Jun 15, 2023
Making peace with not knowing everything
I’ve always wanted to know everything. My mother calls me a know-it-all (because
I’ve always wanted to know everything. My mother calls me a know-it-all (because I pretend to know everything when, in fact, I know very little). For instance, I can't simply enjoy a cup of coffee like a normal person. I have to exhaustively research how to roast the beans with the most subtle techniques and apply the best brewing methods to produce the required aromatics. I don't simply ride a bicycle for fun. Instead, I look at all the different models of road bikes, the frames, drive-trains, geometry of the machine, and even go so far as to research what the riders in the Tour de France use for equipment. I fall into rabbit holes on specific topics and can't get out. Whatever the topic is, I want to know more.
To some extent, it's not a bad trait. I’m sure we all do our deep dives into our passions, and there's nothing wrong with seeking out knowledge on topics of interest and trying to achieve excellence. The world is an endlessly interesting place. It's no virtue to be ignorant. Or, to phrase it another way, it might be argued that it's better to know how to make and appreciate a good cup of coffee than to settle for instant, low-quality brands.
On the other hand, I know that, for me at least, the constant desire for knowledge gets out of hand. There's an element of pride to it. I assume I can gain expertise in topics that my intellect isn't equipped for, and become frustrated when I can't figure them out. I cannot make peace with the fact that I cannot know everything. On any given topic, there's always someone who knows more, another book to be read, another nuance to consider. That bothers me.
I suppose my desire to feel like an expert on everything is because lacking knowledge feels like a lack of control. If I don't know something, then I can't control it. This makes me vulnerable. It means I have to trust someone else and ask for help.
I remember this scenario playing out in a harmful way for me when I was in college. At the time, I was struggling with my religious faith because of a number of different personal issues. One of the ways I tried to solve my doubt was by going on a quest to acquire "all the theological knowledge." I would stay up late into the night reading philosophy and theology books. I read deeply in every tradition of rational and spiritual thought stretching from the ancient Greeks, through the enlightenment, and into modern-day Protestantism. I read about eastern religions and the Koran. I worked hard at learning to read the Bible in its original language, thinking that eventually I would know enough to sort out my doubts and have a stronger Christian faith. The only problem was that, the more I learned, the more I didn't understand. Theology has endless byways and even the best students of the Bible and original languages argue over how to read the Scriptures. I became ever more lost.
Worse yet, after I began a postgraduate degree in theology at Yale, I arrived on campus as a proud intellectual young man, only to quickly realize that I was surrounded by fellow students who knew a lot about theology. They were smart. Smarter than me. It became even more painfully clear how much knowledge I lacked. This realization was followed by the final, crushing insight that I would never, ever gain enough knowledge to be satisfied. The subject of theology is too big. God is too vast. If I was going to judge my faith by the measure of my own intellect, I was going to fail miserably.
This same process can be followed on every single topic. There's always someone who knows more, always a new piece of knowledge to be gained, always more expertise to be mastered. We cannot know everything.
Now, this doesn't mean there isn't great joy in learning new things. The world is a fascinating place. The more we know it the better we can love it. So I say, always keep learning. Maintain a healthy interest in the world. It's worth it even if you find the subject to be inexhaustible.
It's all a question of motivation. Now that I know my limitations I ask myself, do I want to keep learning because I’m a proud show-off who wants to control everything? Or, do I keep learning because I’m so very much in love with how amazing everything is, and if I never get to the bottom of it all will I be okay with that?
At the heart of reality is a grand mystery. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never solve it. I’ve actually come to appreciate the fact that I’ll never solve it. We want to find ourselves in the midst of a mystery, because the mystery points to the superabundance of grace and love in which we find ourselves swimming. We humans aren't masters of the universe, but we are destined for a life beyond this one. The fragrance of the next life, the perfume of Paradise, is already drifting through this earthly garden. We’re not there yet. It's all still too much for us.
Maybe it always will be too much for us. That's the joy of it.What can God do in your life with one Bible verse a day?