by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century November 24, 1982, p. 1190. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
How can Christians speak of about the purposes of God — hence, in some way, God’s nature — when we have no knowledge of the divine timetable. The miraculous wonder of what we have been gifted to comprehend drives us to admit that we know nothing.
But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. [Mark 13:31]
If we don’t even know what time it is, what do we know? How can Christians speak about the purpose of God — hence, in some way, God’s nature — when we have no knowledge of the divine timetable?
Such an agnostic reaction to Jesus’ disclaimer puts the matter too negatively. Jesus’ confession of ignorance, even on so great a subject, is not bad news; it is good news. It confirms how completely Christ in his coming shares our condition, for it is obvious that we are required, by the terms of our existence, to get only glimpses into those larger questions which give our lives their greatest significance.
Jesus was not saying that he knew nothing. He was confessing humility before the Father’s final determinations in the context of his conviction that something was afoot: the Kingdom of God was at hand. Of course he “knew” that his ministry was to be the dividing point; “but of that day or that hour no one knows . . . only the Father.”
The cliché “ignorance is bliss” calls up images of the poor benighted dunce blithely sailing through life, unaware of the perils and ambiguities that surround him. Or the betrayed spouse wanting to assume a fidelity that everyone else realizes is a pathetic delusion. Such ignorance is not blissful; it is merely blind.
There is another kind of ignorance, however: an ignorance that sees. It is the stance of Socrates, who
insisted that his only claim to being the wisest man in Greece lay in the fact that he knew nothing, while everyone else was in the same boat, but claimed to have the truth.
This higher ignorance is not born of a passive skepticism, which in craven tenuousness denies the possibility of certainty beyond the apprehension of the senses. This higher ignorance is born of intellectual daring, the daring to insist that the unseen things that give meaning and significance to life are real. Nevertheless, to “know” such unseen things is simultaneously to admit that one does not, cannot know; it is to understand that that of which one is sure — be it God or the good, the true and the beautiful — is also too high and too deep to be understood. Teetering between skepticism and arrogance, the knower knows, and does not know.
Christianity has often been guilty of being embarrassed by Jesus’ demurral and has tried to cover it up, as though it undermined his claim to be the Son of God. “How could he be divine if he didn’t know everything?” The implication drawn from the claim that the man Jesus was infallible has been disastrous. If he was infallible, infallibility becomes a Christian norm; thus we strive for perfect faith, true-to-the-letter Scriptures or absolute doctrines. The illusion of infallibility gives nerve to the persecutor. One can hardly harass others when one realizes that faith and ignorance are the yin and yang of Christian consciousness.
It is not that certainty in faith and the ignorance of Jesus are mutually exclusive. We can be enlightened in matters of the most profound significance: that God is, that God loves, that God creates, that God has become what we are in order that he might make us what he is. But no sooner do we confess these discoveries than we become dumbfounded by the enormity of what we have uttered.
The miraculous wonder of what we have been gifted to comprehend drives us to admit that we know nothing. It contains an almost self-evident, rational proof of the truth of the gospel, this awareness that we know nothing, for a God who could be circumscribed and understood and grasped in a phrase would, because of his very predictability, be a false God, not the God who always astonishes. To know the true God is to wonder.
Consider what the child of wonder knew as he nestled at Mary’s breast: he knew infallibly only where his milk was coming from. This is what is entailed when we confess that the Word, the very reason and wisdom of God, “took flesh and dwelt among us.” True human wisdom, as God’s tiny son demonstrates to us, is not in how much we know; it is in knowing on whom to depend.