Knowledge Problems and Necessary Virtues
by George P. Wood
In a February 12, 2002, press conference, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the following statement: “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.”1
Rumsfeld was answering a question about the apparent lack of evidence connecting Saddam Hussein’s government and terrorist organizations seeking weapons of mass destruction. But his remark applies to the knowledge problems leaders face in any organization, including the church. And they suggest certain virtues that all leaders, including ministers, need to develop.
Start with Rumsfeld’s first two categories: known knowns and known unknowns. The older I get, the more I realize how ignorant I am in most areas but how knowledgeable I am in a few. Career specialization is the reason for this lopsided ratio of ignorance and knowledge. I have been a vocational minister for half of my life and all but 2 years of my professional career. Consequently, I have the knowledge base and skill set necessary for vocational ministry. Had I chosen or been called to a different profession when I was 21, no doubt I would have a very different knowledge base and skill set.
When you know what you know and do not know, it helps you develop appropriate virtues. In the case of known knowns, confidence, and in the case of known unknowns, teachability. In 2007, I transitioned from associate pastor at a megachurch to senior pastor of a turnaround church. I was not afraid of the new task of preaching weekly because my previous ministry experience had prepared me for it. I approached the pulpit with confidence. But I had never led a board meeting or annual business meeting, never been responsible for formulating the entire budget for the church (as opposed to my department’s budget), and never done a thousand other things that senior pastors routinely do. I was unconfident, but I was teachable. And I benefited from mentors both inside and outside the church who were willing to share their knowledge and skills with me. Had I approached my known unknowns with confidence, rather than teachability, the growth of the church would have been stifled by my ignorance (and pride).
The real problem in ministry — or leadership generally — is how we respond to unknown unknowns. Consider the Early Church. It was entirely Jewish. Then Jesus Christ poured out the Holy Spirit on Gentile God-fearers without their being circumcised, keeping kosher, or observing Sabbath. The Early Church did not know how to respond to this novel situation, which they had not even imagined would happen.
When you experience unknown unknowns, two extreme responses are common: resistance and ditching. In the Early Church, Judaizers resisted the law-free gospel and clung to the necessity of the ceremonial law, while antinomians went to the opposite extreme and ditched the moral law along with the ceremonial one. The proper response, as articulated by Paul? Flexibility. Paul flexed with the new wind of the Spirit blowing among the Gentiles without being uprooted from Scripture’s foundational “law of love.” In the crazy, rapidly changing times in which we live, ministers similarly need to know what can change and what must remain the same.
To Rumsfeld’s three knowledge problems, philosopher Slavoj Žižek adds a fourth — unknown knowns,2 “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.” Žižek was writing about what happened at Abu Ghraib.
Sometimes we ministers overlook and even justify sin in our churches. We do not confront the abusive dad because he is chairman of the board. We give the gossipy woman a pass because she does so much for missions. We take out loans for building campaigns but do not have money in our benevolence accounts. Repentance is the only appropriate response, and we ministers should lead the way.
Confidence when we know what we know. Teachability when we know what we do not know. Flexibility when we experience unknown unknowns. And repentance in the face of unknown knowns. These are the knowledge problems we ministers face, and the virtues we need to develop.
1. http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=2636. Accessed 18 January 2012.
2. http://www.lacan.com/zizekrumsfeld.htm. Accessed 18 January 2012.