I don’t know what I don’t know

I had an argument with a colleague once, years ago. This colleague was upset with the performance of an employee who was under my supervision. Part of my underling’s duties was to restock the shelves with stock from a secondary location, and she was struggling to do so. My upset colleague had been taking care of that section of the business for several years at that point, and her knowledge of the inventory and backstock was firmly in the purview of her area of expertise.  My subordinate, on the other hand, was fairly new to the job; her areas of expertise were in other arenas.

The main thrust of my contention, therefore, was that my subordinate was being asked to do something very, very difficult, if not impossible. She was being asked to look at empty shelves, and to simply know what was missing. As humans, I think this is one of the most difficult skills we can possibly acquire: to see what isn’t there. Our brains are hardwired to see the patterns in front of our faces, but negative space is much harder to evaluate.

How does this pertain to my spiritual journey? I think the best I can do at this point is simply admit what I do not know.

I keep coming back to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Someday soon, I will take the time to write a very long essay about Paul’s story, and what it means to me.) In chapter 3 of that book, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

This is how I see myself at this point. I have come quite far, I think, towards understanding and believing the things I had spent so much time and energy denying and forsaking. I see the world differently, and I prefer this new view. But at the end of every day, I still feel like an infant along this journey. There is so much I don’t know, and even more frustratingly, I don’t know what I don’t know. I can’t see the negative space yet, because I am no expert. What’s more, each day brings with it a new question (or several questions). Will I ever be an expert?

For those on a journey towards understanding an infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent other–and one whose love and forgiveness are incalculable by human standards–is there such a thing as an expert? There are those whose knowledge and experience far outstrips my own, and whose journeys are farther along the path than my own. But I do not think I could possibly trust anyone who believes that they know everything there is to know about God. How could I trust anyone who claims to have it all figured out, when like me, they cannot know what they don’t know.

Imagine a man who lives on a plain, and spends time every day shoveling dirt on a mound. For an hour a day he spends devotional time building his mound. Eventually it will look more like a hill. If he lives long enough, It could even start to look like a small mountain. If his horizon is clear, he might think that his mountain is the tallest in the region, and if his worldview is narrow enough, he might even think that he has made the largest mountain on Earth. But he cannot see the Rockies, or the Tetons, or Everest. He doesn’t know how terribly small his mountain would look next to those scales. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. If he is wise, he might guess that his effort in building his mountain is what matters, but that there are other, greater mountains. If he is unwise, he might think that standing atop his small hill he is closer to God than anyone else.

I look forward to growing every day, but I think my viewpoint right now is that any mountain I might be able to build will look infinitely small in the eyes of my Lord. My understanding of Him is limited by my mind and spirit. There is so much I do not know.


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