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.

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 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.

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—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.

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.

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.

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21 thoughts on “The lost virtue of naiveté”

  1. Really interesting Ian, thanks.

    In the light of your final sentence I was wondering what you make of the call by Jesus to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents (Matt 10.16)? It is daring call – are snakes offered as positive role models anywhere else in the Bible? What qualities do you think Jesus have in mind – cunning, shrewdness … ? I suspect the one needs the other. Innocence is the quality we need that stops our serpent vocation becoming corrupt and manipulative.Innocence is something we learn in the midst of real life dilemmas. It is not preserved by some kind of self-protected avoidance of life. But without a snake-like quality that may be all our innocence succeeds in being: naive – defn 1.

    I note the BCP ordination service prayed for candidates to be ‘endued with all innocency of virtue in the midst of this naughty world’. There was no prayer for snake-like qualities – which Jesus also calls us to. (Snake-like is not one of the selection criteria for CofE ordinands either but most clergy learn it quite quickly). But why not? What does it mean to be a snake for Jesus?

    • David, that’s a classic illustration of collusion in unnecessary biblical literalism. Ian leaves the door wide open, of course, and you both inhabit evangelical culture, but this completely loses the valid point about naivité.

      Without the need to wrap it in a religious justification, I see virtue in speaking plainly anyway. Clear communication always seems to work best. That’s no obstacle to taking note of and reflecting on how things are said and heard in their context, and using that information in future dealings.

      [/non-evangelical checking out]

    • David Runcorn, I disagree with the other David that you are being a bibilicist—though perhaps you might like to write that date in your diary when you were accused of such!

      I think it is a very interesting question, and I think Scripture does offer some answers, when we (without being literalist) enter into its narrative world.

      1. I was intrigued to note that this saying is only present in Matthew, and is omitted in the other two Synoptics. For Mark, it is possible to believe it wasn’t there and Matthew added it. But there is good evidence that Luke knew Matthew and removed it again. I think that touches on the reluctance to talk of ‘being a snake for Jesus’.

      2. I cannot help but see a parallel in the binaries between wolf/sheep and snake/dove. This suggests that being a snake might mean being aware of the way wolves operate, and watching what they get up to. By contrast, being a sheep amongst wolves means being aware of how others behave and act and plot without allowing that behaviour to shape our own agenda.

      3. Jesus does indeed commend snake-like qualities. I have always loved Jesus’ bizarre parable in Luke 16.1–9, which gives a prima facie argument for allowing non-Christians to run your diocesan finance strategy. ‘The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light’ (Luke 16.8). I cannot help thinking this has relevance to my previous post, on the financial crisis in Rochester diocese. They needed more snakes! or at least they needed more ‘wise stewards’ who could deal well with the sons of this age. But I note again, that this parable is in Luke alone, and I cannot think of another similar parallel. Perhaps Luke included it to make for the absence of the snake/dove saying.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Thanks for this Ian – interesting. Another passage I preached on recently from Paul:

    “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor 4:1-2)

    “Setting forth the truth plainly” – I’ve been thinking about that recently. I do think sometimes evangelistic strategies, and I’m thinking of things like Messy Church here, can be done in an unhelpful way – which is to avoid presenting the challenge of the gospel. “We’ll wait until we get to know you and you’re enmeshed – and THEN we’ll hit you!” I do feel that we need to be upfront about the gospel call, maybe this is my example of naivete!

  3. Hi Ian,

    In terms of naïveté, St. Thomas More typified what it means to be: ‘wise as serpents, but harmless as doves’.

    Here how he described his response to interrogations for refusing the Oath of Succession: When I was before the Lords at Lambeth, I was the first that was called in, albeit Master Doctor the Vicar of Croydon was come before me, and various others. After the cause of my sending for, declared unto me (whereof I somewhat marveled in my mind, considering that they sent for no more temporal men but me), I desired the sight of the oath, which they showed me under the great seal.

    Then desired I the sight of the Act of the Succession, which was delivered me in a printed roll. After which read se­cretly by myself, and the oath considered with the act, I showed unto them that my purpose was not to put any fault either in the act or any man that made it, or in the oath or any man that sware it, nor to condemn the conscience of any other man.

    But as for myself in good faith my con­science so moved me in the matter that though I would not deny to swear to the succession, yet unto the oath that there was offered me I could not swear, without the jeopardising of my soul to perpetual damnation.

    And that if they doubted whether I did refuse the oath only for the grudge of my conscience, or for any other fantasy, I was ready therein to satisfy them by mine oath.

    Which if they trusted not, what should they be the better to I give me any oath?

    And if they trusted that I would therein swear true, then trusted I that of their goodness they would not move me to swear the oath that they offered me, perceiving that for to swear it was against my conscience.

    The machinations of those comprising the King’s Council was no match for More’s sublime answer. By entrusting his future to God, More became the antithesis of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1 – 13) , whom Jesus described as ‘cooking the books’ to curry avour with his soon-to-be ex-boss’ debtors.

    ‘The sons of darkness are more astute in this world than the sons of light.’

  4. David Marshall You may have left as suddenly as you appeared – but if you have a moment would you be willing to repeat your analysis of my wildly extreme bible-centredness on the next door thread where I am regarded as part of a post-evangelical, bible-ignoring, culture-embracing, liberal conspiracy that is seeking to trap the church into accepting same-sex marriage. (damn – our cover is blown!)

    Ian – marking this in my diary? … I’m going to frame it!

    • David,

      And just when I thought that, on a post unrelated to same-sex marriage, we’d clear the high bar of 7 comments without a mention of same-sex marriage.

      Oh well, perhaps a future post on Chaldean eschatology will hold more promise of respite from that debate (sorry, I meant…mutual…er, facilitated…um..’journey together’) than this one…but I wouldn’t bet on it! 🙂

    • A hazard of being only an occasional visitor! If you will spend time engaging with less than defensible positions some subtleties of your arguments may get missed. But I’ll pop over and have a look at the other thread…

  5. I was thinking about the fact that Jesus must have shown in His own life what it is like to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” …..It’s not something I’d thought about before, but I suppose that means that he was deliberately naive (even though He could have been “knowing”), rather than accidentally naive. I assume it means too that He was a “what you see is what you get” person (Interestingly, but completely off the subject, both Theresa May and Angela Leadsom were described in this way….a hopeful sign I think)

    • Anna, yes, that is what occurred to me. We are very fond of considering that Jesus was all-knowing, in part because of some of the hints I mention in the post.

      But I think there is something else going on too. When I was drafting this, I chatted to someone about it and their response was ‘Well, of course Jesus was omniscient wasn’t he?’ Apart from being demonstrably wrong, it comes close to the heresy of docetism—Jesus only appeared to be human and limited rather than being genuinely so.

  6. Very interested in your unequivocal comment made in passing ‘be clear that Messy Church is indeed… Church!’
    I’m a vicar in a church which has had messy church up and running for 6 years, and though others organise I attend pretty much every time. I value it
    1) for the contact with local parents and children that it gives
    2) for the potential route to christian discipleship that it offers – albeit a route which has scarcely any signs of anyone in our parish having traveled along and
    3) I’m just about happy to see it as in some sense ‘church’ for the children present.
    However… i’m not at all sure it is helpful to see it as in any sense church for the parents present.To my mind there are so few signs that they are engaged in any meaning reflection on christian discipleship & worship that for us to count them in any sense as church worshipers seems to me to put us in danger of self – delusion; and also to risk lessening the urgency of experimenting with what might possibly take them one step closer to any serious thought or reflection on issues of faith. I’d be really interested if you might consider posting a defence of your view and seeing if an interesting blog discussion might result between those who share your view and those with my kind of questions and hesitations

    • Perhaps the Messy Church website would be a good place to start ( and Lucy Moore’s books (many). I fear a lot of what goes under the banner of “Messy Church” perhaps isn’t church, but it can be if it is done well. If the adults are left out, then that is the problem identified – and all of the Messy Church material would give ways of making sure this doesn’t happen.

      • In our church’s messy church sessions adults aren’t entirely left out – but I sense the same level of engagement as parents at a children’s party. They’re not at all convinced that the budget price entertainer and the jelly and ice cream are really for them. They will chat with other adults they already know – but (as in my experience with children’s parties) I’m not sure it’s an easy place to strike up new friendships. We’re blessed with several who can deliver a very good children’s bible story – but I sense that to have someone who can do that in an appropriate way for the party atmosphere of a messy church whilst also making adults feel that this is something that could be for them is a very exceptional gift.
        Our local messy church advisor pointed out that the adults at our sessions weren’t really engaged – but the professionally produced messy church video showed exactly the same signs at the messy churches that they chosen for filming, so I’m wondering what proportion of Messy churches have got anywhere close to cracking this one, and if so what are the secrets of their success.
        The messy church website and recent books are asking entirely the right question as to how messy church can engage adults and children with life-changing discipleship but any when I last looked at the website there weren’t any models of successful practice in this regard, just one or two writes up of attempts to do so that were at a very very early stage. And, like any in-house website it isn’t really a place for thoughtful critique of the movement that it is promoting.
        Hence my interest in seeing if the more neutral – but very well visited – space of Ian’s website might be a good place for genuine discussion about this – or maybe even spawing some kind of group that could reflect together about this
        Its an important subject because in many congregations messy church has provided the hope of interacting with children and young families a decade after their sunday school closed down and they had given up hope of every making contact with this group again. It’s also the most prevalent form of fresh expression (according to

  7. Very interesting as always Ian. Many years ago, my late (atheist) mother got very annoyed at a news report of someone criticising a church pronouncement as “naive”. “Why shouldn’t the church be naive? What’s wrong with naive?” she said.
    And you are so right about the humiliation part! But did Jesus really not know that healing on the Sabbath would cause trouble? He does seem to have be
    en quite defiant when He wanted to be.
    God certainly issues a challenge to trust naively, and not be devious. This is enormously counter-cultural. Speaking as a Game of Thrones fan, we all love Eddard Stark, but the story implies he was too naive/stupid to live.
    By the way, as NAIVE LAY PERSON, what is a biblicist, and is it an insult? You don’t have to answer.

  8. Ian,
    i was intrigued by your comment that Jesus was not omniscient and I think you are right.

    My question is – is this stiil true?

    Does there exist a hierachy of knowledge in the Trinity? Do some members of the Trinity know more than others?

    This would suggest an inequailty among its members not dissimilar to the the ‘eternal subordination of the Son to the Father argument’ does it not?

  9. In 30 years of working in an office I noticed that I was normally the last to find out about a colleague who was (say) splitting up from their girlfriend/boyfriend or other change in “relationship status.” And I was never able to work out if this was because my team knew that I don’t listen to gossip (good) or because they assumed that being a Christian I must also be judgmental (not so good.)

  10. Ian One further thought. ‘The desert of criticism’ – that loss of first naïveté is frightening. It is a real desert. The dark is very dark. It links to apophatic faith – the necessary loss that enables a deeper awakening – but that means we can never quite live with our ‘certainties’ and securities in the same way again. I do not think this is a dimension of faith and formation the Evangelical tradition lives comfortably with.

  11. Thank you for this intriguing discussion.
    Recently a friend of mine was remarried to a missionary lady. She is woman of strong character and with a quality of direct honesty. She gave an impression that was at once of ‘purity’ and ‘discernment’. A sort of Holy wisdom. The clergyman who married them chose the text: Matt. 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. IN his address the preacher explained that in non-western commentaries (African, he said), the poor in spirit are not necessarily seen as spiritually humble exclusively, but rather holistically, as people who in their behavior are like the truly poor. They behave spiritually like people who are truly living in poverty, totally dependent on the gifts they gather; who have to beg for every crumb they get. And that for them begging is a necessity for life itself. They go to God and beg for grace always and everywhere, and without shame. Like the beggars alongside the railway at Palapye in Bechuanaland, “Helpum please o gentleman, I am blind Sir”.
    Go to Jesus as a child (Matt 11:25-30).
    It seems to be but one step from naiveté to the beatitudes?

    But naiveté is a characteristic of ‘natural’ man, as in Rom 7:9a Once I was alive apart from the law;…
    Paul admonishes the Christian: Rom 16:19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.

    The beatitudes put these things into the perspective of the Kingdom of God.

    I do not think Jesus was naïve but he was in the likeness of sinful flesh. Holy.

  12. I am sure more knowledge-able folk than me will point us all to a study of animals in the Bible world, but I think I am right in saying the dove mentioned in Matt 10 is probably the rock-dove, a “non-violent”, but extremely hardy bird which can live in the harshest of conditions in the Judean wilderness. It should not be understood to be the nice white version, or the dove of peace or other more modern images of dove. It is not exactly “innocent” but unmixed-up, lacking in guile, straightforward, “what-you-see-is what-you get”
    Equally the wise (phronimos) serpent is presented as having a proper wisdom, despite the role the serpent plays in Genesis 3. Snales and serpents have a very mixed place in culture and folk-lore, signs of both healing and poison, close to monsters, yet the bronze snake is a healing and protector (Numbers 21 and John 3).
    To survive when sent out as sheep among wolves, we must presumably have the ability to hide, slip through cracks etc, while behaving in an unmixed, straightforwardly non-aggressive way, like the dove.
    But to describe the serpent as having wisdom is more presumably than saying we should be able to hide, slop-away, etc; it is a bold juxtaposition to wake up our thinking.
    Naivete is – as you say – an ambiguous quality. In doing safeguarding training, we look at the place of wisdom as a core quality for leaders: episkope / oversight requires wisdom but does episkope need to include watching out for, as well as watching over, and if so, how does proper suspicion sit with proper trust / naivete? It may be that the more starkly ambiguous wisdom of the snake is helpful here, even as knowing the rock-dove is hardy, enriches the image of the innocence / unmixed-up-ness of the dove.


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