Learned Ignorance

by Rev. Nick Chambers

I once had a professor who was known for his handful of typical tangents. The students made a game of triggering trademark rants about John Lennon’s “Imagine,” alcohol, or the Virgin Mary. One rant was responding to an imaginary argument in which he was being accused of always thinking he is right: "Of course I think I am right! If I didn’t, I wouldn’t think what I think.” There is a fairly blatant logic to this: We wouldn’t believe something if we thought it was wrong. But this mentality can also make us close-minded and self-assertive. (I should add that this sentiment was not representative of the professor’s character. He is a very thoughtful and humble man.) 

Many of our so-called "certainties” are easily co-opted and calcified by the "cravings that are at war within you." We dig in our heels and forget why, not realizing that our conviction and zeal is a thin veil for self-defense and self-justification. The inevitable result is "conflicts and disputes.” This is what happens to the disciples. Even as they listen to Jesus, even as they follow him, they argue “on the way” about who is greatest. Jesus doesn't necessarily settle the dispute, giving them a definitive answer. Instead he simply shows them a child, one who is without the stodgy certainties of adulthood. Their argument has no answer, because it is born of confused convictions and wayward desires.

James doesn’t bother with object lessons. He goes straight for the bottom line: "where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind." When we build the truth on the selfish motives of our heart, we can’t trust it. We have to defend it to the death. The firmer the conviction, the more solid the ground beneath us. We must win.

Prayer, however, has a destabilizing effect. In prayer we approach God—a mystery simultaneously so simple and so marvelous that it is beyond our knowing. It is meant to disabuse us of false certainties and direct us to true faith. Augustine emphasizes this in a long letter of his on prayer. He repeatedly quotes Paul in Romans 8: “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” He further comments: "There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance, so to speak—an ignorance which we learn from that Spirit of God who helps our infirmities.”

Proper prayer confronts us with this question: What do we want, and why do we want it? Too often our prayers wander in wastelands of pettiness and self-pity, reinforcing our disordered desires. But James says our wisdom must be "first pure.” In other words, we have to get our desires straight.

All our following, our striving, our cooperating, our thinking, our praying is meant to be bent toward one goal: peace with one another and God. There is great freedom in this learned ignorance. We no longer need to defend and justify ourselves; we can instead be "peaceable, gentle, willing to yield..” The more we learn this pure wisdom, the less have to worry about seeming confident and correct about things that are not vital to our goal.

Meditate on the words of James and consider what they say about any dispute you may have with another believer. What arguments unfold behind Jesus’ back between you and his other followers? What are you actually defending? What desires are driving your stance? What happens to your arguments if the only thing that matters is peace with others and God?