Courage to not know

This post is largely inspired by the talk given above.

No one can deny this simple truth: the world we inhabit is amazingly complex.  Think of everything going on around you right now.  Think of the sounds you hear, the things you see, the complex reactions happening enabling you to see; the light hitting your retina and cones, the signals being sent to your nerves and to your brain, the brain processing that information allowing you to see.  Simultaneously, your brain is telling your sympathetic nervous system to send signals to your heart to keep it beating and your diaphragm to keep you breathing.  There are complex chemical reactions happening to metabolize the food you had for lunch so your body has the energy it needs to do all the things it does.  This is just your body.  Now if you are sitting next to someone double it.  And if you are sitting on the lawn add in photosynthesis.  And if you check your phone add in the signals being sent back and forth…..

You get the point.  Our world is wildly complex.  And part of the complexity is the interconnectedness of everything.  Never before in human history has the world been so connected.  Just pay attention to our stock markets.  What happens in Japan or Europe has immediate implications on US markets and vice versa.  This increasing connection simply adds to the complexity.

The complexity of the world we live in makes it impossible for us to know how everything works with any certitude.

In the video above, Harford very clearly makes this point.  And I believe his conclusion is spot on.  The complexity of the world is such that no one can really know how to fix problems.  Hartford uses the example of Unilever’s process of developing a nozzle to create detergent to illustrate this point.  Unilever hired an expert to create a nozzle that would perform the necessary function.  But it didn’t work.  Unilever resorted to a trial and error method that eventually led to a working nozzle.  And no one knows how or why it works.

Apply this idea to bigger problems.  Can a single person fully understand the depth of the global final crisis to be able to solve it?  Or even the American recession?  Of course not.

The solution according to Harford?  Trial and error. Built into the system of trial and error is room to accommodate what it is that we don’t know.  Especially what it is that we don’t know we don’t know.  When you assume that trial and error is necessary to solve a problem you aren’t as discouraged when you fail.  In the failure there is learning.  We learn something we didn’t previously know, so we create a new trial and do it all over again.  However, if we operate with a god-complex, assuming we know all there is to know and have come up with the lone solution, our ability to adapt to new information dramatically decreases.

(As a side note, his example of a politician who would voice this and refrain from the god-complex of “I alone fully understand and have a solution to X” would indeed be extremely refreshing.  Maybe even restoring my hope in politics.  But I digress)

This idea isn’t groundbreaking.  But don’t we see the antithesis of this everywhere?  I think of how often I hear someone in the church say they have the solution to all the problems.  There is a part of me that finds it even more laughable when those who confess to love Jesus claim to have the answer.  We claim God alone has wisdom and full understanding.  We believe “there is a way that seems right to man, but in the end leads to death”  (Proverbs 14:12).   And yet we claim with confidence, “If people would just read their Bibles more” as if that would solve problems.  Let me be clear, it won’t hurt, but the idea that it would solve all problems is a little oversimplified.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much we can know and understand.  We can know the person of Jesus, the love exemplified on the cross, the power of the resurrection, and the transformational work of the Holy Spirit on a life.  But there is much we don’t know.  We don’t know why God allows devastating diseases like cancer to ravage a child’s body.  We don’t know why God permits destructive tsunami’s to destroy so many lives.  We don’t know why a husband leaves his wife and children.  And claiming we do is nothing short of claiming to have the  mind of God, and that is a dangerous claim.

As pastors, the pressure to have a god-complex is even greater.   People want certainty.  People want to make sense of the world around them.  People want answers.  The pastor is in a unique situation where they can provide people with answers and solutions and certainty, and when we do, the adoration can be intoxicating.  Crack cocaine may not be more intoxicating than adoration.

Or perhaps, because there is a desire among the people for certainty, it is much less scary to provide them with some band-aid presented confidently as the antidote to an epidemic than to claim you don’t know the cure.  It is so much easier, and satisfying, to say, “I am a god and understand everything perfectly” than to say, “I don’t know.”  It is so much more comfortable to not fail, to not be seen as imperfect, or to not be seen as someone who knows than it is to say, “I haven’t a clue.”

Admitting uncertainty, fallibility, and failure comes with pain.  There is a necessary humility to live publicly with one’s own inadequacy.  One has to have given up any pretense of rightness in order to be wrong again and again and the fail towards a solution.  But isn’t this grace?  Isn’t this what we as Christians hope so fiercely in?  Do we not believe that despite our bumbling, despite our fallibility, despite our shortcomings, despite our missing the mark again and again there is grace enough to cover a multitude of mistakes?  Yes!  And yet, sadly, we fail to practice what we preach and resort to a prideful, “I alone know” response when faced with the complexity of life.

The courage to admit uncertainty, to be fallible, to make mistake after mistake is exponentially greater than the courage to be right.  Being right is easy.  Being wrong is hard.  But being wrong might just be the first and most essential step in being right.


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