When I was twenty-three and in Bible college, I had a firm opinion about everything Bible related. Confidence oozed out of me so much so that other students of further Bible college years would seek my opinions on various matters. There’s nothing wrong with having strong convictions and confidence. But I mean, I knew everything. Knew. Like, beyond question. Absolute. Fact.
But the reality was that I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew, and this (as irony would have it) led me to believe that I knew everything.
Since then, as I have ventured beyond my cul-de-sac faith, I have found that I was wrong or, at the least, inaccurate about so many things. The deeper I’ve travelled, the further back I go, the more I focus on one particular area in theology or history, the bigger every subject I come across becomes, the less I realize I know and, in theory anyways, this should result in humility.
In his book Humilitas, John Dickson retells the (probably well known) parable of four individuals in a plane that has lost both engines and is going down. The first is the pilot, the second a world renown PhD Physicist, the third a retired minister and the fourth is a backpacker. The pilot announces that the plane is going down, there are four of them but only three parachutes. Since he is the pilot and the parachutes belong to him, he declared that he’s taking one. The other three agree and swoosh, out the plane goes the pilot and down to safety. The brilliant physicist then reminds the other two that his mind is a great asset to the human race, he must take the text parachute. The other two agree and swoosh, the brilliant physicist is out the plane and on his way down with a shoot.
The retired minister turns to the young backpacker and says, “I’m old and have had a life-time to serve people. Allow me this one last honour of servitude by letting you take the final parachute”. But before he could get all of that out the young woman says to him, “minister, there’s no need. That brilliant physicist jumped out of the plane with my backpack instead of a parachute!”
The point Dickson draws out is that while someone may be brilliant in some areas, that does not make them brilliant in all areas. In fact, for that one person to have reached the level of PhD presupposes that he knows how deep, and wide, and high the pool of information really is, just to specialize in one tiny area! This should foster a great deal of humility when discussing areas in which he does not specialize in. We should also think, however, that he should also have a fostered humility even in the area he does specialize in, because what he knows does not amount to the combined knowledge of others who also specialize in that same area. To summarize this, Dickson writes:
“True experts ought to be more conscious of their limitations than most. Knowing a lot in one area should, in theory, underline just how much there is to know outside of your specialty.” (p.53)
Experts should know this more than the rest of us because they are experts. But the lesson is one we should all remind ourselves of regularly. Next time we get into a discussion with someone about something we believe in contention to something they believe, remember that what we know about that subject (even if we are experts in it) is far out weighted by what we don’t know. How can this reminder not lead to humility?!
“Whatever our skills and expertise, what we don’t know and can’t do far exceeds what we do know and can do. Despite the power of self-deception – and, indeed, as its antidote – a good dose of humility is common sense.” (p.59)