When we simply don’t know
A reflection from the Ven Richard Frank, the new Archdeacon of Middlesex.
Knowledge is power, but what we can do when we have a lack of knowledge?
‘Well perhaps, as the saying goes, “Knowledge is power,” or, at least, can be powerful. But what do we do when we simply don’t know? I began as Archdeacon of Middlesex some 15 weeks ago, on the very day that we in the UK entered what became known as a lockdown. I’d already known that as I plunged into this archidiaconal world of faculties and finances, HR and appointments, that my knowledge would be not even an inch thick, and certainly not a mile wide.
Knowledge might be power, and can be really useful as we serve others, but what do we do when we simply don’t know? We were walking, as we walked into lockdown, into a world that simply wouldn’t bend to my knowledge-gathering efforts. It didn’t seem to matter how hard I worked, how much I read, how many Zoom briefings I attended or people that I spoke to, there was suddenly simply so much I didn’t know, and couldn’t know because no one did. None of us knew what was going to unfold over the months that were to follow.
And ever since then, we’ve been running, and I confess, I suspect, a little bit more recently, trudging wearily, through a world so unfamiliar, so unknowable, that it’s hard to believe it’s the same one in which we celebrated Christmas just six months ago. So knowledge may give us power and some influence, but what do we do when we can’t know? And what do we do when, on top of a pandemic, we find that pretty much every important aspect of our shared life together is exposing even the knowledge we thought we had as being bankrupt?
What do I do in the face of the climate crisis, when my lifestyle and my choices threaten the very fabric of our future on this planet? And I simply don’t know how to make a big enough difference. What do I do in the face of the crushing effects of racism, where our history of slavery and the toxic effects of empire still shape attitudes, relationships, structures? And where I simply don’t know how to deal with the privileges I’m only just recognizing I carry by the color of my skin? What do I do when I have to say, “I don’t know”?
One thing that the Scriptures don’t allow us to say is that it’s OK to give up on that knowledge, to take lack of knowledge as an excuse to give up on rational thought, or powerful conversations as if they’re somehow beneath us, as people of faith. Far from it. The sort of knowledge that comes from reading, from deep listening, from scientific inquiry, from logical, rational debate, is part of God’s great gift to us as human beings. We are to commit ourselves to think deeply, to engage rationally with the biggest challenges of our age.
But the Scriptures do also show us that knowledge isn’t only rational, but it’s fundamentally relational too, that we are creatures of heart, not only of head, that the power of knowledge comes perhaps most strongly in our knowledge of the other, to know and to be known personally. And most of all, to know the One who knows us from the inside out, and who chooses, nevertheless, to love us just the same.
The apostle Paul, someone of erudition, deep learning, and even, we might say, philosophical genius, wrote of knowledge in his letter to the Corinthians. He wrote this. “I decided to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” In other words, Paul knew that there is a knowledge which, in the life of the Christian, is to shape, to underpin, and to challenge all other knowledge, the knowledge of Christ and Him crucified, a knowledge of heart as well as head.
So as many of us begin to help lead our church communities, tiptoeing tentatively out of lockdown, not knowing exactly what we will do nor how things will go, our knowledge of Christ keeps our hearts in the right place, set on the One whom I serve, not on my fear of reputation or status or even success. And as we try to respond to the growing effects and threat of climate crisis, knowing Christ helped set my personal desires and my appetites in their proper place. And yes, as we grapple with privilege and with the evil of racism, our knowledge of Christ and Him crucified, nails to the cross, any sense that a human may be worth less or more than any other, so precious to the God who in Christ, comes to meet us in love.
These past 15 weeks may well have felt to many of us like 15 years, but as we walk together into this strange and unpredictable summer ahead, and is there so much we simply don’t know about how to live and how to act, may we determine simply and most importantly with Paul, to know Christ and His crucifixion. And may we find in that knowledge of Christ the courage and grace to think, to work, to act, and to pray not for our power or influence, but to see the power of God in Christ at work by His spirit, through us and in us, and in a world in need.
To the glory of His name, Amen.’