Knowledge – Progressive Christianity


‘We all have knowledge’; yes, that is so, but knowledge gives self-importance – it is love that makes the building grow. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Ken Robinson recounts a story of a small girl totally absorbed in drawing a picture in her primary school lesson. The teacher wandered over and asked her what she was drawing. The girl replied, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God’. The teacher was surprised and said ‘But nobody knows what God looks like. The girl said, ‘They will in a minute’.

Certainty is over-rated. As someone once said, ‘If anyone tells you they have all the answers to everything then run a mile’. The world is full of people promising ‘instant enlightenment’ or writing self-help books on ‘Happiness Now!’ Some claim to have a hotline to God which no one else possesses, or a special insight which no one else has received. Anyone who claims to know it all, probably knows very little. Far better to listen to those who say they are often groping in the dark, who see shades of grey not black and white, who speak in parables and metaphor rather than certainty and dogma.

The letters of a great saint such as Mother Teresa reveal a person often afflicted by doubt, uncertainty and confusion. Faith cannot really exist without uncertainty, otherwise it cannot be called faith. Mother Teresa’s lack of certainty enhances rather than diminishes her work with the poor, and her decision to see the presence of God in the unloved and uncared for. Knowing that our saints are mere mortals with their own demons, rather than superhuman founts of all wisdom, allows us to accept our own limitations and confusion. And the deeper a person goes spiritually the more they are at home with ambiguity and nuance.

The knowledge we acquire from theology textbooks and catechisms is far less important than the truth that our lived experience reveals – our relationships, our setbacks and moments of light, our joy and pain. In the words of Fr Richard Rohr, ‘The only things we know at any deep and real level are the things we have personally experienced’. A faith based only on right beliefs is built on weak foundations – it is right relationships that usher in the kingdom of heaven, or as Paul says that ‘make the building grow’. The role of theology is not to create an intellectually satisfying set of correct beliefs, it is to set out an authentic and compelling vision of the Christian life.

If faith is purely intellectual, based on knowing stuff and believing in things then we have climbed aboard a dangerous boat. As we get older we will encounter arguments that punch holes in this craft of knowledge – there will always be someone cleverer than we are, ready to tell us our arguments are faulty. Like St Peter we need to step out of the boat and just trust – we then stop stressing about having a correct set of beliefs and give control to God. It now becomes less about us, and all about God taking care of us (perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said you have to lose your life in order to gain it).

One of the greatest theologians to have ever lived, St Thomas Aquinas author of the ‘Summa Theologica’, had a mystical experience towards the end of his life whilst saying mass. After this he stopped all his writing, saying ‘Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me’.

The anonymous 14th century author of the spiritual classic, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ (probably a Carthusian monk from Nottingham), wrote that, ‘All these images and thoughts and ideas and doctrines about God are really good, but we all know that the infinite God can never be limited to any image, thought or idea.’

My friend, a committed atheist, delights in telling me that he doesn’t believe in ‘an old man with a grey beard sitting on a cloud in the sky peering down at his creation.’ I annoy him by replying that, ‘I also don’t believe in the God that you don’t believe in!’ God cannot be pinned down.  He does not belong to anyone, he is not located in any one place. He is not found only in one religion, one church or one way of thinking. Whenever we try and put ‘his ways’ into words (or draw him!) or attempt to grasp the depth of his love for us, our human ways of thinking fail us. Try defining ‘infinity’ for example… it’s impossible! A student once told me, ‘I can’t get my head round God’, and I could see where he was coming from. Certainty is the enemy of faith. If you are certain, then by definition, you have no need of faith.

In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa criticised those who thought that Christianity consisted solely in ‘doctrinal precision’. Faith is not an intellectual assent to a series of doctrines – it is becoming aware that God is close at hand, by our side and on our side. The faith we have is faith in God, not a set of religious beliefs.

It’s fine not to know everything. It’s OK not to be a know-all. Far from limiting a person, this outlook enables us to become more comfortable with ourselves, less anxious and more tolerant of difference.

God is both so far beyond our human understanding and yet at the same time closer to us than we can ever imagine. The One who made fathomless galaxies and billions of stars has numbered every hair on our head. We don’t need to pretend to know everything, we just need to know one thing – God is closer than we think.


Paul Higginson is a retired Religious Education and Politics teacher and author of Doing Christianity: How religion is about what you do, not what you believe. Before teaching, he worked in a halfway house for people living with schizophrenia and later spent time working with St. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. He now works part-time as a Schools Inspector. Married with three children he lives in Hertfordshire, UK.

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