Henri Nouwen on a good teacher’s “articulate not-knowing”

Many Christians operate under the premise that humanity is so thoroughly wicked and corrupt that we can’t trust our intuitions about anything. So the only solution to that is to find a “Biblical” teacher who knows the answer to everything and wins every argument. The assumption is that anyone who questions that teacher is part of the devil’s plot to sabotage the teacher’s faithful witness. But my experience with teachers and mentors has been that I seek the opposite of that kind of teacher. Henri Nouwen describes my kind of teacher in the following passage from Reaching Out:

Well-educated ministers are not individuals who can tell you exactly who God is, where good and evil are and how to travel from this world to the next, but people whose articulate not-knowing makes them free to listen to the voice of God in the words of the people, in the events of the day and in the books containing the life experience of men and women from other places and other times. In short, learned ignorance makes one able to receive the word from others and the Other with great attention. [105]

A certain kind of Christian is going to hate this way of talking. It sounds like the “postmodern false humility” that I’ve heard so many evangelicals ridicule. But it’s the pedagogy that has shaped me when I look back on the real people in my life who have made me who I am, like my grandpa, my Young Life leader Phil, my parents, various pastors and mentors. I just don’t have respect for people who think they know everything, even when they’re really smart and most of what they say is right. The more arguments they win, the more I long to see them smacked down and humiliated. I guess in a way, they’re good teachers in spite of themselves, because they motivate me to prove them wrong. But they aren’t teaching me what they want to be teaching me.

The teachers who have truly blessed me have been the ones who have allowed themselves to discover truth alongside me by engaging in an “articulate not-knowing,” basically showing all their cards and allowing me to see their agendas, their doubts, and their struggles, rather than pretending to be purely objective, rational truth-seekers. When I see that my teachers are willing to be human around me, I trust them. When it’s a journey that we’re taking together, I’m willing to set forth.

Teaching is more than just downloading information from one source to another. It’s creating the space for another person to have an epiphany, and it’s not necessarily the same epiphany the teacher has had. What good is it for someone else to be able to parrot out all the right answers if they haven’t had the safety to actually appropriate the truth on their own.

Ideology is basically unappropriated truth. It’s like when you eat certain foods and you see them come out undigested in the toilet. Students only absorb truth when they’re learning from teachers who create the context for epiphanies to happen, as opposed to teachers who cram their own epiphanies down their students’ throats. I hope that I can learn the “articulate not-knowing” that makes it possible for others to learn the different things that God has to say to them when they’re in my company.

7 thoughts on “Henri Nouwen on a good teacher’s “articulate not-knowing”

  1. If a teacher is sincere (Real), I don’t think he or she will overlook the fact that he/she is still a human. The problem often is that some teachers have created a kind of standard of measurements for themselves which make it harder for them to come down from their “highly-esteem-platforms”. We shouldn’t forget that we are not the STANDARD! The only time we could be a stumbling blocks is when we’ve made ourselves the standards for them to follow!!
    I remember speaking to a group of youth, telling them about what Christ did on our behalf, and how I sometimes screw up things (like they also do sometimes). After sharing with them, I asked few of them their understanding or opinion concerning what I taught them… I was very glad I did because, they actually pointed out my errors and the way my message was passed across to them but, more importantly they shared their understandings of what I was teaching them.
    Until those we are leading or teaching see us as we are, we may assumed they understand us and what we are teaching them but in the real sense, silently, their hearts are not agreeing with us.

  2. Well said, Morgan. I love this part: “Teaching is more than just downloading information from one source to another. It’s creating the space for another person to have an epiphany, and it’s not necessarily the same epiphany the teacher has had. What good is it for someone else to be able to parrot out all the right answers if they haven’t had the safety to actually appropriate the truth on their own.” So good.

  3. But if we encourage teachers to open up their doubts and struggles, would it cause new and young believers to have more doubts? Is there a line to be drawn between being spiritually authentic and being a stumbling block?

    • I think the key distinction is when the teacher is doing it for the sake of creating space for the student or because of their own needs. If the teacher is acting out of emotional neediness, then that’s a problem. Nouwen actually addresses that.

    • I think it is okay to let people know that doubt is a normal part of faith. I think it is very difficult to grow in faith without facing and confronting doubt.

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