Saving Knowledge and Blessed Ignorance

Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 07 September 2022

A friend of mine recently noted that the middle of the road is the “narrowest way,” being but a single line. Increasingly, it has been clear to me that it is a path that requires true self-control and sobriety. When we speak of what we know, we must remember what we do not know. And when we acknowledge our ignorance we must still remain faithful to the knowledge that has been given to us.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Cathecetical Lectures (book 6) has this:

For we do not explain what God is but candidly confess that we do not have exact knowledge concerning Him. For when speaking of the things concerning God, to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.


But some one will say, If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why do you speak of these things? Just because I cannot drink all the water in a river, am I not, in moderation, to take the amount that I need? Just because my eyes cannot take in all of the Sun, can I not see the little that I need? Or again, just because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat everything in it, would you have me go away altogether hungry?

The same tension as can be observed between our knowledge and our ignorance can be found between our desire to do good and the thoughts and desires that pull us away from the good. (cf. Romans 7).

Our life is properly found at the point of these tensions, a narrow line in the middle of the road. It was said by one of the Desert Fathers:

Prayer is a struggle ’til one’s dying breath.

In my few years among the “Jesus Freaks” (the phenomenon of young Christians in the late 60’s and early 70’s), it was not uncommon to run across members from various “cults.” For as much as there was a great movement towards belief in Christ, there was an equal movement of start-up groups whose teachings and practices deviated from traditional Christianity, often led by strong personalities. A common characteristic that I noticed when meeting cult members was the sense of “nobody’s home.” Despite many of the virtues that could be seen among them, there was simply a sense that something was “missing,” some aspect of personality that left me hesitant and always wary.

I have thought long about this through the years in that I’ve seen its manifestation in many other places (not all of them religious). Something had taken place within a person that “silenced” something that should, normatively, be present. The result has always been a diminishment of their humanity.

St. Maximus offers something of a hint in thinking about this important tension. He describes us as having “two wills.” The first he called the “natural will” that is the fundamental drive of our nature. It is inherently good, and desires the good that properly belongs to us as human beings. The second he named the “gnomic will,” (meaning the “choosing will”). It is fragmented, separated from the natural will as a result of the Fall. It is uncertain and inconsistent, sometimes choosing the good, and sometimes not. The presence of these two wills means that there is always a tension within us, a “background noise” that is the sound of our present existence.

The temptation found in the “cult-like phenomenon” is an end-run that seeks to silence the noise of this inner tension. Since we are unable to simply conform the gnomic will to the natural will of our ownselves (normatively, it is the end-product of the life of grace, a reunion and healing of this fundamental schism within the soul), we substitute some other will for the natural will, one that will overpower and suppress the gnomic will and produce a false harmony, an inner peace that is not a true peace, but a false identity and diminished personhood.

What I’ve see through the years is that what I first saw in the cult phenomenon is actually more common than that. Almost anything can serve the purpose of suppressing the natural will and creating a false harmony: ideologies, political groups, cliques, strong personalities such as narcissists, etc. When these things are in place, the individual begins to see the “struggle” as outside themselves. Their work becomes one of silencing the struggle within by projecting it onto those outside. It is a great temptation – and the more firmly it is set in place – the harder it is to come out of it. When those working with cult members described a process of “de-programming” (which was often quite abusive), they were confronting this very thing.

In that we live in a culture whose primary principle is that of maximizing pleasure (it’s what consumerism is all about), we are quite vulnerable to the false pleasure of a silenced, or muted “natural will.” We drown it out with the noise of the consumption that surrounds us. Often, we are simply left with an emptiness, marked by a “false fullness” of those things that can never satisfy us. All utopian schemes have an immediate goal of silencing the natural will, for it will not allow us to be blithely happy with anything less than the truth.

This brings me back to the narrow way. In this life, the tension between the natural will and the gnomic will, between the good for which we are created and the lesser diminished goods that tempt us, is normative. It is perhaps not “ideal,” in that what I am describing is part of our brokenness. However, an honest brokenness is much to be preferred to a false wholeness. St. Cyril’s observations, quoted earlier, point to this life of healthy (normative) tension.

We long to know God (it is our natural will, indeed). It is also true that what we know of God is extremely limited. Our knowledge is always framed with an abiding ignorance. Christ, in His extreme humility, embraced certain expressions of ignorance. When asked about the time of the “restoration of the kingdom,” Christ said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” (Acts 1:7) There are boundaries to our knowledge, an ignorance that is proper to our nature.

Our modern drive towards mastery of all things (so as to mass-produce universal pleasure) makes us rebel against the very notion of ignorance. If something cannot be fully known, then we declare it to be unworthy of knowledge. My own approach has been to start with what we do know: we know Christ and His death and resurrection. We have His commandments and the abiding presence of the Church which He gave us. And this knowledge of God through Christ is bounded by ignorance. Does it answer every question? Of course not – and it would be unhelpful if it did.

Within the life of the Church, there is a possible temptation to “get behind Christ,” to seek out “God” without reference to our ignorance and limitations. It is, I think, something inherent to the “mysticism” we find in the Church – a relationship with God without boundaries. However, our ignorance is a boundary and is as essential to the truth of our being as is our body itself. We are creatures, bounded by limits. Everything we know, everyone we know, we know within limits. Our ignorance surrounds us on every side.

The narrow way exults in what it knows, and ponders with humility the ignorance that accompanies it. To be whole is also to be who and what I truly am. It recognizes the tensions within us, and though it struggles to know God more fully, it also struggles to know its own limits and the mystery of our own ignorance.

God give us grace to walk in such a place.

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