The Holiness of Unknowing
Ours is a generation of information junkies. We have 24-hour-a-day news shows and Internet sites dedicated to keeping us informed with up-to-the-minute details of the world’s events. Through our keyboards, we have countless encyclopedias available at our fingertips to tell us anything we wish to know. In fact, we have a sector of our society dedicated to information technology, which is concerned not with the quality of the information we receive, but with our access to it.
One great assumption of our day is that the accumulation of information is a virtue. We know from Adam and Eve’s experience with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that this is not so. That is why King David sang in Psalm 131:
David realized that piety required knowing what things one should be content with not knowing, and being content with not knowing them. This applies to things both spiritual and secular.
Regarding knowledge of spiritual things, Jesus spoke out against those who would seek after signs and said that no one could know “the day and the hour.” St. Anastasios of Sinai described the importance of not seeking to know unknowable spiritual things when he wrote:
Being content with not knowing spiritual truths is a part of the apophatic tradition of the Church—the theological approach to understanding Truth by what we do not know. Of the major Christian traditions, Orthodox are particularly content with unknowing.
There are also secular truths that we should be content with not knowing. I am not arguing that we should be ignoramuses. Knowledge is a good thing, and advancements in science and technology have allowed us to better understand how to cure diseases and how our world—the world God made for us—works. But our quest for knowledge should have bounds—just as God created bounds in the garden. Some things we should not strive to know, for they belong to God, or our neighbor, or their acquisition requires the violation of moral law, or we would misuse the knowledge when we got it.
Just because a thing can be known, does not mean it is a good thing to be known. For example, while hiring a detective to learn intimate knowledge about a friend can be done, that does not mean that it should be done. Scientists refused to use the scientific knowledge on hypothermia acquired through human experiments at German concentration camps in the 1940s because they knew that the knowledge should not have been obtained that way.
We should all be content with our state of unknowing, and not concern ourselves with matters too great or things too wonderful for us. We need to know what knowledge is out of bounds for us and avoid it. Let us be careful lest we crash and burn while traveling on the information superhighway.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“The Holiness of Unknowing” first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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