Unknown Unknowns

Don Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and CEO of a few corporations, was a fountain of aphorisms. He collected some of them in a book called Rumsfeld’s Rules. Without commenting on the ego it takes to essentially cast yourself as Solomon, the rules can capture snippets of wisdom – sometimes true and others just conventional. One of the aphorisms Sec. Rumsfeld used to use is best captured in a two by two.

Known Knowns = Data/Facts
Unknown Knowns = Deep assumptions that happen to be true
Known Unknowns = The questions that you are consciously aware of
Unknown Unknowns = Oh Sh*t, or things that you might have in the first category falsely

Part of the homespun wisdom constantly refining that last category: by good questions moving unknown unknowns into known unknowns, by identifying assumptions and making unknown unknowns into unknown knowns, and by confirming what you believe are facts.

This pops into my mind typically when I am forced to pay attention to that last refinement, the checking of facts. This happens for me in two big situations: first when reading accounts of arguments between long vanished “sides” and second when reading stridently LCMS writers. Jesus interacting with Pharisees and Sadducees is an example of the first, or reading Bultmann. You know that these conflicts or personages were deeply important – the Red vs. Blue of the day – but you struggle sometimes to see what the conflict was about. With Jesus it is usually easier because the gospel writers usually tell you like “the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection (Luke 20:27)”. But with Bultmann, who is perfectly capable of preaching the gospel and has deep exegetical insight, all of sudden he throws out a line like “The mythical eschatology is untenable for the simple reason that the parousia of Christ never took place as the New Testament expected.” And hence launches his entire program of “demythologization” which seeks to save the Christ of faith from the Christ of myth and the Christ of history. Without rehashing the entire early 20th century, one is tempted to say, “um, well, not that big a deal, some of our unknown knowns turned out to be a little too unknown and we need to refine them or make them more conscious, not throw out the entire New Testament”. But throwing out the New Testament is what many did and we live with that action today. Given Bultmann’s intelligence and general level-ness elsewhere, there must have been something more earth shaking. Likewise I get queasy when I read some of the the pious exactitude of fellow LCMS’ers. Not that I think they are wrong, but their approach to theology, like Bultmann’s certainty that the New Testament had to be completely sifted, puts me in mind of unknown unknowns. I start asking questions like which doctrine or teaching that I currently would assent to is most likely to be wrong?

Let me just say I’m not talking about anything that gets close to a creed or anything that would be included in “mere orthodoxy”. I’m talking more about differences between major trunks of the church. Today, serious Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans and Catholics can all look at each other and acknowledge separated brethren. That listing is more or less on a sacramental scale. Somewhere between the m and the e of Reformed you cross over to Christ being real in the sacrament from it just being a nice memorial meal. You could list them Baptist, Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran and Calvinist (splitting the Reformed) and that would roughly be the spectrum of teaching in regards to election and free will with the split coming somewhere between the h and the e of Lutheran. And you could continue this exercise say with ecclesiology: Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, Catholic. This takes some explaining. Lutherans have no official doctrine of church politics. Some of us are congregational while others have archbishops. Moving along that spectrum the more sure each tradition is of its ecclesiology. Notice that none of those things actually touch the apostle’s creed yet they separate us.

So, if you were asking me where am I most likely wrong – I’d answer somewhere in my ecclesiology. For 500 years post the reformation we have elevated all kinds of doctrines over church unity. The older I get, or the more thought I put into it, the less reason I come to for separation beyond the historic creeds. Does that mean these things are unimportant? No. What it means is that I’m more inclined to put the best construction on people’s beliefs. My fellow strident LCMS’ers would say that difference in these things would betray a difference in the gospel. I’d say that we see through a glass darkly. I’d also add that there are ways to be less wrong, ways that we can refine our unknown unknowns. Cutting off the sacramental presence of Christ is a greater wrong. You are breathing with one lung. But you are still breathing. And we can still confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We could still confess that the Holy Spirit spoke by the Prophets and Christ rose according to the Scriptures. We could still confess the basis of our unity – Jesus Christ is Lord. Call me a less wrong theologian, part of a pilgrim band all on the road to being much less wrong when Christ returns and in a twinkle of an eye there are no more unknowns. (That’s assuming my justification by grace in the blood of Christ received by faith is a known known – which it is. I have a sure hope.)