In praise of ignorance

Note: This page was written some time ago, when I was still a Christian. I'm not any more, so it's likely that some material in here no longer reflects my current opinions.

Of course I don’t mean to praise all ignorance. It is not good to be ignorant of the existence of God, or of the wickedness of murder, or of the law of gravitation.

On the other hand, when we don’t actually know something -- when we are in fact ignorant -- it is good to admit our ignorance, rather than pretending to knowledge we don’t possess; and when it is not really possible to know something with total certainty, it may be better to remain agnostic rather than feeling obliged to have an opinion on every subject; and even when it is possible (in principle) to decide a difficult question, there is sometimes much to be said for remaining in ignorance instead. These are the claims which I now propose to try to justify.

I shall begin by considering a couple of specific examples, and then see what conclusions can be drawn.

1. Homosexuality.

There seems to be no end to the discussions Christians can have about whether it is sinful to be homosexual, or to do particular characteristically homosexual things. These discussions are notable for generating more heat than light; all too often the participants seem more concerned to vent their feelings of disgust or resentment than to understand the issue clearly or to help those who actually face this problem.

For those who actually face the problem -- that is, for Christians who are by inclination homosexual (and, to a lesser degree, for those to whom they turn for advice and support) -- it is of course necessary to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. For the rest of us, I submit, it is not only not necessary; it is likely to do more harm than good.

There are easy traps to fall into on both sides of the question. If you decide that homosexuality, or homosexual acts, or whatever, are sinful and an abomination in the sight of God, then it can be very hard to avoid "hating the sin" spilling over into "hating the sinner". This is made worse by the fact that those of us who are not homosexual tend to find the idea of homosexuality repellent, independently of its moral status; and this too tends to spill over into finding the people who do these things repellent.

On the other hand, if you decide that homosexuality is OK, then (since the Bible does on the face of it appear to condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms) it is easy to be drawn to the conclusion that the Bible cannot really be relied on. This is a slippery slope, and some people have a lot of trouble staying part-way down it.

Thus there is a great danger of either a failure of love, or a failure of faith. Of course neither of these dangers is actually unavoidable; but I’ve seen people who are intelligent, loving and Godly falling into both of them -- how can I really be sure the same won’t happen to me?

It seems to me that the best way to be sure is to refrain from coming to a decision on the question. After all, the question isn’t a live one for me (I am fortunate in that I am in no doubt about my own sexuality); so the only question is my attitude to others; and I know, quite apart from the moral question, how I should behave with homosexuals: I should love them as I love myself, and treat them kindly and with understanding. If I believe firmly that they are engaged in deliberate defiance of God, this is difficult.

Nevertheless, if the answer were clear, this would be a silly position: I can’t just decide not to have an opinion on something where the answer is obvious. But this is a question where intelligent, loving and Godly people can be found on both sides; the question of exactly what the various Scriptural passages really mean involves difficult questions of language, history and so on (one of the key New Testament passages uses a word known nowhere else in Greek literature; in many places it is possible, but not certain, that the activities being condemned are a matter of ritual temple prostitution), and to decide the question to my satisfaction would require a lot of effort; the end result, if I managed to avoid the traps I’ve mentioned above, would be that I would carry on behaving in almost exactly the same way. And I don’t know that I could avoid those traps. So why should I have to decide?

2. Heaven and hell and all that.

Who will end up being saved? Who will end up being damned? What exactly do salvation and damnation entail for these people?

Well, the Bible doesn’t really give very clear answers. For instance, we are told that the great separation will be done on the basis of our generous actions towards the poor and needy (Matthew 25); that we are saved by faith without regard to our actions (Romans 3:21-31); that those who do particular wicked things will be damned (Galatians 5:19-21); that "all Israel" will be saved (Romans 11:26); that God desires all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4); that God may have chosen some people specifically for damnation (Romans 9:22); and so on.

I am not denying that all these things can be reconciled; I am suggesting that they make it impossible to come up with a theory of salvation that’s obviously right. I have yet to see a fully satisfactory analysis of the situation that doesn’t run into problems with at least one of the passages above.

This being so, what point is there in our coming to a really firm conclusion about the criteria for salvation? If we decide that our actions really have nothing to do with it, will we therefore sin freely? Certainly not! (Paul deals with this question in Romans 6.) If we decide that the quality of our love for others is the most important factor, will we therefore decide that knowing Jesus isn’t important? All I can say to that suggestion is that if being a Christian doesn’t make any difference to the quality of your love for others then something is very wrong.

In other words, the actual consequences for our day-to-day living are much the same whatever view we adopt. We are still called to know, love and serve God; we are still called to make the world a more just and less unpleasant place for others; we are still called to proclaim the good news.

And, again, the answer is not obvious. With both this and the previous example, if God thought it really important that we all have correct doctrine on these matters I think he would have arranged for it to be more clearly stated in Scripture. We really don’t have enough information to arrive at a definite conclusion without uncertainty.

And again, if we come down very firmly on one or another side of the fence then there is real danger: the chief danger is lack of tolerance for those whose views don’t agree with one’s own. If you don’t know of any examples of this, then where have you been?

Conclusion

When a question is genuinely doubtful -- when, in other words, it is possible for those intelligent, loving and Godly people I mentioned earlier to disagree on it -- and when its answer has little importance for one’s practical conduct, there is often little to be gained by coming to a firm decision oneself.

That doesn’t mean it’s never right to: if you’re gay, it would be a good idea to think very hard about the first question above, for instance; and if you’re really interested in a question it’s clearly legitimate to investigate it. But there’s no obligation on you to have an opinion on every subject; and in many cases there is a great deal to be said for not having an opinion.