Recovering the lost virtue of naiveté


‘Gosh, I never realised….X’. ‘Really? I knew that ages ago—it’s pretty common knowledge you know!’

I wonder if you’ve ever had that kind of conversation—at work, or church, or amongst friends or family. You have assumed that things are as they were claimed to be, or presented, but all the time ‘everybody’ ‘knew’ that that wasn’t really the truth, and you were naive to assume it was. As I reflect back, I realised that it has happened to me quite a lot, and it happened to me again very recently. When it does happen, it leaves us with a mixture of (sometimes) quite strong emotions. I feel foolish; I am also made to feel powerless since, after all, knowledge is power. I have missed out on the conversations around the issue which others were clearly having.

And it affects relational dynamics; everyone else was in the know, but I was on the outside. Shared knowledge often forms group identity—which is why Christmas cracker jokes are so bad. Everyone gets them, since the threshold for understanding is set very low, and thus all feel part of the group sharing the joke. But when ‘everyone’ ‘knows’ something and I do not, the opposite happens: I am defined as the outsider.

We live in a complex world, and this complexity seems to reward cunning. Cunning doesn’t always win out, as the latest episode of the large-scale soap opera we call ‘politics’ demonstrates. But in many contexts we are given the subliminal message: don’t take everything at face value; read between the lines; watch for the signs; forge alliances and make sure you know how to ‘operate.’ In such a context, the virtue of naiveté has been lost; there is no value in being ‘innocent’.

The term ‘naive’ has both a negative and a positive sense to it. My dictionary points out both of these:

naive (also naïveadjective (of a person or action) showing a lack of experience, wisdom, or judgement

(of a person) natural and unaffected; innocent: 

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from French naïve, feminine of naïf, from Latin nativus native, natural.

It can have connotations of immaturity, of lack of judgement—but also a sense of being straightforward, natural and unaffected. In our desire to lose the former, we end up losing the latter, and nothing is as straightforward as it seems any more. I have long been aware of this dynamic. When I first came to faith as a teenager, when you bought a new Bible it was a trendy thing to have your friends sign it with a message. One older member, called Mike, signed ‘To the most unaffected person I know’. I sensed it might be a complement, but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant!

I think it is possible to argue that, in many ways, the Jesus we meet in the gospels was naive. Into the complex and turbulent political context of first-century Judea, Samaria and Galilee, with the ambiguities of Roman power, the struggles for dominance between the local rulers, and the rival Jewish groups, Jesus simply proclaims ‘The kingdom of God is here!’ Repentance and belief sweep away all the other competing loyalties.

Jesus acted naively in the way he conducted his ministry, not least his healings. He must have known that healing on the Sabbath would have upset the religious authorities, and that would lead him into trouble—but he did it anyway. When he healed the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5), he might have guessed that the man’s restoration would upset the sense of social ordering of the community (‘the mad belong on the fringes’)—and that episode with the pigs didn’t really help—but he did it anyway.

Gerd Theissen, in his landmark Shadow of the Galilean, captures Jesus’ apparent ignorance of the consequences of his ministry rather well:

One day a Gentile centurion living here in Capernaum came to [Jesus]. He asked him to heal his orderly. Of course you have to help Gentiles. But why this one? Everyone knows that most of these Gentile officers are homosexual. Their orderlies are their lovers. But Jesus isn’t interested in that sort of thing. He didn’t ask anything about the orderly. He healed him—and the thought didn’t occur to him that later someone might think of appealing to him in support of the view that homosexuality is permissible. (p 106).

Although this passage has been used to other ends, the general point is that Jesus acts in some sense naively, rather than in a calculated and knowing way, considering in detail the possible consequences of his action.

It has occurred to me that Jesus was naive in one of the most important decisions he made: the appointment of the 12. This was not done without deep thought and prayer (all night in fact, Luke 6.12), but one of the great puzzles of Jesus’ ministry is why we hear so little of most of the Twelve apart from Peter and John, and why Jesus chose someone who ended up betraying him. Many readers take the comment of the gospels as a hint at a post hoc rationalisation, that Jesus knew from the beginning that Judas was going to betray him, but I don’t think that interpretation is very convincing. And why don’t we hear of all the trail-blazing pioneering church-planting by the others? Why does it get left to Paul to transform the known world? Jesus is depicted as having profound insight into people’s motives (Mark 2.8), and at times the gift of supernatural knowledge (John 4.17) but he was clearly not omniscient (Matt 24.36; the textual variant shows that the early church had a problem with this notion). But I am very tempted to think that Jesus simply took the Twelve as good men on face value—he made a naive decision to take people as they presented themselves.

Whatever we make of these decisions, it is clear that Jesus taught the value of naiveté. ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ he tells the disciples as he sends them out on mission (but only in Matthew, Matt 10.16). It’s funny how we always find the first of these more attractive than the second. ‘Here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile’ he observes, as he commends Nathanael to anyone who would listen (John 1.47). ‘Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’; everything else comes from the Evil One’ he teaches, in his new covenant version of proverbial wisdom (Matt 5.37), sufficiently important for his brother to repeat it almost word for word (James 5.12). No reading between the lines here, no nods and winks and nudges and gestures (Prov 16.30), no ‘knowing’ looks—simply offering and receiving speech and action at face value. Naively.

And mention of The Evil One takes us right back to Eden. It’s possible to see God’s command to Adam and Eve not to ‘eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ as the command to remain naive, to trust God, and to take his word at face value, without supposing any sort of hidden motive. That is surely why other interpretations of the episode have been put forward—that the ‘fall’ is not so much about the loss of innocence as the growth into a maturity of discernment. God does want us to be mature and understanding, but it is a maturity which somehow manages to recapture the innocence of naiveté and a straightforward dealing with the world we find and the people we relate to.

There is an important intellectual and philosophical side to this too. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur uses the concept of naiveté as central in his thinking about how we know things, and how we relate critical analysis to our ways of knowing. When we first encounter something, we understand it in a naive, pre-critical way. Our natural approach is to interpret things as they first appear to be. But then we start to engage in a process of criticism and evaluation (our word ‘critical’ comes from the Greek krisis which means ‘judgement’ or ‘evaluation’). This is a necessary process, since reality isn’t always as we think it to be. I find it genuinely surprising when people now appeal to the importance of ‘lived experience’, as if we can simply take the experience of ourselves or others at this kind of pre-critical face value. My ‘lived experience’ is that the sun rises, not that the earth turns! My ‘lived experience’ is that physical things are solid, not a lot of empty space with atoms in a lattice. My ‘lived experience’ when I ride a bike is that there is a mysterious force holding me upright and countering the effects of gravity. We forget how much we live our lives by critical reflection, and how misleading naive ‘lived experience’ can be.

So we need to take the critical journey, asking questions of our experience in order to understand reality properly. But if we live in that mode of criticism, then we lose the ability to trust and commit. In Ricoeur’s words, criticism creates a ‘desert’, and it is not a happy or satisfactory state to live in. Ricoeur particularly relates this to the way we read texts, and in particular biblical texts. Anyone who has engaged in a course of study of academic theology, thinking that it might strengthen their faith, has experienced this process as a rude awakening. ‘Don’t study theology at university’ some have been told ‘because you will lose your faith.’ This is the desert of criticism. This is particularly corrosive on a personal level; we cannot constantly remain suspicious of the motives of others, else we will never form friendships. And if Christian faith is relational, this is going to be unsustainable.

But Ricoeur goes further: ‘Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.’ Ricoeur says there is a possibility of naiveté, but it is a ‘second naiveté’, one that is found on the far side of the critical process. In spite of all the questions we have, and the judgements we render, at the end of the process (if we are actually going to live our lives rather than just thinking about them) we need to take a ‘wager of faith’ and commit to believing in a particular meaning for what we read. Without this kind of naiveté, we are powerless to construct meaning and live our lives with significance. This is true of all aspects of life; I cannot go around and check that every chair is sturdy before I sit on it, else I will be paralysed. It is true of relationships; I need to live with awareness and reality, but also with trust. And it is true of the life of faith—the word itself means make a commitment to trust. Such trust is not unaware of the issues, but makes a decision in the light of understanding, even if that understanding will never be exhaustively complete. ‘The believer is a critical adventurer, taking a leap of faith—not into the dark, but into the light’ (David Wolfe).

So, despite all the pressures to be ‘knowing’ and deploy cunning, I want to embrace this kind of innocence. Call me naive, but I’d rather be known as someone who is trusting than as someone who is cunning.

Perhaps this might be a good quality to cultivate in the New Year that is soon upon us?

(A shorter version was previously published in 2016.)

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19 thoughts on “Recovering the lost virtue of naiveté”

  1. This is very helpful and interesting, Ian. (Happy New Year when it comes, by the way.) My mother, a sound atheist, once heard on the radio a church leader’s pronouncement being criticised as “naive” and responded “why shouldn’t the church be naive? Is that a bad thing?” obviously contrasting church with government, to the church’s advantage.

  2. On the question of “Jesus the naïve”, are there not other aspects to this?

    One example is John 4 (the Samaritan woman at the well): Jesus tells her to call her husband (implying he assumed she was married?) but within seconds responds to her answer with an insight which shows he knew far more about her than she realised.

    A second example is his two different answers in Luke to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In each case the conversation unfolds in a way which exposes the questioner’s weakness. The lawyer’s desire to limit the “neighbourly” or “horizontal” demands of the Law are undermined by the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), while Jesus replies to the same question from the rich ruler (Luke 18:18-29) only in terms of the second half of the commandments – but then reveals how money had become that man’s idol, preventing him from obeying the “vertical” commandments and truly worshipping God.

    In these encounters (and, I suspect, various others) Jesus appears neither naïve nor cunning, but insightful and challenging. As I once heard a preacher say, Jesus had a habit of answering the questions people should have asked rather than the ones they did ask!

    • Martin, I think Jesus worked in tandem with the Holy Spirit. It was as if Jesus had a ‘wire’. The Holy Spirit at times told him what to do or revealed a situation to Him, at other times Jesus spoke directly from his own experience; sometimes it seems, both in short order (Samaritan woman). We often forget that Jesus was a man; but because He was in trinity He had access to the Father by being in the Spirit. Even so, The Trinity it seems to me did not overload Jesus’ mind with information. He could sit and admire a sunset in the same way I do.
      He spoke of being on a very high mountain surveying all the kingdoms of the earth when speaking naively as a man of His time. Then, at other times, He could look up to heaven and the Spirit would give Him insights only the Father could possibly know. This is how we should live: happy to know stuff without letting it make us ‘men of our age’; sensitive to the Spirit for moment by moment insights when needed.
      Jesus spoke about eunuchs. What He said was possibly the sum total of what He knew about ‘alternative’ lifestyles. He did not extrapolate from hearsay a moral opinion about people. We should not either, even to form some sort of ‘policy document’. He was obedient to scripture’s revelation. He had no need to revise it. He lived it.

      • Steve, I certainly concur about Jesus living in conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit. And a challenging corollary to that is that we should live in the same way, following his example. It seems to be that it’s not good enough to say “Well, obviously he could answer that question / perform that miracle and I can’t” about instances where he did that as a fully human agent open to the Spirit’s guidance and power.

  3. Some of those whose formative years were immediately post war assumed less corrupt norms because that is what the norms were. So when the great evangelist EMB Green was cruelly scammed this was not a case of naivety but a case of norms having worsened startlingly from anything anyone could reasonably assume. Likewise when Bp Peter Ball’s supporters, including level headed men of the world, were proven wrong, they may originally not have been able to envisage so great a departure from the longterm norms they were used to. Iwerne too was a world of good behaviour, uprightness, tea parties and whatnot, making the 1960s-70s debacle so distant as to be completely off the radar to anyone whose norms were formed earlier. They did not understand it, and in any case no-one sensible would have wanted to have anything to do with it. This like the foregoing is not naivete so much as ensuring the best possible associations out of those available.

    • Christopher

      I don’t buy that. There was certainly a lot of scamming going on in ww2.

      Iwerne was for ultra privileged boys, not a representative subset of society, and has become synonymous with sexual abuse of children. Its certainly not an example of lost societal virtue

  4. Some think drugs and sexual practices should be discussed with children in class so that they can make up their own minds. Would, for example, Mother Teresa have turned out better if she had been given the opportunity to make this ‘choice’? The fact that she would not does not make her naive. It merely shows that people use a totally random bnenchmark when they try to determine what is and is not naive. That benchmark is usually their own fleeting culture and era. But the very last people one would listen to are those aware of only one culture and era.

    • Christopher

      Sex and drug education is not so “children can make up their own minds”, but primarily about how to keep themselves safe from drug addiction, sexual predators and STDs

      • So they are safer if the ideas are actively put in their minds or if the ideas never occur to them?

        We can demonstrate this. The most drug addled generations are those for whom it was actively put in their minds. The least drug addled are those for whom it was simply not part of their world.

        So – normalisation or the lack of it is the key.

  5. As you say naivety has several connotations’
    Jesus was never naïve in one sense; He very well knew what happens to prophets who challenge the status quo.
    Furthermore He said ….”.he that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him”. And other such lived experiences of His.
    Lived experiences were “Go and tell what great things God has done for you.”
    The Apostle John 1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;

    That said however, lived experience is often quoted by those who think themselves universally marginalized
    Often self-absorbed and not realizing that all kinds of people for other reasons are also marginalized.
    Even Christians Luke 21:17 “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake”
    “!n the world you will have tribulation”
    Or one of Job’s friends lived experience, recounting some mystical otherworldly experience which did not answer to Job’s case.

    Jesus left people in no doubts about taking up the cross. One could not be naïve who followed /believed /Lent entirely upon /abandoned to Him.
    As you say “how misleading naive ‘lived experience’ can be.
    No, Christianity does not require a “leap of faith” insofar as that means a sacrifice of reason, of intellect, but it does require a step of faith. But it is not unique in that.
    All commitment requires a step of faith because solid, undoubtable proof is evasive in this life. .” E.g. Marriage etc.
    In terms of a philosophy of life, all requires a step of faith. And without some philosophy of life, some world perspective to which you commit yourself, you will forever be bereft of a foundation for ethics beyond your “gut feelings” or “going along with the culture
    Hans Kueng so eloquently argued in Does God Exist? An Answer for Today, “everyone needs what psychologists have called “basic trust” in the meaningfulness of life to escape nihilism. “

    The only question is, what provides the best grounding for basic trust in the meaningfulness of life? Atheism, agnosticism, or some partially faith-based worldview that includes something transcendent such as God?

    Belief in something or someone transcendent to nature who gives life ultimate meaning, who provides a ground for basic trust in the meaningfulness of life, requires a step of faith.

    Christianity says that the step of faith will be answered by God and that Jesus Christ is his answer. And, if Jesus Christ was not God, he was either a lunatic or a liar (C. S. Lewis).
    Your quote
    “Everyone knows that most of these Gentile officers are homosexual. Their orderlies are their lovers. etc.
    Goodness, was everybody gay in the Bible? David and Jonathan, Jesus and John, Officer and bat man!
    Naively?, Don’t ask about relationship status just heal them
    .regardless. Who was trusting who in that event?

  6. For a fruitful enlargement on some of the key issues raised
    I suggest google the questions below,[ other views are available if preferred]
    Was Jesus naïve? . See
    Is Christianity a leap of faith, see word press
    What is “lived experience” see The Spectator

  7. BTW Ian, Happy N.Y.
    Last week we had 14 collared doves sitting in our tree.
    And your picture at top reminded me of them.
    One for each season under heaven? Ecclesiastes 3:2-8.
    I wonder what collared season we will find ourselves in in 2024?

  8. The heading brought to mind Alastair McIntyre’s book, ‘After Virtue’ which I have, but not to hand.
    There is much available on the internet, but a quick trawl pulls up this essay from 2007 by Stanley Hauerwas on First Things. It sets the the book in the context of the time and in the whole of McIntyre’s writings.
    It also, to me, is far from being stuck in time, McIntyre addresses (in advance) and is highly relevant to today’s culture moment, within and outwith Christianity, and indeed to how we view and read and understand scripture.


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