The Wisdom of Not Knowing

a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth


Wisdom is a key concept in all of the great religions of the world. But often we have better questions than answers. What do we do when we don’t have all the answers?


  1. From, retrieved May 5, 2011: Wisdom is the key thing in Buddhism. In some religions we see that faith is paramount. In still others we see that meditation is supreme, for instance in Yoga. In Buddhism, faith is preliminary, meditation is instrumental. The real heart of Buddhism is wisdom.
  2. From Socrates (470-399 BCE) in The Apology by Plato: This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing anything. On the other hand, I – equally ignorant – do not believe that I know anything.


The folksinger Odetta (Odetta Holmes, 1930-2008) wrote the music to a song many years ago called “Why Oh Why.” Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics:
“Why oh why oh why oh why? Why, why, why? Because, because, because, because. Good night, good night.”

When I was growing up, my teachers were very smart. Until, one day, I asked a question my teacher didn’t know the answer to. It wasn’t a really important question, just something I was curious about. It was something about toenails. And she said she didn’t know the answer! I was really surprised. I thought teachers knew everything. That’s why they’re teachers!

My parents were really smart, too. But I discovered that, as smart as they were, they didn’t know everything, either. I remember asking my Dad, “How can the universe go on forever? Nothing is forever. It has to stop somewhere, doesn’t it? But if it stops, what’s beyond the universe? Is there a brick wall at the end of the universe? And if there is, what’s beyond that? That has to be part of the universe too, doesn’t it?”

Dad was pretty sure that there wasn’t a brick wall at the end of the universe, but, other than that, it turned out that he didn’t know the answer any more than I did.

A daughter asks “Why?” ~

The comedian Louis CK talks about children’s questions. He used to think, “When I have a child I will answer all of their questions.” Well, do you know what? You can’t. It’s impossible. If you’ve ever been a parent, you know that. The child never says, “Oh, thanks. I get it.” They don’t say that! The questions just keep coming, “Why, why, why?”

Louis CK’s daughter asked, “Papa, why can’t we go outside?”
“Well, ’cause it’s raining.”
He searches for an answer. “Well, water’s coming out of the sky.”
“Because it was in a cloud.”
“Well, clouds form … when there’s vapor….”
“I don’t know. I don’t know any … more … things. Those are all the things I know.”
“Well, because I didn’t pay attention in school. I went to school but I didn’t listen in class.”
Now, you know what his daughter’s going to say: “Why?”
And there’s no answer. So eventually the conversation gets really abstract, because at one point he just gives up and says, “Well, because some thing are, and some things are not.”
Now he’s getting really frustrated: “Well, because things that are not, can’t be!”
“Because then nothing wouldn’t be! You can’t have ‘nothing isn’t’. Everything is.”
“Just eat your French fries!”

Parents are relieved when their children get past the “Why?” stage. Because, the truth is, we just can’t answer every question. There are more questions than there are answers.

And so one key concept in wisdom is in admitting what you don’t know. More than two thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

So here are three vocabulary words that the adults probably know, but maybe some of our children haven’t learned yet: theist, atheist, and agnostic. A theist is someone who believes in God. An atheist is someone who believes there is no God. When you put that “a” in front of “theist,” the “a” means “not.” Not a theist. Atheist, all one word – someone who says there is no God.

And then there’s the word “agnostic.” In ancient times there were people called “gnostics.” The gnostics thought they knew some important things, some special knowledge. But if you put an “a” in front of “gnostic,” it means “not gnostic,” or “I don’t know.” So an agnostic says, “I don’t know whether there is a God or not.”

I think it’s fair to say that some people here are theists, some are atheists, and some are agnostics. And it’s okay that we don’t all think the same way.

Long ago, Socrates was an agnostic. He would say that is the beginning of wisdom, admitting that there are things we don’t know. No one can prove that there is a God. And no one can prove that there isn’t a God. It’s not something you can’t test in a science laboratory. We look at the world, and look at how things work, and we learn as much as we can in school and out of school, and we decide what makes sense to us. And sometimes we just have to admit that there are things we don’t know, and might never know. And that’s when we begin to be wise.

Lady Wisdom ~

In the Bible, “wisdom” has a name, and it’s a woman’s name, Sophia. Sophia means wisdom. And in the Book of Proverbs, in the Bible, Sophia, Lady Wisdom, goes out in the streets of the city and tells people, “You simpletons! How much longer will you enjoy being stupid fools? Idiots! Will you never learn?” (Proverbs 1:20-22, using a modern translation).

Now, there’s an attention-getting speech! Unfortunately, as the Book of Proverbs continues it gives us mostly what we might call “conventional wisdom.” For instance, it tells us, “Gray hair is the crown of glory.” Well, those of us who are turning gray might like to hear that. But it goes on, “it is attained by the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31). Well, don’t the unrighteous eventually get gray hair as well? And it tells us, “There is magic on the lips of the king; he cannot err in judgment?” (Prov. 16:10). Really? The king never makes a mistake? Or was the author of Proverbs just trying to please the king?

Some people say the author of Proverbs was King Solomon. If that’s so, maybe he was just trying to please himself.

And Proverbs tells us that God will never let a righteous person go hungry (Prov. 10:3), that the righteous man will never have trouble, but the wicked man will be punished (Prov. 11:8). What? Is that really true?

But if the Book of Proverbs gives us conventional wisdom, another one of the Bible’s “Wisdom Books,” the Book of Ecclesiastes, does better. Ecclesiastes tells us, “Sometimes a good person dies for doing the right thing, and I have seen some criminals live to a ripe old age” (Eccl. 7:15). Now, maybe that’s not very cheerful, but it is certainly more realistic than the Book of Proverbs.

Let the mystery be ~

I’ve often thought that some day, when the time comes, not soon though, I’d like to have this passage from Ecclesiastes read at my funeral service: “Go, eat your bread with gladness, and drink your wine with joy, for your action was long ago approved by God. Dress up, comb your hair, and look your best. Life is short, and you love your spouse, so enjoy being together. Each day is a gift. This is the gift you receive as you struggle through life on this earth. Make the most of each day. You will soon go the the world of the dead, where no one works or thinks or reasons or knows anything. And here is something else I have learned: the race is not always won by the swift, nor the battle by the strong, nor are riches won by the wise, nor grace by the learned. For misfortune comes to us all, and we do not know when our time will be” (Eccl. 9:7-12, again in modern English).

The search process ~

Finally, we face other mysteries today. We thought that, by now, we would have a candidate to be the next minister of this church. Our Search Committee has worked hard this past year. They’ve interviewed many people, narrowed the list down, had the final four preach in neutral pulpits in our area, and they thought they might have a candidate. But in the end, those candidates went to different churches.

Now we are in Round 2 of the Search Process, and the Search committee has a new list of ministers, and they have been interviewing them by telephone and zoom. And we don’t yet know what will happen. For now, while the Search Committee continues their work, it’s okay to let the mystery be.

You probably know by now that I am going to retire whether we have a candidate or not. There have been many ministers of this church since 1733. No minister stays forever, and it’s time for me to retire and go home to Maine and be with Mickey. She has some health issues, and it’s time for us to be living together again as we get older.

If we don’t have a candidate, the Board will find an interim minister for one year, while the search for a settled minister continues.

We have good people on the Board and on the Search Committee. It will work out.
We never know the future for certain. “Why?” asks Louis CK’s daughter. Well, because. We just can’t know everything. And that’s okay. One key part of wisdom is admitting that we don’t always know. Why? Because. Eat your French fries.

Next week we might know a little more. For the time being, we just have to let the mystery be.