Jamie Holmes’ Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing is a fascinating and counterintuitive analysis of the hidden upside of confusion. His rangy argument spans case studies in business, medicine and hostage negotiation to make a central claim: that an inordinately high need for decisiveness or closure can be costly or even dangerous. The willingness to embrace “not knowing,” ambiguity and resistance to our first answer is the key to making satisfying decisions. If Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (another book I loved) argues for rapid, instinctive decisiveness, Nolan counters with a case for living with the discomfort of enough confusion to let nuance color and shade where we land.
In some ways, Holmes’ claim is a highly postmodern argument — that there are multiple, legitimate truths in any situation, and that cultivating the willingness to tolerate the (sometimes competitive) diversity of perspectives is the great pathway forward. I’m not buying that epistemology lock-stock-and-barrel. But Nonsense could certainly make a contribution to how evangelical centrists view faith and culture.
Rarely has our culture been more decisively polarized (see Trump, Donald and Sanders, Bernie), and yet simultaneously more in need of a centrist voice. The difficult way toward that center lies in the juxtaposition of contrasting arguments — and rather than screaming across the table, embracing the proximity of those on opposite edges long enough for creative new ground somewhere in the middle to emerge. As Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals has been known to say, “The cutting edge, after all, is a place where you get cut.”
What may be impossible in our national political scene hopefully will be more attainable in fresher expressions of the North American church. Can we resist our native evangelical bent for clarity, certainty, closure, purity, decisiveness and (yes) judgment — at least long enough to simultaneously value listening, nuance, creativity and (yes) the fresh wind of the Spirit? Might revealed Truth exist alongside of “Behold, I am doing a new thing?”
The ability to postpone a quick answer is more of an emotional intelligence than an intellectual one. It requires relational acumen, self-awareness and group awareness, and being comfortable enough in your own identity to remain unthreatened by new perspectives and ambivalent information.
But if Nolan is right, then it is a form of intelligence that is trending upward and will only be more highly valued in days to come. And if he’s right, Baptists better stock up. It’s in our history to know what we know. But it will also be in our future to embrace the power of what we don’t yet know long enough to see if God can show us something new.