when wisdom means saying “i don’t know”

Note: This post is the first in an ongoing series of posts entitled “Lessons from CWC” in which I reflect on some ideas taken out of Christianity & Western Culture, a gen ed class at Bethel that I TA’ed for during my time there. I think that there’s a lot to be learned from history and other thinkers before us, and I loved the class and being able to TA for it. These posts will have their own individual titles, but they’ll be organized under the category “Lessons from CWC” which can be accessed from the ‘Menu’ tab at the top right corner of any page of the blog. Happy reading.

As a blogger and a writer, you could say that the way words flow together and the juxtaposition of their meanings really strikes a chord with me. Maybe that’s why I’m quick to remember quotes or phrases that I like or that are especially meaningful to me. Today, I was reminded of something that one of my professors said in class last semester that has stuck with me ever since. (In reality, I feel like maybe I had heard this saying before, but I’m going to attribute it to Dan Rotach anyway.)

While I was reflecting on a little back and forth that some of my friends and I had gotten into on Facebook, stemming from my last blog post, I thought back to this saying: The wisest people are also the quickest to say, “I don’t know.”

The wisest people are also the quickest to say, “I don’t know.”

At first, that statement seems to be counterintuitive. How can you be wise if you’re also going to be the first person to say that you don’t know or that you aren’t sure? Won’t people think that you don’t really know what you’re talking about or that you must be ill informed if you don’t always have an answer ready for them? Perhaps, but I think that being wise also involves an understanding that there’s always going to be more to learn and that the only person who has an answer for everything is God. And even then, we’re not always privy to those answers.

This is something that Socrates, an ancient Athenian philosopher, understood that I think a lot of us, myself included, often forget. Though he lived before the time of Christ and thus couldn’t be considered a Christian by most traditional benchmarks, I think that there’s still a lot that we can learn from his reflections on life. He was famous for saying things like this:

“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.” – Socrates

Maybe that sounds radical, but I think that it’s true. After all, in almost every field that humans have studied, we have eventually reached a point where we must ask ourselves more questions, and sometimes the answer is “I don’t know” for a long time or even longer. Think about it. Some of the smartest people in the world are still trying to figure out how it so happened that life is sustainable on earth, how people and other living things can be made up of millions of cells but function as an entire unit, how emotions make sense from chemical processes in the brain, and so many other things. True, sometimes we can come up with baseline answers for these questions, but a lot of the time, we end up back at “I don’t know.”

Perhaps this is the same approach we should take to topics that we still aren’t completely versed in or that we might never be as well, such as human sexuality or theology. The former we still don’t entirely understand, and the latter deals with the study of God, an infinite being that we’ll never be able to fully comprehend. Yes, we should absolutely seek to learn as much about God and about theology as we can, but maybe that also means admitting that we don’t know sometimes. There are those outspoken for Calvinism and Arminianism, affirming and non-affirming theology, whether or not women can or cannot be leaders in the church, and many other things, but those things aren’t necessarily salvific. And if that’s the case, are they really worth tearing ourselves apart over?

I’ve heard Calvinists accuse others of not taking the sovereignty of God seriously. I’ve heard non-affirming leaders accuse others of destroying the sanctity of marriage. I’ve heard creationists attack the faith of evolutionists. I’ve seen a lot of strife in the church and between Christians centered around things that shouldn’t be tearing apart the body of Christ.

Yes, I think that it’s absolutely crucial that people figure out what they believe and why they believe it, but are we really so arrogant to believe that our own interpretation, our pastor, our church, our denomination, etc. has gotten it completely, 100% right? That’s an awfully pressure-packed position to stand in.

Every other Christian out there is trying to live out and figure out their faith one day at a time, just like we are.

Of course, I’m not arguing that people abandon those beliefs, but I do think that perhaps we could all use a small enough dose of humility to say that perhaps we’re wrong, not to put doubt into our own beliefs necessarily, but to have enough grace not to attack others or question the validity of their faith because we recognize that every other Christian out there is doing the exact same thing that we are: trying to live out and figure out their faith and what that means for his or her life one day at a time.

In light of that, my posture in almost every situation is to hold to something else that I’ve been told repeatedly in my life. In many difficult life situations, often involving loss, my dad has said something to this effect, “I’m not one to judge someone else’s faith, because you can’t know. That’s between them and God.”

“I’m not one to judge someone else’s faith. That’s between them and God.”

While we might not necessarily agree with what someone else believes, I think that those words are true. We aren’t the bouncers to the Kingdom, so why do we so often insist on policing the beliefs and morality of others? I certainly don’t know for certain whether this or that contested belief on a particular topic is true. Maybe neither of them are. Maybe the reality is something that humans can’t even fathom. With that in mind, I think that I’ll stick to doing the one thing that I do know I’m supposed to do.

I’ll stick to loving and admitting that sometimes I don’t know what the right answer is and that sometimes I’ll get things wrong.


One thought on “when wisdom means saying “i don’t know”

  1. SOCRATES. I love that the Gen Ed courses at our university start with this concept — such a necessary reminder for combatting our tendency toward self-righteousness. Thanks for your reflection!


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