Ignorance Is Bliss. No, Really. It Is.
The magic of not knowing.
Sam is a character in E. B. White’s children’s novel The Trumpet of the Swan who embodies a spirit of wonder. Sam kept a diary, and like most keepers of diaries he recorded things he had seen and done. Unlike most, however, Sam “. . . always ended by asking himself a question so he would have something to think about while falling asleep.”1 Everything was a wonder to Sam.
Active minds ask questions born of wonder.
I once drove James Montgomery Boice, then a prominent pastor and evangelical leader, from my church in Bradenton to a train station in Tampa. We drove a route I had driven many times, and this time I saw things in a way I had never seen them before. Dr. Boice would spot something and ask what it was. I didn’t know. I never thought about it. We drove past phosphate mines, and he wanted to know why there were phosphates in Florida, and how they were extracted from the soil, and why they were chemically important. All these were questions which had never occurred to me and for which I had not even sufficient background to invent an answer.
To Dr. Boice, everything was worth asking about. To Sam everything was a wonder. And I wonder if sometimes we as pastors, zealous as we are to make sure our congregants think right thoughts, and eager as we are to show what we know, steal a sense of wonder and discovery from our people.
When the queen of Sheba tested Solomon with hard questions, Solomon answered them all. She was breathless in her admiration.2 What must have been intoxicating for Solomon is toxic for us, and possibly deadening for our congregations.
A year or so ago, a young man in our church, a recent high school graduate, shared his faith story with me and some other men. His testimony centered on the fact that when he would pose some of his most prickly questions to Cord, our youth pastor, Cord would respond by saying something like, “I don’t know the answer to that. Can I get back with you?” When Cord got back with him, the answer he brought may or may not have been fully satisfactory. But the gift had already been given. What this man was learning was that it is possible to have a deep and warm faith without having all the answers ready at hand. That’s a freeing thing to know and a freeing way to pastor.
It’s liberating for a pastor to be able to be honest and say to someone, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Early in my ministry I lamented to a former professor, Dr. Will Barker, then the academic dean at Westminster Theological Seminary, my frustration that I was expected to be an expert on everything. He mused that the older he got, the less he felt expertise on anything. Sure, he was revealing his humility. But he was also setting me free. I didn’t need to know the answers.
Counterintuitively, to not have all the answers frees congregants to ask questions, to pursue answers, and to grow deeper roots. When we give people the impression that there is one proper answer, one acceptable position, one legitimate take on everything, and that we, their pastors, exist to give it to them, we stifle curiosity and create a cultic environment. When rather we articulate what we believe, are careful to show them why, and are honest about what we struggle to believe or what we don’t understand, we encourage them to think and to question and to consider the matters of their faith deeply. To invite them to ask questions and to ponder truths they do not understand ultimately is to encourage them to adopt a spirit of wonder. And wonder is the very heart of worship.
Two of my grandsons have had the marvelous experience of attending what their school calls “Forest Kindergarten.” These kids spend several days each week, rain or shine, warm or cold, in a space in the woods near their school. There, they are encouraged to be kids, to splash in puddles and to climb trees and to use their imaginations. They are encouraged, that is, to wonder. They learn by noticing things and asking questions about them. If the teacher does not know the answer, she helps them find out where to find an answer.
Recently I took my grandsons on a walk in the woods near where I live. Sure, I noticed trees. I could tell it was all green. But I missed the wonder. The youngest pointed out every mushroom, every leaf, every bug. It all was a wonder to him. This is not something he had been taught to do. Rather, his innate, childlike, sense of wonder had not been quenched.
How do we regain that?
Put that question in your diary before falling asleep tonight.
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E. B. White, The Trumpet of the Swan (HarperTrophy, 1973), p. 5.
“. . . there was no more breath in her.” 2 Chronicles 9:4