Sunday, 15 July 2012

How little we know


It is possible, I suppose that sometime
we will learn everything
there is to learn: what the world is, for example,
and what it means. I think this as I am crossing
from one field to another, in summer, and the
mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either
knows enough already or knows enough to be
perfectly content not knowing. Song being born
of quest he knows this: he must turn silent
were he suddenly assaulted with answers. Instead

oh hear his wild, caustic, tender warbling ceaselessly
unanswered. At my feet the white-petalled daisies display
the small suns of their center piece, their -- if you don't
mind my saying so -- their hearts. Of course
I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and
narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know?
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly;
for example -- I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch --
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.

~ Mary Oliver ~

(Why I Wake Early)

I recently attended the valedictory service at Unitarian College Manchester, where I trained for ministry. I only left two years ago, it seems like a lifetime. So much has happened since. I have learnt so much and this has taught me just how little I know.

The valedictory address was delivered by the recently retired minister of the Unitarian church in Dublin, the Revered Bill Darlison. It was compelling, moving and thought provoking and it has held me in its grip for weeks. I keep on being fed by it, truly soul food. Now I’m not going to discuss the address here. I just mention it because Bill is one of my heroes and I look forward to next year when he will serve our denomination as president, it will be an interesting time.

Bill is the author of several book. He has also published two fine collections  of short stories, from around the world, which I and many others often use in worship. They are titled“Concentration & Compassion” and “The Shortest Distance” The following story is from one of them. It originates from China and is titled “Rescuing the Moon”

“One evening a clever man called Huojia went to fetch some water, but when he looked into the well he saw the moon shining in the water. ‘O, my goodness! That’s a shame!’ he said. ‘The beautiful moon has fallen into the well!’

He ran back to the house to get a hook, which he tied to the well-rope and lowered it down into the water in an attempt to rescue the moon.

After a few minutes he was pleased to find that the hook had caught on something. He pulled hard on the rope, but whatever he had caught was very heavy and the rope broke. Huojia fell flat on his back. Looking up into the sky he saw the moon once again. ‘Ah, I was successful!’ he said to himself. ‘The rope may have broken, but my pulling has obviously freed the moon, and it’s finally back in the sky where it belongs.’ He was overjoyed at his efforts and told everyone he met how he had rescued the moon.”

Bill describes this as “a cautionary tale about human intellectual arrogance.” He continues “For all our undoubted scientific advances, we are still no nearer solving the big questions of existence than we were thousands of years ago, and much that we think we know about the world today will no doubt turn out to be false in the future.”

Now of course every single generation begs to differ on this, but seemingly it is true. The quest for knowledge goes on and on. How little we actually know.

I am a great fan of modern media. It is wonderful how we can gain access to information instantly today that in the past may have taken years to discover. That said I’m far less of a fan of celebrity culture, it seems everyone is a celebrity theses days. Increasingly we hear the opinions of people who have skills and talents in certain areas of their life but who seem to be of the opinion that they ought to be commenting and telling the world what they think about everything, of things that they often know little about. We are also increasingly inundated with radio and television phone- ins that encourage us to express our view on every subject under the sun. This freedom to speak freely and publicly has been hard fought for over the centuries and is precious and I’m certainly not advocating that it should be policed. That would be horrific!That said this proliferation of often ungrounded opinion does lead to the question, do we actually know what we are talking about? How many of us express our views about a myriad of things we know little about?  It is easy to gain superficial access to many things, but not so easy to gain real understanding.

Hey maybe I do it every week with this blog. Oh yes a little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.

The pursuit of knowledge is a wonderful thing, it grows from our unknowing, from our need to know. This searching and seeking is one of our greatest attributes. This is not the problem. No the problems stem from our belief that the little knowledge that we have gained somehow makes us experts in every field. There’s a further problem too and this stems from our need to cling to what we think we know. This actually stultifies the pursuit of further knowledge. It limits our ability to gain greater understanding and often divides us against one another. 


Well because truth is always subjective and personal knowledge is always limited. We don’t all see things the same way and we don’t all experience life in the same way. It is so easy for us to become enslaved by what we think we know, more than what we don’t know. Ignorance is not so much the problem as arrogance. Seemingly our troubles are caused by the little that we do know, rather than immensity of what we do not know. Perhaps what we need is a little bit of the humility that Socrates professed. Socrates once said “I am the most ignorant man in Athens.” This was not false pride by the way. He knew that he knew more than anyone else and yet recognised how little he actually knew. By pointing out his own ignorance he was informing his neighbours how little they actually knew. And what did they do to Socrates? Well they killed him.

Yes a little bit of knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing.

It is important to recognise the limits of our knowledge, just as it is vital that we do not become slaves to the little that we do know. I’m always amused by my observations of friends on social media expressing to the world all their likes and dislikes. I do it myself; I amuse myself and no doubt my friends too.

The Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi believed that when we cling to our beliefs, what we like and dislike about life, we alienate ourselves from the ‘great transformation’ of “the way”.  Karen Armstrong has highlighted how he observed that everything was continually in flux, nothing ever stayed the same, everything moved from one state to another. He observed that an un-enlightened person was no different to a frog in a well who mistakes the tiny patch of sky he can see for the whole. He observed that such a person cannot gain greater knowledge because he is held back by what he thinks he knows. That said once this very same person has seen the immensity of the sky then his perspective is changed forever. When a person looks up at the sky above them, how can they not be humbled? When a person realises the immensity of the universe or the multi-verses that are out there how can they not stand in awe?

Karen Armstrong says that,

“Socrates used to describe himself as a gadfly, stinging people to question every single one of their ideas, especially those about which they felt certainty, so that they could wake up to a more accurate perception of themselves. Even though he was conversing with Socrates and others, each participant was also engaged in a dialogue with himself, subjecting his own deeply held opinions to rigorous scrutiny before finally, as a result of the ruthless logic of Socrates’ questioning, relinquishing them. You entered into a Socratic dialogue in order to change; the object of the exercise was to create a new, more authentic self. After they had realised that some of their deepest convictions were based on faulty foundations, Socrates’ disciples could begin to live in a philosophical manner. But if they did not interrogate their most fundamental beliefs, they would live superficial, expedient lives, ‘because the unexamined life is not worth living.’”

So much of life is cloaked in mystery and I suspect that it always will be. Yes like most people I was interested by the news from CERN last week and the discovery of the Higgs-Boson. That said it did not dominate my thoughts. I am actually more concerned by the people around me and the state of their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. That shouldn't surprise folk though should it. I am a minister and not a scientist. There is a lot of truth in Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "Nonoverlapping Magisteria".

From what I understand of it this discovery has proven theories about particle physics that explain how things come into being. So we have an explanation as to how the part of the universe, that we able to witness, came into being. As for the other apparent 86%, the so called “dark matter”, the explanation is still pending. Further while we may well have an answer to the question as to how life comes into being from nothing, we still cannot answer why? While we may have discovered the direct agent that brings about the creation of matter, we have not discovered the ‘ultimate cause’, there is no answer to the purpose and meaning behind the how.

We all ask those questions how and why at some point or another. I’ve yet to find anyone who can answer those questions perfectly whether through religion or the secular world. Maybe this is beyond our human understanding. I’m ok with this these days. It keeps me humble and as a result it opens me up to seek and to search and to experience. Humility reminds me of my smallness. No matter what we learn about life, death, God, and the universe at the end of our lives we will still know next to nothing. This to me is a good thing, because it opens me up and protects me from becoming a slave to the little knowledge that I do possess.

The openness that humility breeds can lead to possibilities way beyond my imagination. For the heart there is no limit on how much we can learn, how much we can change and how much we can love. Yes we need knowledge gained from honest experience; but we also need to accept that our rational minds, whether informed by religion or science, can never fully resolve the mystery and miracle of life. I believe it is beyond out human capacity to ever make complete sense of this mystery that creates life from nothing. That said I do thank God for those who keep on searching and unearthing how material life came into being. I also thank life for those who help us come to terms with our humanity and teach us how to live better lives; to come to terms with our own imperfections while teaching us how to be more tolerant and loving of one another. 

That said what do I know? After all I am one of the most ignorant men in Altrincham.


  1. Danny:
    You have written so much it is hard to comment. I can respond to your opening line, that someday we may know all there is to know.

    NO WAY! THE WORLD CHANGES EVERY MINUTE, EVERY SECOND. life is not a matter of wrapping up the world in a package and saying, "Now I'm got it." Rather, every day it is to keep "making the connections." Because the connections change. ... "You cannot step into the same river twice, because other waters are flowing" .. and they may pure ... or polluted.
    Blessings and hope, Richard

  2. I couldn't agree with you more Richard...thank you