Delivered April 14, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
A subject I have been pondering lately is the difference between wisdom and knowledge and I am going to talk about this today without visiting a dictionary definition. Here is what the difference is for me. When you have knowledge you have amassed information. I know people with many many advanced degrees who have a great deal of knowledge. Wisdom on the other hand, is the ability to use knowledge of any level, in a way that is wise, or in other words, in a way that helps build understanding that can weigh information in order to have meaningful, helpful and enlightening understandings, conclusions, deductions, inferences, judgments, decisions, elucidations, and/or interpretations. Remember, these definitions are from Miller’s dictionary, not Webster’s Dictionary.
Another thing about wisdom versus knowledge, knowledge is information which by itself can be fleeting. For instance, if you helped design that first cell phone, you know the one that looked like a military walkie-talkie and you didn’t keep up with the changes in technology, you may have knowledge, and may always have that particular knowledge, but the usefulness of that knowledge in its application becomes limited at a certain point in time. Wisdom is timeless. Remember, wisdom and knowledge are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they certainly can exists one without much of the other.
When we are growing up, as children we often confuse the two. When we are very young, we think that those who are older than us have both wisdom and knowledge. We certainly think they have more information, for they are older, have lived longer and when you are 5, that can be both helpful and daunting. As we move into our teen years, we still know that older people have more knowledge, but we often doubt their wisdom. As a teenager, I didn’t think my father was being wise when telling me that I have to be home at a certain time on a school night, or that if I didn’t do my math homework I wouldn’t be able to function in life. Both wise pronouncements that rang true, I ended up not in math 101 in college, not in math 100 in college but in math 50, where I was grateful for the knowledge and the wisdom of the professor, not to mention compassion and patience.
As we get older, and move into adulthood, we realize that we have to make all these decisions and judgments eventually about what is wise and what isn’t. It certainly happens that we come to realize that people we looked up to or thought were full of wisdom, were full of many things and maybe wisdom wasn’t really one of them. This can lead to disillusionment and disharmony and discombobulation. It also leads us to our own paths of gathering knowledge and exploring wisdom both for ourselves and how we relate it to others.
Before I became a minister, in some ways I was like a child. I went into seminary thinking that there was all this knowledge and all this wisdom that I had to learn and I had to figure out how to extract it. Certainly that process was influenced by listening to other ministers, people who I would look up to as I was going through my ministerial formation who would talk about our Unitarian Universalist forbearers and their wisdom. Somewhere along the way, I decided I didn’t really want to talk much about the white male long deceased forefathers of our Unitarian Universalist heritage, I was from a new breed of UU minsters who cared more about interculturality and doing anti-oppression/anti-racism work. I was a man of the 21st century who wanted to mold the world for the next 100 years, not dwell in the past couple of hundred. I wanted to talk about things that were relevant to our lives now whether individual or collective, and I felt like these were people who lived long ago and what could they possibly teach us now?
I think a bit of that may have come from not really practicing any religious tradition where I studied scripture or writings from those who came before me. I also think it was from being a product of a generation that really wasn’t interested in hearing much from authority figures, certainly not old white guys from days gone by, I have talked many times about my heroes, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Rosa Parks, and Bruce Springsteen (before he was an old white guy) to name a few. So I went into seminary and came out of it not that interested in recapping thoughts from our “traditional” historical figures.
To be honest, I also think that this partially also comes from ego and arrogance. I think new generations sometimes feel that they don’t have much to learn from the ones that have come before and as I entered into the ministry, there was a part of me that said, yes, I have my own thoughts and why should I refer back to those guys. But of course, one of the benefits of age and experience is to learn lessons about what you don’t know in life and to tell you the truth, seminary itself is pretty humbling as I would guess most graduate programs are, one of the things they teach you is how much you actually don’t know and how much there is to learn beyond the time and ability to learn it, a lesson I am still learning.
So here I am almost 9 years into my journey of ministry and I keep hearing about these sages of Unitarian Universalism. I specifically keep hearing about the Harvard Divinty School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was poking around the internet looking for the text and I found an article on Huffington Post by author Richard Geldard titled, “Divinity School Day: Ralph Waldo Emerson Shocks Harvard.” In it he says, “Today (July 15) is celebrated among a small group of dedicated scholars, readers and thinkers as Divinity School Day. On this day in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a speech (some call it a sermon) on the occasion of the graduation of the Class of 1838 from Harvard's Divinity College, as it was called then. He gave his talk in the evening in a small chapel on the second floor of what is now Emerson Hall, to a group of fewer than 100 people, made up of six graduates, faculty, parents and friends. Emerson was not exactly a welcome choice for speaker that evening. There were grumbles from the faculty in particular because, even though Emerson himself was a graduate, he had a few years before resigned as a minister and begun a lecture and publishing career, and worse, his ideas were revolutionary. How so? Here are a few key lines from his speech that July evening: “Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.” Then the article goes on to quote the sermon further citing the section that was radical for the day, a commentary on the current nature of the church, “Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.”
It is often thought of that this is an address about leaving behind the walls of the institutions of religion to go out and find spirit, wonder, divinity and/or God for yourself and he goes on to write beautifully and brilliantly about finding that in the presence of nature in future works. I think, in many ways this is also about this idea of knowledge vs. wisdom. He was talking about moving beyond what was taught or held forth as the orthodoxy of tradition and forming and understanding life in a way that didn’t just fill you with knowledge but also helped you form your own wisdom. Exploring further about the institution of religion of his time he said, “Certainly there have been periods when, from the inactivity of the intellect on certain truths, a greater faith was possible in names and persons. The Puritans in England and America, found in the Christ of the Catholic Church, and in the dogmas inherited from Rome, scope for their austere piety, and their longings for civil freedom. But their creed is passing away, and none arises in its room. I think no man can go with his thoughts about him, into one of our churches, without feeling, that what hold the public worship had on men is gone, or going. It has lost its grasp on the affection of the good, and the fear of the bad. In the country, neighborhoods, half parishes are signing off, — to use the local term. It is already beginning to indicate character and religion to withdraw from the religious meetings. I have heard a devout person, who prized the Sabbath, say in bitterness of heart, "On Sundays, it seems wicked to go to church." And the motive, that holds the best there, is now only a hope and a waiting. What was once a mere circumstance, that the best and the worst men in the parish, the poor and the rich, the learned and the ignorant, young and old, should meet one day as fellows in one house, in sign of an equal right in the soul, — has come to be a paramount motive for going thither.” Yes, Yes, yes, he was saying that the church had lost it’s way but, in a small stretch, I also think he was saying, you can certainly have all this knowledge that gets handed down and spoon fed, but if it is not tempered with wisdom, with acting wisely, without thinking critically and wisely, religious instruction is meaningless. By the way, it is well noted that as a result of this sermon, Emerson was banned from Harvard for more than 30 years.
Another one of these traditional historical figures was Theodore Parker. In an article from the UU World in Fall 2010 titled Theodore Parker, Radical Theologian, author Dean Grodzins says, “Theodore Parker was perhaps the most influential American Unitarian minister who ever lived. He was one of the greatest American preachers; the leader, with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, of the Transcendentalist movement; and a major antislavery leader and theorist of democracy. His example inspired generations of radical activists. . . ”
Although I had read about Rev. Parker before, I appreciated the synopsis of information, “He was one of the first American clergymen to endorse women’s suffrage, and the first to refer to God as both “Father” and “Mother.” He became the intellectual leader of the antislavery movement, opposed the proslavery “Mexican War,” and took charge of the Boston movement to rescue fugitive slaves. Today, his name is hardly known, but we remember Parker without realizing it. For instance, everyone seems to know two statements of his without knowing they come from him. One is the definition of democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Abraham Lincoln used this definition in his Gettysburg Address, but he was adapting a definition that Parker often used, that democracy was ‘government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.’ Everyone also knows the assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This phrase crops up all over, and most people think they are quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., King did frequently use these words, but he was paraphrasing Parker, who in his book Ten Sermons of Religion wrote: I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” The writer of this article gives us something to ponder when he notes, “We would also do well to rediscover Parker’s thinking about democracy. When Lincoln changed Parker’s “all the people” to “the people,” something critical was lost. That “all” meant for Parker that democracy had not been achieved in America, and never would be, until social and political inequalities were overcome.”
There has been a great lesson for me in rediscovering this connection to the past and that is, wisdom is timeless and can be found in many places. I look at the pictures of this era of people, like the one on the front cover of your order of service and I think about these two guys as being old white men whose didn’t necessarily have that much to teach me, or us, and I lift them up to having some timeless wisdom that still holds up all these years. But then, there is another assumption in this story that I have challenge myself to contemplate, they weren’t old when they wrote many of these wise words, in fact, they were younger than me. In 1838 when Emerson shocked Harvard, he was 35 years old.
As for Parker, (again from the UU World article), he was “born in Lexington, Massachusetts, on August 24, 1810, Parker was a largely self-taught prodigy who by age 25 could read twenty languages. Ordained and settled in 1837 at the small Unitarian parish in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (now the Theodore Parker Church), he soon gained a reputation as a powerful pulpit orator. In 1841 he issued one of the great Transcendentalist manifestoes, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in which he denied that the Bible had any miraculous authority, and declared it full of myths.” “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity” was delivered when Channing was 31 years old. These two men by today’s standards would be in our young adult group when they delivered these groundbreaking sermons which proves, wisdom isn’t a product of a certain age group or of any specific generation.
It’s funny, as I was completing the writing of this sermon I took a little break and ended up in conversation with a couple of parents about their kids. It echoed a recent conversation that is taking place in my family and in families all over the world about being wise with regard to the best course of action when it comes to the issues of aging parents. Both conversations, reminded me of this quote from― Mahatma Gandhi, “It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” At all of our stages in life, when it comes to matters of importance, we gather as much information as we can and seek to act as wisely as possible. We often don’t have the answers to what is the clear course, what is the wisest decision. Part of our wisdom has to be about engaging with an open mind and an open heart. Emerson and Parker were charting new territory, something that we all do every day. We gather our knowledge, we tap into our wisdom and we move forward. Wisdom doesn’t have a specific face, nor a clear path, nor the one right answer, and thinking it does may be a bit unwise. Wisdom is a product of listening, being open, reflecting, gathering knowledge, being vulnerable, understanding our strengths and our challenges, admitting to imperfection, loving deeply, and doing the best we can. In other words, being as human as possible.
May that be so.