I didn’t think much of humility when I left the family apple orchard for college in the big city. I admired the virtue in other people, but to the community I came from, the most important concern was the state of one’s soul, and it seemed far more central to the state of my soul to be certain of my beliefs than to be open to other points of view. A little arrogance was excusable if it kept you from being “wishy-washy.”
But my new life in a wildly diverse city soon revealed that my community wasn’t the only one with answers. The people I encountered were just as thoughtful and articulate, and yet they reached far-different conclusions from mine.
I began to re-examine how I know. Eventually I decided that, yes, I do believe in absolute truths, but I also believe I cannot grasp those truths absolutely. The mists of personal background and logical inconsistencies fog the lenses of my soul, obscuring my vision. Once I realized my great potential for misunderstanding – or even self-delusion – humility came to out-rank certainty in the hierarchy of my values.
So now I believe in epistemological humility. That’s the technical term for the old adage “the more I know, the less I know.” And it’s a state of mind that’s relevant every time I’m faced with a decision about a public policy, a religious tradition, a relationship. I can’t always postpone these decisions until I’ve uncovered every fact and weighed the merits of every point of view. I have to go with what I know so far. But as I stand there with the stable footing my current beliefs provide, I’m aware that this is not my last consideration of the issues. Someday a great book may knock down a feeble argument I still employ. Or a patient friend may lead me down a better-lit path than the one I follow today. For now, I act on my beliefs all the while I am testing them, discovering whether their properties are rock solid or perhaps more like sand.
I’m finding that this rooted-but-seeking stance is the gateway to mutual respect, to conversation with others who enrich my life with the variety of their wisdoms. It opens me up to the possibility of perpetual learning, to the reinvigoration of fresh ideas rather than the calcification of a mind forever made up.
So though I have plenty of convictions, I continue to question and test and dialogue. And I cup the results of those soul-searchings in the palm of my hand, lightly, with expectant humility.