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Intellectual Humility

The gift of knowing that you might be wrong - this is a tough one. How can the idea of knowing that we might be wrong be a gift? As many of you already know, our world is divided on so many different levels that I, like you, sometimes wonder how many boxes will I have to check in order to provide someone with an accurate description of who I am. The reality is, depending on the circumstances, some of us may have to check different boxes as a way of dealing with the fluidity of who we are. 

I think these boxes further exacerbate our divisions, because we are made to believe that we are either defined by those boxes or that our reality is shaped by those disparate separate boxes on our screen or piece of paper. The downside of these polarized and disparate, separate boxes is that we are sometimes very much convinced about the triumphalism of our peculiar boxes, lives, stories and beliefs - whatever they may be - that we see little-to-no value in the lives and beliefs of others. We are always right, and never wrong.

When I first started my ministry here at Christ Church, one of the devotions that I introduced at Vestry meetings was the Listening Heart Guidelines. These were simple guidelines which opened us up to reflect on the much bigger purpose of our time together. At the beginning of each Vestry meeting, members read - one after the other, beginning from either my left or right hand - these Listening Heart Guidelines. The one guideline that always hits home, more than any other guideline, is “Hold your desires and opinions — even your convictions — lightly.” I have always wondered why, but I guess it is because of the possibility that we might be wrong.

In fact, there is nothing wrong about being wrong. But there is everything wrong about being right, and never wrong. Intellectual humility centers around the gift of knowing that you might be wrong and, therefore, the need to be humble in our beliefs, our opinions, and even in our conclusions. More than that, it helps us to know our limits, and by those limits we’re able to tolerate the views of others which may be different from ours, and be enlightened by those with whom we do not agree. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Job’s Objectified Body, and in my article I shared my own fear as your pastor, and as an African American man who is susceptible to harm that was caused to Ahmaud Arbery, and now to George Floyd. As I indicated in my article, the objectified body of the African American gives room for others to inflict as much pain, and even death, on the African American. And as is often the case, pain over nothing or over something of little significance or value. Granted that George Floyd purchased something with counterfeit money; did he have to die for it?

From my point of view, it takes a depraved person to believe that he can stick his knee on another person’s neck and apply pressure for eight and three-quarter minutes without inflicting any serious injury to the person. The intellectually humble person would know that that act is wrong, and that he is wrong. But here, we are not talking about an intellectually humble person. Rather, we are talking about someone whose very ethos did not support the fact that he can be wrong, or that the system under which he serves doesn’t believe he can be wrong, or that he would pay for any errors should he be wrong.

I need to assure you that I would rather prefer that I do not write about issues of race, or racism, or systemic racism, or about the police brutality that has resulted in the needless death of George Floyd. But to not write or speak about these issues would also be wrong, for that would mean that I have accepted the status quo as tolerable, or that the experience of those who suffer such dehumanizing treatment at the hands of others deserve it. They do not. We can all live with this truth, that neither an unarmed George Floyd nor the likes of George Floyd should be needlessly killed by others - especially those who have sworn an oath to protect those same people.

I may not agree with Rush Limbaugh 100% of the time, but I can agree with him when he says that the killing of George Floyd was “senseless.” Intellectual humility requires us to know that, although we do not have to agree 100% of the time, we acknowledge that we do not have all of the truth, and that someone else may have some of the truth that we do not have. In all cases, however, we can have a favorable opinion of those with whom we disagree. 

A couple of days ago, I participated in the demonstration in Columbia. It is the second of two demonstrations that I have ever participated in. The first was in Washington D.C. in early 2017, and it was about the oil pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. I participated in that because I am familiar with the challenges over there. I used to take youth from my former parish for summer mission work in Standing Rock. What surprised me about the demonstration in Columbia was that it was about 75% made of young men and women. Their speeches and poetry were exhilarating, moving, and insightful. I may hear them, but who else hears them? For many of the people who need to hear what these young people are saying, their errors may be invisible to them because they do not even believe they are wrong in the first place. Intellectual humility is about making visible our own incompetence and errors, for that is the only way we can seek to make the necessary corrections.

A few days ago, George Clooney made an interesting observation by relating our present pandemic to the founding of America. He said that America has been in pandemic for over 400 years. There’s been 400 years of systemic racism. He also said that the cure is not far-fetched. It is not in a laboratory somewhere. The only way it can be made available to us is through intellectual humility. The reality is that it will require a great deal of humility on our part, but that should be acceptable. The truth is, if we truly want to know of a cure, it will require being humble enough to recognize that there are things that we simply do not know.

If we are humble enough, we can accept that we truly do not know the African American experience of living 400 years of systemic racism. If we are humble enough, we can accept that the dire effects of living 400 years of systemic racism has had an adverse impact on a segment of our population. If we are humble enough, we will make an effort to know the truth about the African American experience. If we’re humble enough, we can begin to take drastic steps in dismantling the systems that have sought to perpetually place African Americans in a box they did not create, a box over which they have no control, a box that denigrates them and their bodies, and a box from which they can barely escape.

Intellectual humility makes it possible for us to unlearn old habits, to re-learn new ones, and to grow. More importantly, intellectual humility begins for us the process of acknowledging our mistakes, and correcting them.

Look no further for someone to start the process.

It begins with you, and with me. 



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