In Praise of Ignorance
My congratulations to the students here this evening; my thanks to my colleagues for inviting me to speak. I’m truly honored to be here.
In a previous life and career, I was teaching medieval history with a specialization in medieval England. I did a stretch of time at Notre Dame and the year before coming to Santa Clara (around the time you students were born), I was teaching in the history department at UC Berkeley. There I taught a history of Christianity course and a series on medieval England. So, when someone in the department got a call from the History Channel on a medieval English topic, I was the guy. The History Channel was creating a series called “Decisive Battles”—a cheery enough topic—and the episode they wanted me for was on the Battle of Hastings (1066). I see looks of recognition on some of your faces—you remember the moment: William, the Duke of Normandy invades England and successfully confronts the Anglo-Saxon forces under the leadership of King Harold. We know how the story ends but, of course, as with so many oft-told tales, it doesn't end there.
The winning side (as usually happens) wrote the history and described the battle with a mixture of verifiable truth and marvelous invention. King Harold was not only killed at Hastings, but his death had to be humiliating: so, he was said to have been struck in the eye with a sturdy Norman arrow. (I know you're wondering what this has to do with Religious Studies, and I simply refer you back to the title of my presentation, 'In Praise of Ignorance.’)
So, come the day we're filming (in a studio in Emeryville, of all places): a young producer is sitting with me. He describes what will happen, he’ll ask a question off camera and then my answer will be recorded. We’ll give it a trial run—see how it goes. So, the lights are on, the background is set, the camera trained on me; makeup has done whatever it could and the young producer, an intense look in his eyes, leans forward and says: "tell us the story where King Harold gets hit in the eye with an arrow."
I gave him the nuanced response of the professional historian and told him that the event likely never took place, that it was a creative layer of derision dreamed up by Norman historians.
Without changing his earnest look at all, he leans in a little further and says, "tell us the story where King Harold gets hit in the eye with an arrow."
Well, I gave the camera the same nuanced version of the story and, of course, it was cut from the episode. I think I ended up appearing a total of 6 minutes in a half-hour show, my one chance for the big time shot down by a fictional Norman arrow. But, next time you’re up at 3 AM, you might find a sleep-worthy episode of ‘Decisive Battles’ on the History Channel.
I often tell this story in the first meetings of the religious history courses I teach here at SCU—formerly at the Jesuit School in Berkeley and now in our MA program in pastoral ministries. The moral of the story is obvious: it’s a warning against grasping at versions of history that reinforce what we already think we know—or the way we want to know it. So, why do I tell it tonight? It’s, for me, an example of how seductive willful ignorance can be, a preference for a description of what might be true in contrast to an unsettling ambiguity which the ‘truth’ often is. I think this struggle between one version of what we think is true and the willingness to walk into some mystery is the challenge not only of historians and scholars of Religious Studies, but of everyone.
Let’s see if I can make this clearer.
Years ago, I came across the writings of a Religious Studies professor at NYU named James Carse. He has a description of ignorance that has stayed with me for a long time. He writes of three kinds of ignorance: factual, willful, and a sort of 'higher ignorance.'
Factual ignorance is something we encounter every day. It’s the often very short distance from something we didn’t know—an experience of ignorance—to learning a bit about whatever it is. So, if I were to ask you, ‘what’s the population of Taipei?’ your immediate and honest response would likely be: “I don’t know…but I can find out.” As long as we’re awake, we’re constantly given the opportunity to pass from the lack of understanding or information to some clarity or disambiguating the ambiguous in a way that’s natural to us. Indeed, our survival depends on dispelling this kind of ignorance.
Willful ignorance is a quagmire of possibility and its tendency is at work oftentimes in the best of us. In willful ignorance, people prefer, hold onto a version of the story (whatever the narrative subject is) in the face of potentially contradictory evidence. This kind of ignorance flourishes in times of fear, so there’s no surprise that in our own polarized world we see willful ignorance showing up in human events and news cycles. It’s going on right now in the political positioning taking place on the topic of gun violence in this country, its root causes, and its hard-to-understand protections under a literalist view of the United States Constitution. It keeps alive all sorts of bigotries and biases. Conspiracy theories rely on willful ignorance for survival. In my courses on religion and violence and religious outsiders, this form of ignorance can reveal itself in the process of marginalizing people, othering them. The level of tolerance—however it’s fixed—has been exceeded. Whatever ignorance is going on here is important to notice because it’s practically impossible to dehumanize and demonize someone whose personal story you’ve come to know.
Carse then acknowledges a kind of ignorance to which he aspires, a ‘higher ignorance.’ And this, I believe, finds a genuine home in religious studies. It’s the ignorance of the seeker and the mystic—in every religious tradition. Carse goes to the writings of a 15th-century Christian theologian named Nicholas of Cusa, one of whose treatises is titled “On Learned Ignorance.” He maintains that there’s a natural desire in each of us to know what we do not know. He borrows from an ancient philosophical tradition to find this, but he also sees it showing up in many religious traditions—his own, but also in Jewish and Muslim texts. In this way, Nicholas of Cusa is my nominee for the first Christian Religious Studies scholar.
This higher ignorance, like all ignorance, is signaled by the words “I don’t know.” But in this case, it’s a statement of humility more than despair. Because the desire to know doesn’t end; at the same time, it declines from being conclusive. In other words, “I don’t know, but I’m open to exploring the question” may draw the seeker more deeply into the mystery. Think of it as a desire to be in a truth that can never be fully comprehended. This kind of not-knowing can inspire an open-minded, open-hearted exploration. This is why I find ‘higher’ or ‘learned ignorance’ almost a natural corollary to the study of religion across the broad spectrum of all those profound human questions asked usually under starry skies.
In that spirit, I’m drawn to this poem by Hafiz:
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?
The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God
And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.
I like to think, as a teacher, that I have come to bury ignorance, not to praise it. But the more I sit with James Carse and Nicholas of Cusa and Hafiz, the more questions emerge—not as threat or disappointment, but as invitation to explore further. There is an existential freedom in this ‘higher ignorance,’ a willingness to lean into the mystery without claiming certitude prematurely. One never stops learning in this respect. And it’s not all mysticism or even religion. It’s human and it becomes the difference between focusing on differences and a willingness to walk with something or someone we have no idea about.
I teach Carse’s trinity of ignorance to my students all the time, certainly as a value I share with them. I tell them that, in the right meeting in their future, at the right time, “sharing Carse’s theory will get you the corner office.” But I also teach them this lesson to remind myself of my small quarrels with factual ignorance, my daily temptations to willful ignorance, and the hope that when encountered by the great mysteries of life and religion, I might have the courage to say “I don’t know” with a renewed desire to learn.