The Importance of Being Ignorant


I remember a talk given by Fr. Thomas Hopko last year in Dallas. In the course of some side remarks, he said that his son, Fr. John Hopko, had been asked what his dad was doing now that he was retired and no longer Dean of St. Vladimir’s. As reported by Fr. Tom, young Fr. Hopko said, “He’s going around the country talking to whomever will listen and telling them to remember that it’s really all about God.”

I liked the statement then and I like it now. It is all too easy to become occupied with one or another part of our life in the Church and without intention, discover that we’ve forgotten God. I think this happens all the time. Any other activity will do – even theology (or writing a blog). It is in light of such forgetfulness that I think it is important to remember that we are ignorant (of God) and that knowing God is really what everything is about. If we do not know God – then we know almost nothing.

Several years ago I had lunch with a friend and his son. His son was newly graduated from Law School – which has to be something like newly graduated from seminary. I was wearing my cassock, thus my identity as priest was obvious. My friend and his son were Roman Catholic. I can only assume that his son was a somewhat “progressive” Roman Catholic based on the conversation we had.

His first statement to me following introductions was: “Why doesn’t your Church ordain women to the priesthood?”

I was certainly caught off guard. It’s not that the question surprises me – it just surprises me when it’s the first thing someone asks me. I think my answer caught him off guard.

“You don’t know God,” I said. “Your question is actually a very deep question but I can’t begin to answer it if you don’t know God. If you want to know God, then we can talk about that.”

The conversation stopped shortly thereafter. He made no defense of himself (to his credit). I’m not sure why I said what I said (and I bore no animosity in saying it). But as I searched my heart for a proper answer, I realized that everything I wanted to say presumed a knowledge that I did not think the young man had (not book knowledge – but true knowledge of God). I still think this is required for a proper answer to that question.

Indeed, true knowledge of God, which we have in such little measure, is required before all things. Every other spiritual conversation must flow from that knowledge or it is a waste of breath. Orthodox theology utterly requires such experiential knowledge (this is pretty much the entire point of St. Gregory Palamas).

Not only does every conversation require this knowledge – our own salvation itself requires, even consists of this knowledge (John 17:3). Thus the importance of being ignorant. We cannot know what we need to know until we know and confess what we don’t know. And we will not know what we must know until we pursue it (Him) with all our heart.

God save us from all forms of false theology (which is every form of theology that is pursued apart from the knowledge of God, whether by Orthodox Christian, or his Pagan Counterpart).

The recognition of such ignorance should drive us to prayer – to every action the Church has given us with which to pursue such knowledge. It may even drive us to silence.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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19 responses to “The Importance of Being Ignorant”

  1. John Hogg Avatar

    Father, bless!

    I know this might be slightly unusual, but could you please either post a link or repost a post I just made on my blog onto your blog?

    I’m a recently (as of yesterday) returned missionary of the Church to a Ukrainian orphanage, and I’m really trying to find a home for a little one-year-old orphan boy.

    His name is Vladik, and he is our brother in Christ, and communes from the same Chalice as we do, and I just can’t bear the thought of him staying where he’s at.

    Thank you, Father, and thank you for all the joy that your posts brought to me during my time at the orphanage.

    In Christ,

  2. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, for little Vladik’s post, I pray he finds a good family and for “the importance of being ignorant.”

  3. Wei Hsien Avatar

    Father, bless.

    On Peter Gilbert’s blog, De Unione Ecclesiarum (, is posted these words of the Patriarch John (Bekkos) of Constantinople (1275-1282), which I think is related to the importance of being ignorant:

    “It would have been truly a blessing if the preaching of the Gospel had forever shone brilliantly in Christ’s Church in all its unspeculative simplicity. It would have been genuinely salvific if the seal imprinted by the invocation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit upon those undergoing regeneration through baptism had been seen by all as the one and only seal of godliness. But…unspeculative simplicity of faith now appears as stupidity to our theological connoisseurs and religious intelligentsia, and those who know no more than their confession of faith in the Holy Trinity are scarcely counted as belonging to our religion, while, on the other hand, variety and hyper-speculation in doctrinal matters are considered a form of wisdom and of nearness to God, perished is the blessedness of simplicity of faith, perished is the common salvation which was expected to be enjoyed once and for all by all who are imprinted with the seal of baptism; for theological divergence over the Trinity, united above all reason, and theoretical variety over the Unity, ineffably made Three, have splintered the Christian people into competing denominations….”

    Your son,

  4. Tweety Avatar

    I’m Roman Catholic and very conservative, so after reading this post the one thing that jumped out at me is the young man’s question on ordination of women, which I think would be a highly destructive adulteration of the Faith.

    On knowing God, I don’t think it’s possible to know God completely. If it was possible, then religion would be useless.The Mysteries of Faith? Some things we aren’t meant to know, just to love God and have faith in the teachings of the Church.

  5. andyfox1979 Avatar

    father, it seemed like you were a little rude to that guy and avoided his question. If there is a good reason why women cannot be priests you should tell him what it is. If it is a rule of the roman catholic church and not something written in the bible, maybe tell him that.

    Good blog.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Andy, I agree it may have been a little rude. But I meant it sincerely. There are good reasons (we have never ordained them to the priesthood in the Orthodox Church either), but I meant that the answer is quite deep and can only be understood if you truly know God. I believe it is written in the Scripture in the Tradition and into the very nature of the mystery of who we are. But still I can only begin to speak of that and make sense if you know God.


    Forgive me but you are wrong – and perhaps wrong in a Roman Catholic direction. I did not say we know God completely, exhaustively, but the mysteries are not a substitute for knowing God, but a means of knowing God. If the teachings of the Church are not echoed in the depths of our heart as true then there is a problem.

  7. Isaac Crabtree Avatar

    Excellent post. I wonder if Wei realizes that John Bekkos is considered a thrice-wretched heresiarch, whose compromises with the Latins was greatly condemned. Simplicity is one thing, and compromise with darkness is another. I will prefer the simplicity of St. Mark of Ephesus over Bekkos any day.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    Indeed you’re right. But it was still a nice quote.

  9. Wei Hsien Avatar


    Yes, I had suspected that Bekkos might not be very popular, given the way the attempts at union turned out. Still, as a Russian Byzantine Catholic longing for the reconciliation of East and West, I am interested in his project of trying to hold it together somehow (rightly or wrongly, I do not know enough to say).

    If it is really the truth that we seek–and I think the love of Truth must be at the heart of any possible reunion–then perhaps we ought to be willing to consider the truth of a thing whether it is said by a “heresiarch” or St. Mark of Ephesus. Certainly, there can be truth even in the mouths of those whom we might consider to be the worst of men?

    Your brother,

  10. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. However, reunion must not begin with the military conquering of the Orthodox capital and the violent installation of a Roman cleric in place of the Patriarch. The fact that Rome even tolerated such a thing makes them a little suspect to the Orthodox to this day.

  11. Wei Hsien Avatar

    Father, bless.

    In the spirit of St. Silouan, forgive me, Father. In some circles, there is not only the “tolerance” of the sack of Constantinople, but more tragically, a triumphalistic glorification of it. For this and other sins, I ask your forgiveness and the Lord’s. May it please God, in His own way, to bring about the unity which comes from Him alone.

    Your son,

  12. Jasmine Avatar

    from your last paragraph: “The recognition of such ignorance should drive us to prayer – to every action the Church has given us with which to pursue such knowledge. It may even drive us to silence.”

    How does such a thing drive us to silence?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    The recognition of my ignorance can drive me to silence because I know I need to listen more than I speak. How else can an ignorant man learn?

  14. Justin Avatar

    Agreed with fatherstephen. It is when we learn to cease striving, be still, and wait on the Lord that we learn to find rest in Him. It is in this place where we calm and quiet our souls that we can really begin to hear what He has to say, because we have actually stopped to listen. When we quiet our souls, it brings us peace in Christ as well.

    There are many calls in the Scriptures to do this as well but here are a few if you are interested:

    -Psalm 27:14, Psalm 37:7, Psalm 40:1

    Also, in 1 Kings 19 the prophet Elijah flees after being threatened by Jezebel and the Lord tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain. When he does the Lord sends a great wind, an earthquake, and fire but the Lord is not in any of these. The Lord actually chooses to speak to Elijah through a gentle voice in the silence!

    I hope this helps somewhat. God bless you sister.


  15. Jasmine Avatar

    Father, bless

    Thank you for explaining that to me, I really appreciate it. I understand it a lot better now.

  16. Christopher Avatar

    While the quote from Bekkos has some truth in it, it seems to go a little far in both the direction of “simplicity” and the blame of all “denominationalism” on “speculation”. It is no wonder Bekkos error in the direction he did, as I have found most who over elevate the “scandal” of Christian disunity are prone to be attracted to the quick fix – as in “It’s all One Big Misunderstanding”. I have found the “Byzantine Catholics” or “Eastern Rite Catholics” or whatever the PC name is now to be on the edge of this. The contradiction in their very existence (i.e. “Orthodox” AND “in union with Rome”) is no doubt a tension they dislike. They have chose it however…

  17. Wei Hsien Avatar


    In its larger context, I think, Patriarch John Bekkos was addressing a particular issue: the Photian schism (though I’m not sure). Now, whether or not one agrees with his analysis of the matter, I don’t think we can generalize his words to mean that ALL doctrinal differences are speculative and inconsequential. I don’t think he would have said that, for example, regarding the iconoclast controversy.

    I agree with you that there is a present-day tendency to dumb down doctrinal differences between the Churches, but I also think that we need to talk about these differences carefully. Sometimes we use different words to express ideas and emphasize different aspects of those ideas, but this need not mean that we are taking mutually exclusive positions–though that could certainly be the case. I think that, as Christians, we just need to be very careful about these discussions, because our unity is at stake–the unity which is in fact a truth of the Church and constitutes our very witness witness to Christ’s presence in the world.

    Your brother,

  18. Wei Hsien Avatar


    In the quotation above, I believe Bekkos was speaking about a particular historical issue (the Photian schism), and it would not be fair to generalize his words to mean that all dispute of doctrine are speculative or inconsequential. (Whether or not one agrees with his assessment of Photius is another matter.) I don’t think Bekkos would have dismissed the iconoclast controversy as “one big misunderstanding”, for example.

    I agree that there is a modern tendency to downplay differences in belief. I do think, though, that it is important to be very careful about these differences. Just because we use different words to express our ideas, and emphasize different aspects of a particular issue, this does not mean that the differences are irreconcilable or mutually opposed positions–although that can certainly be the case. (Human language, after all, is both fluid and fragile.) The unity of Christians is constitutive to our witness to the presence of Christ in the world, and as such is a truth of the Christian faith. If we are going to break communion (or remain in non-communion) over something, then we have to make sure that (1) we are taking mutually exclusive positions, and (2) it is worth it the scandal it will cause. That’s all.

    Your brother,

  19. susan george Avatar


    I live in India and am a member of the Indian Orthodox Church. I am 52 years old.
    Do we have an Orthodox Bible, as I am unable to reconcile between the many Bibles (Catholic, NKJV, Living Bible etc.)

    When I read some passages in the Gospels, I put myself in the position of the person around Jesus. Then, the question He asks, I try to seek an answer in relation to myself.” Who do you say I am? Why do you call me Good? Come and see! “etc. Do you think this is a bad thing- a kind of Pentecostal belief?

    I do admit that I really liked some of the writings of James S Stewart. i.e “King for ever” which I read. (He was a Presbyter) As a child and through my youth, my pin up was a picture of Jesus whom I always thought of as present, and ready to hear my joys and woes. Perhaps I have been wrong and perhaps this is not the right way. I was not born Orthodox.

    How should I approach Jesus? How should I approach the Bible? I try to be silent when I am confused and think of God as Spirit within, and listen.
    The time I thought I heard an insistent but silent voice behind the chatter of my mind, I was really not listening or expecting anything.

    I believe that each person sees Jesus in the light of his own experience and understands the Bible according to his own experience and perceptions.
    Should we learn hermeneutics and approach the Gospels scientifically? Then everyone will have the same faith and there will be just one meaning to each verse in the Bible. The there would not have been differences between protestants and catholics and orthodox
    I am confused.

    Thank you father

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