so key. Jesus again and again was telling the religious of his day, “You think you know how this is going to happen (or how this works), but I tell you…” and then he would correct their thinking. The art of “I don’t know” allows me to be me and for God to be God, and knowing those proper roles keeps humble. I can’t figure him out, I can’t place him in a box and this keeps the universe in check – with God in his greatness, his other-ness. And that seems to be the proper thing to focus upon.

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