Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Owning the Confused?: Augustine on Not Knowing

In response to the question, “What was God doing before he created the universe?,” one frequently encounters the claim that Augustine said, “He was preparing hell for those who ask such questions.” In other words, Augustine was owning the confused.

But Augustine had more sense than to use such a strategy avant la Twittre. And so he didn’t actually say this. He notes that other people said this, but his own answer is much more indicative of his posture toward things that are high, deep, mysterious, or otherwise hard to understand. The relevant passage is in Confessions 11.14. There, Augustine says:

So here’s how I answer someone saying, “What was God doing before he made the sky and the earth?” I don’t answer the way a certain person is reported to have done, by dodging this aggressive question with a joke: “He was preparing hell for deep probers like you.” (tr. Sarah Ruden)

Augustine refuses to answer with such a non-answer, considering it a “dodge.” He goes on:

A potshot is what insight is not. That’s why I don’t give that answer, but would prefer this one: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” That’s better than saying what results in laughter at somebody asking a deep question, and praise of somebody giving an answer that isn’t true.

“I don’t know what I don’t know”–both a twist on the Socratic “I know only that I don’t know” and a reminder that this not only can be an appropriate response to difficult questions, but often is. Christians often want ANSWERS!!! to everything, and are willing to submit their judgment to people or institutions who promise give them, even on topics on which said people or institutions cannot possibly “know” what they claim to be true. Such a move–an alleviation of responsibility–may provide temporary relief, but only a counterfeit one. In the end, one can’t do an end-run around the task of understanding that belongs to each person.

It’s ok to say, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” At the very least, it gives someone a place from which to begin without disowning his duty to take proprietorship over his own inquiry.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.