I like answers. More specifically, I like having all the right answers. Over the last 2 years, God has been weaning me from my addiction to answers and teaching me the importance of questions. This process began when I read the Gospels from a Hebrew worldview. This perspective, the worldview that Jesus trained in and taught from, includes the belief that the way to demonstrate superior intelligence is to ask better questions. Questions are valued above answers, because questions engage listeners and further discussion. Questions open new avenues of inquiry. If you read the words of Jesus you’ll notice that (even though he had all the answers) he uses questions to great effect. Some examples include:
Who do you say that I am?
What do you want me to do for you?
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his own soul?
More recently, I read the book Leadership Coaching by Tony Stoltzfus. This book changed the way I relate to… everyone. One of the most powerful truths in the book is that people don’t need to be told what to do nearly as much as they need someone to listen to them. Listening without an agenda, and asking a few open ended questions, is more powerful than giving people even the most well intentioned “right” answers.
Then, I heard Stuart Firestein speak on the topic of ignorance in science. These same principles apply to other areas of inquiry as well. He said,
“The purpose of facts and discoveries is to get you to the next question, to make the next question better than the previous question was.”
I’m not suggesting that there is no truth or that we can’t know anything, nor do I advocate ignorance in the traditional sense. Here’s how he defines ignorance:
“…a question that’s determined by fact to begin with, but that confronts what the unknowns are and leads us to…investigating the unknown”
He quoted Physicist James Clark Maxwell, who called it “thoroughly conscious ignorance”, which he said was the prelude to every great discovery in science. The idea is that being honest about what we can’t know, or what we don’t know yet, actually frees our minds to think more creatively.
What if we approached the mysteries of God this way? What if, instead of having our doctrinal ducks in a row, and condemning anyone whose ducks line up differently, we embraced thoroughly conscious ignorance? What if we approached God and each other in a posture of active listening? What if a question wasn’t a threat, but an invitation?
What if we approached parenting this way? A friend who is parenting an inquisitive preschooler recently said,
“I’m going to start paying myself a nickel every time my son asks me “why?”. Then, next week when I have enough money, I’m going to buy myself a house. I am going to go there to take naps.”
Answering all those questions is exhausting. I’ve found partial relief in asking another question instead of supplying an answer immediately. Answering with a question has resulted in some of the best conversations we’ve had with our kids. Sometimes they need answers. More often, they need the tools to find the answers themselves.
How would your life be different if someone really listened, and respected you enough to ask instead of counsel or advise at key moments? Is it possible that (thoroughly conscious) ignorance really is bliss?