The question, for several days now, has been “What to write?” And the answer, in many frustrated permutations, always returns, “I don’t know.”
I’ve heard and I’ve taught that “I don’t know” is an appropriate answer, that the beginning of knowledge is often an acknowledgement of ignorance. But “even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise” (Prov. 17:28 NASB), while the one who declares his ignorance exposes himself to the judgment of those who may know. (This is why, I’m sure, students prefer to say nothing to questions in class — it’s somehow less embarrassing to look down at the page of your lit anthology than to speak up and say “I have no idea.”)
Sparing use of words can be a good strategy, too, because it gives the words you do use more weight. But it includes a risk: speak too seldom, and people will forget you have a voice, forget to ask you if know; you may find yourself one day replete with words, but no one there to hear them. You’ll want an ear.
Even though we want to communicate, communication is a great venture upon faith: we speak expecting, usually, to be understood, but there is no guarantee of understanding. Infants begin upon it, confident of finding comprehension for their incoherent babble in the face of adults eager to discover meaning. But when we grow older, we speak with more trepidation, knowing that sometimes it can be an exercise in futility.
Those who speak must be brave, to a certain degree. They must be willing to live in the room with mystery.
The mystery is this: that we ever understand one another at all. That understanding is more than associating words with objects — lights and noses and cats and flowers and so forth — but is also associating words with abstractions. I write confidently expecting that you comprehend the word “abstraction,” the word “confident,” the word “comprehend,” but I cannot explain that process of comprehension.
It is more than the sum of its parts, more than impulses in the brain stirring air and vibrations in the vocal chords, more than delicate ear bones transferring those vibrations into impulses in another brain, more than any association of sound and picture.
It must be more, else how do words come knife-edged, sometimes, piercing souls with sweetness or sorrow? How can words carry such weight or such lightness, all outside of tone and inflection? How does a Word become flesh and dwell among us, with a visible glory, full of grace and truth?
Mysteries, yes. But, though it is right that you are afraid, come near with unshod feet and give that entirely appropriate answer, “I don’t know.”
This fear, this ignorance, is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7).