We all like to talk about what we know especially if others don’t have the same knowledge. At the end of the year, which is now, we summarise and draw conclusions, and we predict what may happen in the coming year. We may have our New Year’s resolutions and prayers, making plans and asking for things to happen in our own lives, those of our loved ones and the community, land and world we live in.

All this is well and good. But we should also admit that there is much we do not know; things that we will never know and things that we can never prove.

The philosopher I will write about today, who has written educational novels about the wondering and questions we all have about the world we live in, and the hereafter, said recently that in his eagerness to explain and tell all that he knows and finds important, he had forgotten the most important, notably to write and talk about all the things he does not know; those things that we can never get certain answers to and prove scientifically – yet, the issues nag us from we begin thinking as children till we end our days.

The philosopher is Jostein Gaarder (b. 1952), a Norwegian intellectual and novelist, was known for his writing for young people, and often used children and teenagers as characters in his books, letting them asking questions to which there, many times, are no definite answers. There are so many things that we wonder about – and children are good at asking questions about ‘everything’, including such things that none of us can answer, but we still wonder about.

Jostein Gaarder began his career as a secondary school teacher in Bergen, Norway, teaching Scandinavian literature and languages. He also taught basic philosophy to young students entering university at a national correspondence institute known as Folkeuniversitetet, which also gave resident classes as support.

As you may recall, Jostein Gaarder is the author of the famous novel ‘Sophie’s World – a novel about the History of Philosophy’, which came in 1991. A few years later, it was translated into German and later also English and more than 60 other languages. In 1995, it was the world’s most sold novel. Indeed, a great achievement for a school teacher who just wanted his students to become creative and think, yes, and learn something from those Greek and other masters who had been thinking before us.

Gaarder is also interested in religion as an important aspect of philosophy, and that is certainly not only part of Western thinking. Today, religion is more talked and preached about in non-Western cultures, but theologians and other thinkers in the West may be freer to ask questions beyond what is considered acceptable and in good taste. Let us note that philosophy is often asking all those questions that we cannot find scientific answers to, but they are still basic to all human beings – throughout our lives – if we take time to reflect and listen to our inner voice, not just carry out work and implement what others have thought us to do.

I am glad that we still have such ‘public teachers’ as Jostein Gaarder, and I that we don’t leave all the ‘thinking’ to the talk show hosts on TV. More than that, I am glad that young people take time to listen and think to philosophers like Gaarder. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised! Yet, at my age, being in the mid-sixties, let me be allowed to be that too, since I cannot quite follow everything exciting that young people do.

And then, I should not be too arrogant about the TV talk shows either, and social media. There may be more news in those channels than we believe. It is said that many young people don’t get their news and views from traditional media any more, i.e. TV and newspapers, but from other, faster channels – and the radio is also having a renaissance. Besides, we should remember that people shared information – and thought – before the time of today’s mass media; printed books, newspapers and the electronic media are new, at the most just a few hundred years old, some just a decade or two.

A week ago, a young man in my usual grocery store in Islamabad asked if he could ask me a question and talk to me about something. Being a polite man, as Pakistanis are, he wanted to be sure first that I wouldn’t mind. He wanted to know if I was now a Muslim, which out of concern, he thought was important since I had most of my life behind me by now. He was a kind and concerned friend, and I appreciated his question. I told him I was still a Christian, having been born and raised in a Christian land. But that I also thought that the two religions are very similar, and that all religions have the same thoughts about God and human behaviour.

Reflecting further on my young friends concern and question – not to learn from me, but to tell me something out of concern – I went back to Jostein Gaarder’s newfound wisdom, that we should not only teach others what we know; we should hold conversations with each other; we should ask the deep religious and philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life together, about God and the life hereafter, and certainly about how to live together, knowing that all and each human beings are the same, with the same needs, wishes, hopes, wonders and questions. Gaarder and I don’t know the answers any better than my friend in the grocery store. What we may be more audacious to say though, is that since God is love and mercy, and God is one, we should focus on the basics of being believers and human beings. We mustn’t overlook the real message because of dogma, rules and laws within each religion and philosophy. Religion and philosophy about life and death isn’t knowledge and science; it is faith. A merciful God includes all of humanity, also non-believers.

Dear reader, I wish you a Happy New Year 2017 – and I thank you, all my friends for all the lessons you taught me, whether you know it or not, in the year that is now ending.


n             The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.