knowledge and certainty

As is our practice my wife Kim and I drove to the bus stop this morning for my ride to the city. During this morning’s conversation we discussed something a person had said about cultural influences on our character. We both agreed that the observation made was given without understanding of the culture or the expression of that culture in community. That seemed to really bother my spouse, she felt the person should have better understood what she was talking about before she had made the observation about another culture. Like many people what really annoys my partner are comments made without reference to knowledge, how we take very limited experience and knowledge and make grand pronouncements for all the world to know.

As I listened to this semi-rant I realized that self-awareness prohibited any kind of judgement from me about what this woman had said to Kim. I make pronouncements all the time, some with knowledge baked in to the analysis and some not. I just like making pronouncements, I think it is partly due to my vocation. But I make these statements without certainty, and I qualify each one with the limited knowledge I have. Obviously the better way would be to refrain from making a statement unless one knows the details of what one is talking about. But I doubt I will ever get that right. So to mitigate that I qualify everything, I offer my limited brain power, experience and knowledge so others know that I am not certain, only “hunching”.

What drives me to distraction are folks who offer opinions without qualification and with great certainty, like they “know”, except they don’t know. As someone who relies on verbal advice (I am a man who asks directions) it is disconcerting to hear someone offer advice that is full of confidence and certainty only to find out that person knows less than me. I remember a padre in the Canadian Forces whom I met when I was serving as a Civilian Chaplain. This man was to be my mentor. Except every single thing he told me as certain fact was wrong, was very, very wrong. Later I discovered that everyone in his Unit knew he was like this, they actually took whatever he said and did the opposite because they knew was always wrong.

One reason I find certainty so problematic is spiritual, I think Jesus in the Gospels makes common practice of undermining certainty, “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” Jesus frequently takes the common sense, the accepted wisdom, and turns it on its head to make a pronouncement that is very different than what others expected. Jesus’ definition of family, his feeding of people on the Sabbath, his observation of whom comes first and whom comes last, these are all contrary to what we expect him to say. It feels like when people tell Jesus something with great certainty it only doubles Jesus’ resolve to say something provocative.

Our culture seems to value education and knowledge and thus when people speak without either it can make us very frustrated. But we also live in a culture where we have an overinflated view of our own knowledge, google has made us all “experts”. But maybe the answer to our challenges lies less in what we know and more in accepting that others know more. It’s worth asking the question…