As churches and denominations, we tend to spend quite a bit of time writing down, debating, defining, and then re-defining what we say we believe. In our faith community, our core statement of doctrine is the “28 Fundamental Beliefs.” But for such a large number of “fundamentals,” it is surprising how much of what is core to our faith and faithful living is mentioned only briefly or even not at all.
And then there are all the things we actively disbelieve. A few years ago, one of my assigned textbooks for a class in systematic theology was a book that set out to define Christian faith by what we do not believe about life, God and faith. It’s an interesting approach and there is some value in clearing away some of our misnomers and assumptions—and stating those things explicitly—but at 400 pages, it is not such a snappy way of describing or sharing what we believe or a guiding framework for what it means to live well.
But for all we specify about what we do believe and what we don’t—after all, we do spend a bit of time in some parts of our faith community critiquing the different beliefs of others—perhaps our most defining attitude is what we do with uncertainty, the things we don’t know. In “an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”
Informed and good thinking, determination and a sense of assurance are valuable to a credible faith, but what we do with what we don’t know might be more important for sustainable faith and what our faith might offer to others. As 1 Peter 3:15 put it, we might be ready to explain our faith, but verse 16 counsels that this must be done “in a gentle and respectful way.”This calls for something more than a well delineated list of what we do—or don’t—believe. It is a call to live and believe with humility, courage and curiosity.
In a personal letter, C S Lewis—writer, Christian apologist and long-time tutor at Oxford University—summed up this important goal of his teaching: “One of my main efforts as a teacher has been to train people to say those (apparently difficult) words ‘we don’t know.’” Those “apparently difficult” words don’t come easily to any of us—and perhaps even less easily to people of faith, those who feel like they ought to have the answers.
But to admit “I don’t know” is an important spiritual discipline that we need to practice, precisely because it does not come easily. “Yes, we know that ‘we all have knowledge’ about this issue,” wrote Paul to people who did know how to answer the specific question. “But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much” (1 Corinthians 8:1, 2).
Humility is not trying to doubt things we know and firmly believe, but it is to honestly admit when we don’t and that there is often some margin between. If we can simply answer that we don’t know, we are relieved of the burden of knowing the answers and respecting the person whom we might otherwise be trying to convince of something we, ourselves, are not certain about.
It takes courage to admit that “all that I know now is partial and incomplete” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and then to seek to live well, as if our lives depended on it—because they do. But whatever we believe, most of us still must get out of bed tomorrow morning and make countless choices throughout the day, some of which might seem inconsequential but many that might cost us something and all of which will compound into a much larger life trajectory. All of which is decided with incomplete knowledge, human inconsistencies, and growing fatigue.
Yet so many of us keep doing it. If we were truly certain about everything, life would require little courage. But we keep showing up, even when it might not make sense. We courageously do things we don’t have to do and when we can never be sure of their outcome. We are brave when we are kind and still more courageous when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
What we don’t know and what we don’t understand are also an invitation to curiosity. Honest humility about our incomplete knowledge is not a cause for shame, but an opportunity for wonder. There will always be more for us to learn, create, discover, and grow. Curiosity should be a practice of our faith—in a God who made us and our world, in our recognition that the world is not what it was intended to be, in our hope for a world that will be redeemed and re-created.
By its beauty and its tragedy, by its wonder and its brokenness, our world is riddled with questions, urgencies, and possibilities. “They are an invitation to engage in an apologetic that is more concerned with ‘gentleness and respect’ than merely ‘giving an answer.’ They are an indication that Christian apologetics must shift its approach from having all the answers, to being present in the questions.” One of the greatest gifts we can give—to our world, to others—is our curiosity and attention.
We live on fertile ground for humility, courage, and holy curiosity. What we don’t know or struggle to understand offers us the space to be most human and most faithful. More than further refining or adding to our doctrinal statements, whatever we might be for or against, our faith must be shaped by our listening and living. And the invitation we can most usefully offer to others is to join in with this incomplete project of humbly and courageously learning, discovering, and working together. What we do with what we don’t know is what makes our faith most real.
Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. His Christmas devotional book Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth is great for seasonal reading and gifting. Email him at: [email protected]
 Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (2nd edition, T & T Clark, 2009).
 Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (Crown, 2016).
 Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.
 “To Father Peter Milward, September 26, 1960,” Letters of C S Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1993).
 Daniel Montañez, “From Truth to Trust: Reimagining the Future of Christian Apologetics,” The Anxious Bench, <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2022/08/from-truth-to-trust-reimagining-the-future-of-christian-apologetics>.