i vividly remember being rendered undone by mike yaconelli’s suggestion (“messy spirituality” – page 47-53) that we (the church) relinquish our position on the mountain of apologetic, and embrace our ignorance. yaconelli writes, “‘i don’t know’ is often the only reply we can give to explain the mystery of Christ.”
this week, i was reminded of yaconelli’s winsome theology when i read an article on cnn.com: “i don’t know, so i’m an atheist libertarian” by penn gillette. please indulge me while i share several excerpts from that piece, along with a few thoughts of mine.
I try to claim that I was friends with the genius Richard Feynman. He came to our show a few times and was very complimentary, and I had dinner with him a couple times, and we chatted on the phone several times. I’d call him to get quick tutoring on physics so I could pretend to read his books.
No matter how much I want to brag, it’s overstating it to call him a friend. I would never have called him to help me move a couch. I did, however, call him once to ask how we could score some liquid nitrogen for a Letterman spot we wanted to do. He was the only physicist I knew at the time. He explained patiently that he didn’t know. He was a theoretical physicist and I needed a hands-on guy, but he’d try to find one for me.
About a half-hour later a physics teacher from a community college in Brooklyn called me and said, “I don’t know what kind of practical joke this is, but a Nobel Prize-winning scientist just called me here at the community college, gave me this number, and told me to call Penn of Penn & Teller to help with a Letterman appearance.”
I guess that’s close to a friend.
My friend Richard Feynman said, “I don’t know.” I heard him say it several times. He said it just like Harold, the mentally handicapped dishwasher I worked with when I was a young man making minimum wage at Famous Bill’s Restaurant in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
“I don’t know” is not an apology. There’s no shame. It’s a simple statement of fact. When Richard Feynman didn’t know, he often worked harder than anyone else to find out, but while he didn’t know, he said, “I don’t know.”
I like to think I fit in somewhere between my friends Harold and Richard. I don’t know. I try to remember to say “I don’t know” just the way they both did, as a simple statement of fact. It doesn’t always work, but I try.
Last week I was interviewed for Piers Morgan’s show (which used to be Larry King’s show). Piers beat me up a bit for being an atheist (that’s his job) and then beat me up a bit for being a libertarian (also his job). He did this by asking me impossible questions, questions that none of us, Harold, Richard, me, (or Piers), could ever answer.
He started with “How did you get here?” and I started talking about my road to showbiz and atheism and he interrupted and said he meant how the universe was created. I said, “I don’t know.”
He said, “God,” an answer that meant Piers didn’t know either, but he had a word for it that was supposed to make me feel left out of his enlightened club.
Then he asked me what we could do to help poor people. I said I donated money, food, medical care, and services and he said, “No,” he meant, what could society do to solve the problem of poor people. Again, I was stumped.
He said the government had to do it, which I interpreted as another way of saying he didn’t know, but he thought that made me look mean … even though I do care and do try to help.
How did we get here and how do we save everyone? I don’t know, but I’m doing the best I can. Sorry Piers, that’s all I got.
i really like penn gillette. he seems to have a generous heart and an open mind, and i would love to have a cup of coffee with him. i watched part of the televised exchange between penn gillette and piers morgan, and i sympathized with gillette. morgan kept pressing gillette about his beliefs and penn gillette kept saying, “i don’t know.” when gillette asked piers morgan to defend his beliefs about god, morgan said, “god is real, but he is beyond human comprehension.” gillette countered by saying, “we’re saying the same thing! to me it’s ‘i don’t know’ and to you it’s ‘beyond comprehension.’.”
why is it that we (christians) get shrill when we are challenged by someone who questions the idea of faith?
in messy spirituality, yaconelli argues that the pharisees are the ones who have everything figured out…to their ultimate detriment. in john 9, jesus healed a blind man. the religious experts snatched up the blind man, and questioned him about his experience. when jesus couldn’t be pressed into their preconceptions, they insisted he was a sinner. the pharisees demanded of the blind man, “give glory to god…we know this man is a sinner.” the blind man responded, “whether he is a sinner or not, i don’t know. one thing i do know. i was blind but now i see!”
we need to get a lot more comfortable with “i don’t know.” we might eventually be able to engage people like penn gillette.
by the way, if you have a moment you will enjoy reading penn gillette’s entire article here.