Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

A Chastened Epistemology and a Bag of Candy

November 24, 2008


I had a blast from the past today as I scanned the dial of the car radio and heard a voice from my youth: the Bishop of the evangelical church, Chuck Swindoll. Who sounds as clear as ever, but who also sounds thousands of miles away.

He was preaching from Chronicles, admiring the great wisdom and knowledge of the young Jewish monarch Solomon. Along the way, he interjected the old aphorism, “you will never lead another person to a level of spiritual maturity which you yourself have not attained.” It was a bit of a non sequitor, made even more notable because it was delivered with more certainty than anything else in his sermon. He didn’t say what he meant by ‘spirituality’, or what practices he was commending. I can only guess that as a preeminent, card-carrying evangelical, he was thinking of the Big Three: Bible Study, Prayer, and Bible Study (in fact, the sole stated point of ‘application’ in his sermon about the importance of knowledge and wisdom was to ask his listeners to pray for professional educators, rather than to learn or teach themselves).

My quibble wasn’t with his definition of ‘spirituality’, or of the apparently abstracted nature of same, but with the fear which such statements induce, and the hierarchical vision presumed. Assuming that each person must be taught by someone who is more accomplished or expert forces everyone to rank everyone in their life– to decide who they will teach, and who is worthy to teach them. Moreover, it creates a real sense of fear and inadequacy in those of us who would hope to influence others in some way. Like, say, parents. Are our children forced to inherit our ignorance, and repeat our sins? May it never be!

All of this came back to me later when I was contemplating a bag of Swedish Fish with my daughter. She was pointing through the clear window at “the green one, who is hiding!” I pointed at the fish in question and commended her observation, whereupon she corrected me, using her smaller finger to point to the little sliver of the fish above the one I had identified. “Not the wed one, Daddy, the gween one wight here!”

Indeed. With my partial colorblindness, I’m in no position to teach her colors. Yes, I can help her with the basics: the difference between brown and black, yellow and red, or blue and green. But I’m hopeless when it comes to the distinction between blue and purple, the place where yellow becomes orange, and the finer points of orange and purple. When I’m going about a day with my daughter, there are plenty of times that the best I can do is to say something like, “Actually, sweetie, I think that shirt is pink,” or, “No, that flower is not purple– I’m pretty sure it’s orange”.

Am I worried that she’ll be an outcast at school, or wear brown shoes with a black shirt, or be forced to give up her dream of becoming a clothing designer? Not in the least. I know that her mother and her friends and community will fill in the gaps of ignorance and inability that I have. I know that there will be times when I can tell her what I know (about whatever subject) and encourage her to move beyond my level of understanding and mastery. She will be limited by her own interests and inabilities and mistakes, but she isn’t limited by her old man (thanks be to God). I’ll teach her some stuff, and she’ll teach me (in fact, I’m looking forward to having another advocate around the house to raise her eyebrows and smile and say, “were you planning to wear that?”

Which is not to argue for ignorance, passivity, or some kind of magical acquisition of wisdom. Rather, it is a thankful assertion that we as individuals are not limited by our limitations or those of the people around us. We’re not as weak as our most profound weakness. And collectively, we are able to become more than the sum of our parts.

Posted in:

3 Responses to “A Chastened Epistemology and a Bag of Candy”

  1. Anonymous says:

    One thing not mentioned would have to be that we all are instructed differently. Period. Because we (me) are always the variable. I have different influences around me than you, different than my siblings, different than my friends, parents, relatives, neighbors, etc. While not wanting to argue with you or Chuck, I’ve always enjoyed both, I choose to think that both of you have good points. Experience is the great teacher, but not without wonder, awe and conjecture.
    Holy crap, that sounds deep! I better stop.
    Tom D.M.

  2. Thinking about “maturity”. It is clear Chuck is wrong, because then once you become the most mature person in your church you would stop maturing, which is ridiculous.

    I wonder if maturity comes from failure?

Leave a Reply