Knowing what you don’t know

Engaging in any sort of research can be daunting. It is humbling to realize how little I know about the world. After three advanced theological degrees, it’s even more humbling to realize how little I really know about the Bible. But, as D.L. Moody said:

“My friends, the men who have studied the Bible for fifty years—the wise men and the scholars, the great theologians—have never got down to the depths of it yet. There are truths there that the Church of God has been searching out for the last eighteen hundred years, but no man has fathomed the depths of that ever-living stream.”

While I don’t think we will ever know everything about the Bible (and certainly not about God), I don’t think that means we can quit trying to pursue a fuller understanding of God and his word. Christians aren’t the only group that deals with “knowledge debt.” Speaking about the challenges associated with technology, for instance, Amir Rachum notes,

“Knowledge debt is like financial debt. It’s a tool—you need to use it wisely to make a profit.” 

After reading Rachum’s “Knowledge Debt”, I was surprised to see how few references to the concept are available on the web. The idea is relatively simple: as finite people with a finite capacity, we often have to decide to move forward knowing that we don’t have all the information we might want or need for the long term. As Rachum says,

“You should, intentionally and tactically, decide which piece of information you can do without, for now. But you should also, intentionally and strategically, decide when to pay back that debt.”

While Rachum applies this concept to the world of technology, it seems to me that the concept of knowledge debt could be invaluable to the church. Here’s what I mean: I have been involved in a number of different conversations about discipleship, education, the church, and how we might understand the coronavirus. As I’ve participated in these conversations, I’ve been struck by how often I and others defaulted to “standard” answers. To put it in terms of debt, we seem content to continue spending on credit while our knowledge debt continues to grow. 

It is hard to ask new questions that require fresh thinking and different answers. In some ways, it’s threatening. The further we go without the pieces of information we decided we could do without at some point in time, the more difficult it becomes to circle back and pick them up. It’s a little scary to risk what we have by backtracking to learn new information that might require us to change. 

One of the areas I’ve been most challenged by has been the field of ecclesiology (the study of the church). I’ve spent hours reading and thinking about what it means to be people of the book and the body. That study has required me to change the way I behave, the way I think about decisions, and the way I approach ministry. I had a knowledge debt that I’ve been repaying over the last year and half. I am happy to have done it. 

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve taken time to repay my knowledge debt: 

God wasn’t who I thought he was … He was more.

The greatest insight I’ve been able to glean from the time I’ve spent paying off a part of my knowledge debt is that there is more to God than I thought. 

Not everyone is ready to pay off their knowledge debt. 

Just because I decided to pay off a portion of my knowledge debt doesn’t mean everyone has to. That has been hard. I’ve written a fair amount about the media and concepts like terrible simplification (like this piece on “cleaning our cupboards” of content that isn’t helping us to think theologically). It seems to me that in addition to watching what we consume, we need to consider our knowledge debt and be intentional about paying it off. 

My knowledge debt is bigger than I thought.

To some degree, this wasn’t a new revelation. Reading books with thousands of footnotes is generally a good reminder that you have much more to learn. That said, through this process, I’ve realized that there are other areas where I have knowledge debts. I’m taking some time to re-triage my accounts and determine how to go about paying off my debts in other areas.

Knowledge debts limit our ability to think well about God, ourselves, and the world around us.

The knowledge we leave behind can’t help us as we navigate the world around us. While accumulating some sort of knowledge debt is, as Rachum notes, necessary, refusing to pay back that debt will leave us without important resources to grow in the way we understand God, ourselves, and the word around us. Worse, if we deny that we have a knowledge debt, we can become too dogmatic and close ourselves off to new ways of thinking. 

According to Rachum, knowledge debts are inevitable. We can either use that debt wisely and profit or allow it to continue building until we are buried by everything that we don’t know. Simply gaining knowledge, however, is not the goal. Knowledge without discipleship is dangerous. Instead, at the very least, the goal is to offer faithful testimony about God to the world around us. As I wrote in Thinking Christian, for Christians to offer such testimony, 

We have to think deeply about the way we use language and participate in discourse so that we convey what is actually there … the theological reality … with our language.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind

Photo credit: Tirachard Kumtanom