One day, some of the old men came to visit Abba Antony. Abba Joseph was among them. Wanting to test them, Abba Antony proposed a text from Scripture and asked them, beginning with the youngest, to explain it. Each one offered his opinion the best that he could. But to each of them, the old man said, “You did not understand it.” Lastly, he turned to Abba Joseph, saying, “How would you explain this saying?” Abba Joseph replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Antony said, “Truly, Abba Joseph has found the way; for he said, ‘I do not know.’”
I recently noticed that we somehow feel that we have to form some kind of an opinion about everything, including disciplines that we might not have much knowledge about. A new type of hidden pressure is at work in us today—the pressure of being omniscient. We somehow have come to believe that we should have an answer for everything. Somehow, we think that we have to answer every question with confidence and assurance, as if we are some form of a human encyclopedia.
Reading the story above should put all of us at ease and relieve us from this pressure. St.
Antony commended Abba Joseph for answering with “I do not know.” Because Abba
|St. Anthony The Great
Joseph was the oldest among the visitors, he did not feel pressured to answer the question. To be able to answer with “I do not know” is commendable for anyone in a situation where one isn’t confident about the answer, especially in spiritual matters. Abba Joseph could have likely formulated some sort of an opinion about the text proposed by Abba Antony, although he probably chose this answer out of humility. Pressured by the felt need to answer, lest we are found to be ignorant about a subject, as if it’s a sin, some would rather form an uneducated and premature answer without any foundation or truth or based on some myth than simply say, “I don’t know.” When faced with questions, laymen, church board members, servants, deacons, and all the hierarchy of the church, especially those who are in educational positions, should consider the Scriptures, the canons of the church, the church fathers’ writings on the subject matter, and, of course, the overall church tradition before answering. No one is supposed to be omniscient; stating opinions without studying the subject matter carefully first could cause great harm to many people as well as confusion and a loss of trust in the speaker and the church.
The Bible clearly warns us from being wise in our own eyes (Prov. 3:7). In the hierarchy of any organization, the higher an individual is, the more careful one ought to be with his/her words. We read in the book of Acts that after the Apostles and the elders of the church met and discussed the issue of circumcision, they came up with an official statement to express what they had collectively agreed upon and how the church would practice it.
It’s evident that we know God through His revelation over time, for God didn’t reveal Himself to us all at once but continues to reveal Himself. The Scriptures tell us that “I have seen the consummation of all perfection, But Your commandment is exceedinglybroad” (Ps. 119:96). God is like the sun, revealing Himself to us every day, and yet is unapproachable in His nature, so we will continue to receive His revelation as He allows us. Our liturgical prayers clearly express our belief that God is transcendent, and as a result, we don’t claim to know everything, so we shouldn’t be quick to give random answers about God that in the end distort His image and the image of the church. We are also faced with a vast number of changes in different scientific disciplines, thus discoveries about man himself and creation as a whole are changing, so forming an Orthodox opinion on any subject matter needs more studying and careful consideration; until then, “I don’t know” might come in very handy.
On the other hand, I also believe that the members of any organization should not expect that any one individual should have the answers to all questions. It is clear from the history and the life of the church that the opinion of one individual is not the opinion of the church at large, but rather it is always the opinion of the synod or the council that affirms the faith and its practices.
Unanswered questions are just an opportunity for further research and study. Unanswered
questions leave room for prayers. Unanswered questions could mean that maybe God wants them to remain unanswered. Let us all be slow to speak and consider all factors before jumping into answers. Let us love knowledge and the spirit of discipleship, let us pray before answering, and let us be willing to say, “I do not know.”