I’m a big believer in the value of scholarly and intellectual humility. Having been a classics student, I especially appreciate the exposition of this virtue in Plato’s Apology. Socrates, in his defense before the Athenians, describes how the Oracle had declared him to be the wisest one in the land. He surely thought this must be some sort of mistake, as he lacked any particular wisdom, so he went around entering into dialogues with politicians, poets, and others, questioning them so as to understand the depths of their wisdom. And eventually he realized that the Oracle was true, if only in a certain and limited respect. For while the people he questioned were not wise, they certainly thought themselves so, whereas Socrates himself had no illusion as to his own wisdom. So knowing that he did not know was a type of wisdom in itself, which Socrates concluded he did have in abundance compared to the self-important men of the marketplace.
Of course, I realize that claiming a certain intellectual humility is possibly ironic evidence against actually possessing such a trait, but I only mean to lay current claim to this virtue in comparison with times in my life when I have clearly lacked it. To illustrate, I will share with you four vignettes:
1. The first time in my life that I had any sort of a self-perception of being in some way “smart” was when I was in sixth grade. I had gotten straight As throughout elementary school, but I assumed that that was just par for the course and was essentially meaningless. But when I made the transition to junior high, the school had a small budget and program for giftedness, and about 25 students were selected to participate in this program, including me. This was the first tangible indication I had that anyone thought of me as being in some way brighter than average.
These kids were all put into a separate class and taught accelerated classes. The main impact of that was that we took algebra in 8th grade rather than as freshmen in high school like everyone else. (These days, the timetable for learning algebra has advanced from where it stood back then.) Also, we got to go to special week-long camps up in Wisconsin, just our class and our teachers, where we would study various things. That was about it for the tangible differences between the “gifted” class and the regular classes. But as modest as it was, I sort of let it all go to my head.
I became the type of kid who knew all the answers to everything. I don’t remember, but I probably had my arm raised to respond to questions pretty much constantly. And I was a major teacher’s pet. My 7th grade science teacher took me to other schools in the district so that I could talk to them about astronomy, and my 8th grade English teacher loved my writing and was tremendously supportive and encouraging.
To this day I perceive 7th grade as pretty much the height of my intellectual life. I was smarter and knew more then than I do now. But it couldn’t last; in high school, that pompousness was pretty quickly socialized out of me. Being smart in high school I soon found out was a major offense against the social order. I even intentionally tanked my grades my junior year (which is proof positive that I wasn’t so really very smart at all). To this day, say in GD, if I know the answer to a question I am very reticent to answer it, for fear that others will perceive me as “showing off” in some fashion. It was a hard lesson, but I had become a little prick and it was a lesson I needed to learn.
2. You know how our youth are all sick of Sunday School, because they’ve heard everything a hundred times before? I felt exactly that way as a young man pre-mission. I was convinced that I knew more than our seminary teacher, a local housewife, and it may have even been true for all I know. But I paid a price for attending all of those catechism-churning lessons. When I went on my mission, I thought I was fully prepared and that I knew everything one needed to know to be a missionary. I knew everything about the Gospel, right? I must have, because I was never, ever challenged at Church, so that was the natural conclusion for a young person to draw.
But then I go on a mission, and I remember trying to teach a couple, among my first investigators. And just how little I actually knew quickly came crashing down around my shoulders. They weren’t asking silly, loaded questions like in the lesson manuals; they were asking real, actual questions from a position of skepticism. And nothing in my Church life to that point had prepared me for such an encounter. And I came face to face with the depths of my own ignorance. That couple actually felt sorry for me, I was so clearly out of my depth, and that empathy actually played a small role in their eventual decision to be baptized.
3. Rattled by the difficulties I had early in my mission, I rolled up my sleeves and began to learn. And I learned a lot on my mission, and by the end I pretty much had a pat answer for everything. This was a self-defense mechanism for me to survive constant religious conversations over the course of my mission; having those pat answers in my back pocket gave me a comfort level and allowed me to actually engage in the work. But then I went to college, and college did for me what it was supposed to do. I began to see that pat answers often don’t work, that there is a lot of gray and we don’t fully understand everything. And then going to law school kicked everything up a notch. If you’ve seen The Paper Chase, you have some sense of what it is like to face a professor in your first year of law school and being on the receiving end of his Socratic dialogue. That pretty much strips certainty and easy answers from your thought processes.
4. Being a lawyer in the Church, there’s kind of a dichotomy. At Church away from actual practice I get a lot of respect for my profession. I have a reputation in my ward and stake for being smart and knowledgeable. So how do I stay humble? Well, in the actual work context I’m well aware of how much there is to know and how limited my knowlege is. And the people I work with keep me humble. Of the five partners in my small Chicago office, I don’t think there’s any question but that I’m the least intelligent. They are all brillaint; one sort of has to be to practice the type of law we do. But I am in my own estimation the stupidest guy in my office. So when I interact with people in other contexts I do it with the knowledge of where I fit in my peer group at work, and knowing how smart your colleagues are is truly humbling.
These and other life experiences have taught me to have a healthy respect for the depths of my own ignorance, and so to be slow to think that I’ve got something all figured out.
In the Chuch context, I never cease to be amazed at people who stumble upon some negative tidbit about the Church on the internet, and then immediately conclude the Church is full of it and chuck the whole thing. Where is the intellectual curiousity? Have they looked for and read the bibliography of materials on that issue that have been published by prior authors on the subject? Have they considered or even reached out to the senior scholars who know all about that issue but yet maintain their faith? So many people claim to “know” the Church is true over the pulpit, but I find their testimonies in too many cases to be fragile and glass-like, to crack over the least little thing. A little more awareness of how very little we actually know and how much we need to learn on a subject would go a long way towards keeping our people from losing their faith needlessly.