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The expression “Learned Ignorance” is the title of a philosophico-theological treatise by Nicholas of Cusa, published in 1440. The phrase is not original, as it can be found in the works of Augustine of Hippo one thousand years before, as well as in the writings of the Pseudo-Denis and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. (What, you may well ask, would we do without Wikipedia ?).

Godologians and erudite believers continue to affirm, with Nicholas of Cusa, that rational knowledge must be complemented by “supra-rational” speculation, “docta ignorantia”, considered to be an equally valid source of knowledge. Both rational and supra-rational understanding are needed, they say, to understand God. If you feel that that sounds awfully like making it up as you go along, join the club.

I have met people who dismiss authors whom I might quote (like Joseph Campbell, for instance …), with a sneering “never heard of him”, as though that were something to be proud of or as though their ignorance of my sources destroyed my point.

It sometimes annoys me when an opponent, in a debate or controversial conversation, asks me whether I have read the latest work of some obscure author of whom he is certain I have never heard. This is supposed to embarrass or even silence me. It is what I call aggressive oneupmanship. If I have never heard of the Great Man and his Precious Insights, I am not worth talking to. Some make the mistake of taking the bait, thereby falling into the trap. Others respond to the challenge by riposting with a quotation from an author their opponent has never heard of. I prefer to admit honestly that I am unfamiliar with my opponent’s author or book, but will be happy to hear how his thoughts can advance our dialogue (?) or at least our discussion.

“Learned Ignorance” is meant to be paradoxical, a clever oxymoron, but as an argument for accepting myth as reality and as a dialectical tool in theological discussion, it is in fact pathetic. There is no point in pursuing an exchange when an opponent appeals to the “supra-rational” or when the objective of the jousting is the scoring of points, rather than a rational, civilized search for the truth which alone can make us free.