Home > Christianity, Church, Jesus, Quakers, Spiritual formation > From “I Don’t Know” to “I Know You”

From “I Don’t Know” to “I Know You”

I was one year into a two-year Masters in Church History degree when I signed up for a course on John Calvin. My professor was the only female faculty member in the small church history department, and she was relatively new to the Seminary.

The evangelical seminary I attended attracted students mostly in their late 20s or early 30s, most of them overconfident in their knowledge of the Bible and/or theology. And most of them were men.

Because it was one of the top 3 evangelical seminaries, it also attracted a strong faculty – folks known far and wide for their intellectual ability. And most of them were men.

As you can imagine, putting overly confident young men in a classroom with older men who have spent their adult lives studying one particular subject often created an atmosphere similar to what I imagine the floor of the stock market is like – except the pushing and shoving experienced in the classroom was metaphorical, an exercise in students trying to impress their professor while simultaneously hoping to relegate their peers to also-ran status. And faculty, experts in their fields. were able to answer any question lobbed their way, usually with nary a moment spent wandering the recesses of their mind for the answer.

For an entire year this was my experience – until I walked into my John Calvin class. While I don’t remember a lot of the details about my 2 years in seminary – I do remember one encounter in this class as lucidly as I can recall the most important milestones in my life.

It came unexpectedly, in response to a student’s question – I don’t remember the specific question, but the answer is seared into my memory. Without hesitation, without fear, my professor answered, “I don’t know.”

I woke from my information-induced coma into an enlightened state of being because of three simple words. Our professor asked us if anyone perhaps knew the answer, and when we did not, she said she would look into it and then let us know the next time we met. When we came back the next week for class, she had the answer and shared it with us.

One of my strongest memories from seminary was a simple, humble phrase – “I don’t know.”

I was reminded of this encounter yesterday as Eric Muhr walked us through a familiar passage during his sermon at Newberg Friends Church (audio link will be available here soon). Eric has a keen mind and a wonderful ability to notice things I often take for granted or look past.

As we engaged John 4, and Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, Eric again and again uttered the phrase, “I don’t know.” Honest with his limitations, okay with being seen as someone who does not have all the answers and is willing to admit it, he led us in a meaningful spiritual exercise with the phrase, “I don’t know.”

In a world that values those who know, which places great power in the hands of those who have the right answers (this is especially true in the church) it was beautiful to be reminded that the phrase “I don’t know” is perhaps the most important phrase for developing true community.

You see, when someone continually stands in front of a group of people and spouts off the answers as though they have them and you don’t, a chasm develops – those who know are on one side, those who don’t are on the other. Idols are created, people become celebrities, and we lose contact with each other.

We can’t become known for who we truly are if we are never able to utter the phrase, “I don’t know.” Because it is in the very place of not knowing, of searching together for an answer, or of admitting we don’t know all there is to know, that we become known, we become a community.

And so I think I’ll begin to practice the phrase more, and learn to say it more often. Because I’d rather be known as the one who was able to admit what I did not know than as the one who knew it all. I’d rather be known as the one who others knew, than the one others just knew about it.

  1. Jason L.
    July 6, 2011 at 10:03 AM

    That’s a really good word, Jamie. I appreciated a phrase I often heard around my school–something to the effect of, “the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn.”

    • July 6, 2011 at 2:39 PM

      Thanks, Jason. I’ve heard the following about PhD studies: You learn more and more about less and less until you know absolutely everything about nothing…

  2. Jason L.
    July 7, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    Haha! That’s a good one, and probably not too far from the truth!

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