Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

dumb“Ignorance is bliss”—or is it? This pseudo-proverb first appeared in an eighteenth century poem by Thomas Gray, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” In his ode, Gray lamented the reality that all men must one day face: life in the grown-up world. Instead, the author fantasized about an alternative; maintaining a perpetual state of youthful ignorance. He supposed that if such a state were possible, life would be bliss.

At times we have all wished this was true; but unfortunately, unless your name is Peter Pan, we know that it is not. We all have to grow up and face a real world. That stark realization led the 19th century French philosopher Victor Cousin to quip, “If ignorance is bliss, there should be more happy people.” According to Cousin, ignorance couldn’t possibly be a source of blissful happiness, because ignorance does not seem to be in short supply in our world, and yet happiness is.

As a self-proclaimed smart aleck, I appreciate Cousin’s sarcasm. However, his realism is the real gem. He rightly implied that ignorance in not a blissful state. To the contrary, ignorance is far from delightful—ignorance has consequences.

It was ignorance over the size of the Earth that prevented earlier exploration of the world. Prior to Columbus, most cartographers thought the Earth was much larger in circumference, and therefore unable to be crossed by boat.  It is also ignorance of basic chemistry that leads to a half million injuries every year in the U.S. due to misuse or mishandling of common household chemicals. A trip to the Emergency Room, chauffeured by your friendly neighborhood paramedic as a result of using Drano and bleaches in the same sink, does not sound very blissful to me.

It was this idea that ignorance has consequences that the Apostle Paul was referring to in the tenth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. Now it was not general ignorance Paul was calling to task; rather it was a specific kind of ignorance—spiritual ignorance. This is what He wrote.

For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:2-4 ESV)

These three short, but potent verses appear in a section of the letter where Paul was doing more than issuing instruction to the church in Rome. He was mourning—mourning the ignorance of his fellow Jews and the subsequent results of their ignorance. These were his kinsmen; a people with a long history of religious piety which Paul describes as “a zeal for God.” However, as he affirms their zealousness, Paul adds the following footnote, “but not according to knowledge.” It turns out these zealously religious people were ignorant of something very important—the righteousness of God. And as we have already mentioned, ignorance has consequences.

Verses three and four describe their consequences. Those Paul described, failed to comprehend the vast degree of difference between the absolute holiness of God and the practical holiness His children are called to pursue. Because they undervalued God’s true righteousness, their zealousness led them on a fool’s errand—to establish a righteousness of their own. Ironically, because they thought they could attain it themselves, they never would. The righteousness they zealously desired was always just beyond their reach, and at the same time only a tiny “Mustard Seed” away. It was the righteousness of a life lived in perfect obedience to God; a life they could never live—but a life that Christ did live, a life given freely to all who believe.

That is the beauty of the Gospel—a beauty that is dimmed and easily overlooked when we pursue a righteousness of our own. That is exactly what the ignorance of Paul’s countrymen had done; and it led them to pursue righteousness through the Law instead of the Gospel—and that futile and frustrating pursuit is anything but bliss.