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Pruning Time, part 5: The Way of Ignorance

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Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility and error. . . Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood.  Creatures who have armed themselves with the power of limitless destruction should not be following any way laid out by their limited knowledge and their unseemly pride in it. – Wendell Berry, The Way of Ignorance

Our customary patterns of knowing cannot begin to comprehend all that is God. — Sandra Cronk, Dark Night Journey

Some of us have entered an alternative way of life because we distrust the wider culture’s excessive confidence and limited knowledge. Perhaps we’re concerned about the gap between our great ability to change the natural world in order to get more of what we want, and our limited ability to understand and deal with the consequences of those changes. Perhaps we were uneasy in an electronic culture that allowed us to broadcast our opinions to and club together with like-minded people all over the world, while distracting us from building relationships with our actual neighbors.

Small-scale subsistence work and local community-building can help to keep us humble, open-minded and aware of our ignorance.  In small farming, building and crafting our mistakes and their consequences tend to be very visible, as well as our good work and its produce. When we live and work closely with other people for the long term they’re likely to see our flaws as well as our graces very clearly, and to let us know about them.

Unfortunately we don’t lose our hubris when we step back from the consumer culture.  We can get attached to our own familiar ways of doing things and dismiss people who disagree with us. But the natural world and the human world are too intricate for us to fully comprehend. People who disagree with us, even people who are wrong about many things, may know a  part of the truth that we’ve missed.  Good work requires us to remember our ignorance and stay open to criticism and suggestions. We can become self-righteous as we try to live an alternative; we can club together with people who agree with us and dismiss others as ungodly. But God is unfathomably larger than our conceptions, and faithfulness to God requires us to remember our own ignorance so that we can hear and follow God’s guidance, given directly or given through other people, whether or not it fits our cherished ideas.

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