Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An Introduction to Ignorance

"Shadows and Sunshine"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House- 

Yesterday I had a great conversation with my doctor about how little medical professionals actually know about medicine. We often go to a doctor because we are are sure that they have all the answers and can fix anything that is broken (sometimes they act like they do); and yet the field of medicine barely understands the vast intricacies of the evolving human body and what serves as a cure for one person may have no effect on another.

In our conversation yesterday I told my physician about an article I came across a little while ago in the New York Times. It was a story about a new trend in medical schools – along with courses in anatomy and biology, many schools are also now attempting to teach prospective doctors about the value of uncertainty in their profession.

This trend started about 30 years ago when a professor at the University of Arizona introduced a course called “An Introduction to Ignorance,” a mandatory course for all incoming med students. The idea of the course was to help students realize that, while they may think they are in school to learn all there is to know about how the body works, the opposite is probably true. Medicine, like all scientific knowledge is quite limited and filled with more questions than answers.  When you learn to embrace and value uncertainty you see these questions not as roadblocks but as doorways to further exploration. 

The article in the  New York Times reported that in recent years, courses like this have become staples in almost every medical school in the country as well as part of a core curriculum for many other institutions of higher leaning where science is taught.

In his recent book about "uncertainty" in the sciences, Columbia Professor Stuart Firestein suggests that scientific discovery is not the neat and linear process many people imagine; instead it always involves:

..feeling around in dark rooms,
bumping into unidentifiable things,
looking for barely perceptible phantoms.

I actually love this description of the nature of scientific inquiry as “feeling around in dark rooms.” While it provides a wonderfully refreshing understanding about scientific endeavors, it is perhaps an even more apt description of theological study and the spiritual quest.

It seems somewhat odd to me that while scientists today admit that they actually know very little about how the world works and embrace the mystery of it all, many religious people have sort of “hunkered down,” clinging to their sure and certain answers about who God is and what God expects.

And yet, “God” is the ultimate mystery. In fact there is nothing about “God” that can ever be figured out, never any clear-cut, immutable answers.  “God” is the mysterious transcendence that cannot even be named let alone known or defined.

Personally I think every seminary and school of religion in the country should follow the example of the various schools of medicine and science and teach all their incoming students a course about embracing uncertainty - “An Introduction to Ignorance:101”

Many centuries ago, St. John of the Cross described the spiritual quest in this way:

If a person wants to be sure of the road he treads on,
he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.

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