I have lived most of my life in a state of “not knowing.” Sometimes I have thought of it as just plain ignorance, but for the most part, it is about living with uncertainty … living with mystery … living in a psychological and mental state of not knowing. I am currently reading Yearnings: Ancient Wisdom for Daily Life – Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula, and his work is an insightful description of much of my life and thought.
In the chapter, Dancing with Uncertainty, Rabbi Kula posits that we are a world that greatly values certainty, yet we see uncertainty to be a huge liability. We pay lots of money to people who preach prosperity and certainty, whether in life or in business or in faith.
In matters of faith, particularly, we want to know that God has a plan. In times of grief, as my own family has experienced, the most unhelpful (even harmful) approach to tragedy is when people say that this tragedy is “God’s will” or “in keeping with God’s perfect plan.” That tends to bring me to the edge of rage (especially when it is said in the presence of my children or grandchildren) precisely because it tends to create this false assumption (1) that God is either not in control or, worse yet, a sadist and (2) that God’s plan is even knowable. We reduce God to a manageable size and then we attempt to rid ourselves of the anxiety of uncertainty.
Yet I admit that much of my life has been spent trying to “know” things. I often feel that, if I preach from the place of unknowing, the congregation would grow restless and anxious. After all, if the guy speaking up front doesn’t know for sure all these things about God, then why are we here?
Rabbi Kula has a response:
The biblical sages understood that the anxiety of not-knowing is the beginning of wisdom. There isn’t a single character in the Bible who understood beforehand the outcome of any journey he or she underwent. What makes these characters so special is not that they are somehow superhuman, wiser, or more evolved. It’s that they don’t scale down their dreams to the size of their fears. They are masters of the dance between uncertainty and certainty. (Kula, Yearnings, pp. 88-89)
As I read this, it struck a nerve because, when I think of “the beginning of wisdom,” my mind goes quickly to Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And I began to ponder how that plays out for me. As you might suppose, I have a guess (though I admit my uncertainty as to the absolute nature of my thesis).
When we think about the fear of the Lord, we often think of fear as being afraid or scared. This really isn’t the same thing. The Hebrew word יִרְאָה (yi’rah) is translated into the Greek φόβος (phobos from which we get the word “phobia”), and they both mean “fear based on not knowing.” It is anxiety producing. It is awe-inspiring. It brings us more often to a place of confused silence in the face of the enormity of what we have experienced.
I am a man of many words (just ask the congregations I have served or do a word count on this blog), yet when our son-in-law died and we had flown to Hawaii to be with our daughter, I suddenly was without words. I sat in silence a great deal of the time. At some level, I was anxious and angry and generally grief-stricken as much for what was happening to my daughter and granddaughter as my own sense of loss at losing a young man who was more son than son-in-law. Above all that, however, I was standing with my toes at the edge of the abyss of uncertainty … of not knowing whether anything I had previously thought or preached were true … of what felt at that time like a sea of ignorance.
I was both angry at God and afraid of God because suddenly I had no grasp. I was forced, kicking and screaming, into my primary theme: Let Go and Let God. I did not want to let go, yet there was no way to hold on. I was spiraling.
Then it hit me … in the weeks and months that followed … that I had discovered a deeper wisdom. It is a wisdom I have seen in my daughter and other family members who have made efforts to add meaning to the tectonic shift in our family. The wisdom, believe it or not, is not based on certainty. It is not arrogant or self-serving, but it is bold. I am boldly resting in the arms of this God about whom I apparently know so little.
And that’s where wisdom begins: in the fear of the Lord … grappling with the uncertainty of life and faith. So I invite you to this wisdom. Enter the uncertain world of faith (which is the truest definition of “faith” itself), and experience the wisdom that begins with the simple act of not knowing.