[“The Humble Questioner,” a sermon for First Unitarian Church, Louisville, Sunday, March 24.]

I come from a tradition in which it’s customary to prepare a sermon as a reflection on a text – so here’s one text – it’s a little proverb, actually, that according to tradition was collected by one of the wisest people who ever lived into the book of Ecclesiastes; here it is:

“What is lacking cannot be counted.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15)

In fact, that could mean at least a couple of different things – for instance, it could mean that I can’t count the books I don’t have … I can only count the ones I do.

But, it could also mean that … while I know about the books I don’t have … I don’t know about other sources of information I don’t have … maybe apps or something my daughter knows about, possibly, that I’ve never heard of; reference materials that haven’t been invented yet; … idk … I mean, that’s the point, I don’t know what all might be in that category, and I sure can’t begin to count all that stuff …

Ironically, these two different kinds of lacking were summed up pretty neatly by Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, back in 2002, like this, according to Wikipedia:

… as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

It’s ironic because, when Donald Rumsfeld said that, no one said “Wow, you sound like one of the wisest people who ever lived” – instead, a lot of people flat out laughed at him for saying something kind of … well, stupid …

So, even though I want to get back to those unknown unknowns eventually, it might be safer just to go with a gospel text …

So, here’s a story about Jesus, from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 18, verses 15-17:

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them, and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” [Here ends the reading.]

Now, people have spent a lot of time analyzing that text and contemplating what it means to receive the kingdom of God as a little child …

What is Jesus trying to tell people here? Is he saying we need to be trusting? Accepting? Innocent? Maybe joyful, playful …

In fact, in keeping with the focus on humility, which I understand is the spiritual theme for the month here, most people think this has something to do with being humble, because little children are pretty humble, or at least a lot of grown-ups think they are.

But … there’s something else we know about little children, and that is …

Little children ask A LOT of questions.

Something like 73 questions a day, according to one source. Another study found out that four-year-old girls ask a peak 390 questions a day – about one question every two minutes. We all probably asked something like 40,000 questions from the time we could talk till we were about five years old.

Questions that drove our parents to distraction, or to Google, or both, questions like:

How much does the sun weigh?

How do fish breathe under water?

Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet?

What are shadows made of?

Where does the sky end?

[An online aside: the source for this is online at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9959026/Mothers-asked-nearly-300-questions-a-day-study-finds.html]

And no coincidence, all those questions and all that humility are probably connected

We know this because people have been learning more and more about just how sophisticated the intellectual activity of asking questions is – by … you guessed it, asking questions, like “what are questions, exactly, and where do they come from?”

And in pursuing those questions, neuroscientists and psychologists and other scholars have started to realize that asking questions, for information about reality, calls for a curious blend of human abilities – like, the ability to use language, and to use concepts, – along with a recognition of limits – that is, recognizing that we don’t know – AND the ability to imagine something beyond those limits … We have to be able to think, for instance: “I don’t know, but Mom might” … “I can’t see past the horizon, but if I could travel a bit farther …”

This means that questions arise right at the limits of knowledge … they are a kind of acknowledgement of that limit, as well as a way to explore or even push past it …

So that the act of asking a question is simultaneously – at least usually – the act of acknowledging an intellectual limit, and owning it; and acknowledging and owning our intellectual limitations is arguably one of the best definitions we have of the intellectual virtue we might want to call “intellectual humility” – at least, according to the authors of a paper titled “Intellectual Humility: Owning Our Limitations.”

Seriously, they make a good case … that if what we mean by “humility” is something like “freedom from arrogance and excessive pride,” then in the intellectual area we display that freedom when we are able to recognize our various intellectual limits, and then also acknowledge or admit them, instead of trying to hide them or downplay them, and accept them as ours, as limits that matter for us, … rather than, say, blaming them on something outside – “who could be expected to know that??” or brushing them off – “who cares?”

These humble questions that arise at the limits of our knowledge are precious, too, according to the experts …

Or maybe we’d better call them students, since Frank Lloyd Wright said experts are people who have stopped thinking because they know all the answers …

Anyway, according to people who have been looking into this, questions are what allow scientists to “navigate through” ignorance, checking out possibilities, eliminating explanations that don’t work on their way to ones that do;

Questions are what lead to new inventions – questions like “why isn’t there …?” Or “what if we …?” For instance, asking herself “What if I could paint over my typing mistakes the way I paint over my art mistakes?” led Bette Nesmith Graham to invent Liquid Paper …

Questions are at the heart of what we have come to call “critical thinking,” which depends most basically on asking ourselves a set of important questions: “What are my assumptions here?” and “What’s my evidence for those?” “Does it always work like that, or does it ever work another way?” “Does everyone see it this way?” “Is there another way to look at that or think about that?” These questions allow us to check the validity of our assumptions and to examine them from different perspectives, with a view to make more well-informed decisions – that is, decisions that actually lead to the outcomes we desire.

And the questions we ask shape the kinds of answers we look for, and the kinds of answers we find and latch on to. For instance, asking “Who’s responsible for this mess?” will take us somewhere different from “How can we make this easier to clean up, and less likely to happen again?” So, as David Cooperrider, the developer of a planning technique called “appreciative inquiry” points out, “we all live in the world our questions create.”

But although little children’s questions may exhaust their parents, it won’t last, because

people really stop asking questions as they get older …

And by older, I mean … 6, 16, 26 … as our rate of asking questions really plummets after early childhood …

Why? Well, it seems for all kinds of reasons …

Some of them maybe even having to do with evolutionary biology and brain development … that’s an intellectual limit I’m not going to explore here … but a lot of them having to do with socialization:

We start going to school – where we quickly learn that the teacher asks the questions, and it’s our job to give the answers, and they need to be the right ones, too;

We get involved in more complex social networks, like junior high cliques, where we learn to manage our social status by knowing stuff, and where our belonging to the group depends partly on knowing what “everyone” knows, and where we learn not to expose ourselves to the humiliation of asking a question only to be met with “you don’t know that?”

We get jobs in hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations where we’re paid to solve problems and follow procedures and not to ask why we’re having those problems in the first place, or whether they are the ones we ought to be solving, or why we have these procedures …

So, we stop asking questions for lots of reasons, and at least one of the reasons is that we learn that intellectual humility has some social costs … because in social settings where knowledge & expertise signal social power and control, being up front about what we don’t know can amount to giving away some of our status, or our legitimacy as a leader, … remember Donald Rumsfeld …

and humility’s various opposites, like intellectual arrogance, or even certainty … have some social benefits … like keeping our jobs, like possibly reducing our anxiety and sometimes everyone else’s – people would rather hear the boss say “look, we’ve got this covered” than “what on earth is going on?” – or getting the deference that accrues to superior knowledge …

Social benefits … we learn to like.

And honestly, it’s hard to argue that it’s a bad thing in some absolute sense for people to value things like social solidarity and belonging, or efficient problem solving, or some of the other benefits that come along with having a well-functioning “web of belief” that we’re not always wondering about, a set of assumptions that work pretty well for us and that don’t need to be checked every five minutes, we really can get a lot more done in a fairly stable, fairly well-understood environment …

But we know things like belonging and efficiency and certainty can get out of hand, too …

We can get too attached to our certainties, so that we’re always giving in to our confirmation bias and become prisoners of our all too human tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing ideas and to ignore information that calls them into question;

We can arrange our lives and our reading so that we only experience the affirmation of people who think the way we think, and never encounter other points of view or perspectives, except perhaps as cardboard caricatures of real human beings, that we can dismiss with a roll of the eyes or a label: “stupid,” “crazy,” …

we can become those very experts that Frank Lloyd Wright warned us not to trust … the wisest people in the world, in our own eyes.

If we have to live in the world we make with our questions, then, we may want to make sure we ask plenty of them, and ask the kind of questions that make that world kinder and more humane …

That’s definitely a plea for cultivating intellectual humility and asking the questions that humility facilitates.

Moving in that direction has, I think, a couple of positive SOCIAL consequences – and possibly a SPIRITUAL one, as well.

To think about the SOCIAL consequences, let’s ask ourselves this question: How can we work through and past the paralyzing social and political tribalism of our current cultural moment? What might help?

Something we know for sure is that bombarding “those people” on the other side of whatever issue we can think of with more facts does not help. [Research has shown that when people read facts that support an opposing point of view, they often express more commitment to their original point of view.]

But if we can embrace intellectual humility, if we can recognize a cognitive limit at work when we come up against people who disagree with us – if we can acknowledge that “I don’t understand how you can think that way,” can begin to imagine something worth finding out on the other side of that limit, and begin to ask the questions to find out: “How do you feel about this issue?” “What’s your story – what experiences inform your way of thinking?” “Who are you?” we have a chance to find common ground, common concerns, places to build bridges …

And in that process, by practicing intellectual humility and by treating the asking of questions – even the kind of stupid questions that we have to ask to start to rethink some of the things “everyone knows” – we also reinforce social networks that are more supportive of that intellectual humility, we reward questioning as well as knowing with some of those social benefits of belonging and admiration … so that intellectual humility and curiosity get mixed in to the social cement that holds our social groups together. And if the ethos of the groups we belong to is one that values inquisitiveness and willingness to change our minds in response to new perspectives and new information – that could be a winning solution all the way around.

We might catch a glimpse of the SPIRITUAL consequence if we remember that Socrates (maybe another one of the wisest people who ever lived) supposedly said “philosophy begins in wonder …”

And that all the world’s religions talk about their ultimate object in the language of mystery …

which suggests that whatever it is people mean by spirituality seems to lie in the direction of some big, but humble, questions …

questions that arise at the limits of our comprehension of the human condition and its meaning, where we can perceive a horizon AS a horizon … a limit on our sight, on our knowledge, beyond which … what? we wonder …

“What is lacking cannot be counted” … but perhaps it can be sought out, and perhaps encountered …

An encounter that seems to need questions as the visa to that uncharted territory, which may have to be entered the way little children enter anything beyond the limits of their understanding …

… by means of those persistent, humble, beautiful questions that keep reaching towards those mysterious unknown unknowns …

Where does the sky end?


view of clouds against a blue sky