Listening, Learning, Knowing
I've spent my life in the Church. Almost 38 years of worship and service. For the past 20 years, I’ve had a variety of teaching ministries. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve studied the Bible. I’ve talked and written and debated about the Bible. But about two years ago, I started taking seminary classes, and something really important happened: I discovered that for all these years, I’ve known next to nothing about the Bible.
I’m still a long way from earning any kind of degree, but I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of seminary can be on a person, what it’s like to learn about the story behind the story behind the story, how it feels to have information that, previously, I didn’t even know existed.
First, there’s exhilaration at having access to important new information, all of it – so much! incredible! mind-blowing! – suddenly available to me. Second, almost as fast as that first feeling, is a sense of lost-ness, of foolishness for having studied, written, talked over and debated what the Bible says, what other people say the Bible says, without having known this information even existed. Even worse, many of the people I debated – in public, even – knew that I didn’t know. In particular, I feel silly for having written what I have in front of people who knew what I didn’t, especially knowing that they were patient with me, that in some important ways, they protected me in my ignorance.
But the feeling of foolishness doesn’t last long. Once I started learning, it became nearly impossible to remember that there ever was a time when I didn’t know what I now know. Instead, I’m mostly aware of the fact that I know what most others don’t. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with how big the task is of helping others to see what I see, knowing that it’s far more likely that they will resist rather than welcome what I share (mainly because it challenges and sometimes contradicts so much of what they believe).
In addition, I have this fear that not too long from now I’ll become aware of the limitations of what I’ve learned. There’s so much to know, and my ability to take in, comprehend and remember is limited. And there’s so much we don’t yet know. There’s so much yet to be learned. There are inaccuracies that may not be corrected for hundreds of years. There are things that remain invisible, that we don’t even know we don’t know. That we don’t see. Can’t see. Might never see.
But that takes a while to learn.
Admitting it doesn’t mean that I’ve learned it.
In the meantime, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to learn from people who don’t know what I know. Even as I listen to what they say, I find myself thinking: “How would this argument change if they knew what I know?” Sometimes it just seems sad that they hold on to the untenable. I have become more judgmental. Just thinking about my thinking as I’m thinking has become such a difficult mental exercise that I almost just want to give up and stop listening.
But I can’t.
Because I know that once I stop listening, I will begin to treat others as objects, entering every theological conversation as a kind of game in which my only goal is to say what I must in order to get the other to believe what I want him to believe, to have him go away with the impression I have created. I will have become manipulative. A liar.
Tragically, I also will have become a kind of moron, incapable of listening, incapable of being challenged, incapable of learning from others whose personal experience of God differs from and potentially transcends my own.
May God protect me.