This isn’t a picture of my cake, but you get the picture. The cake crumbled and eventually I dumped everything into the frosting bowl. Stirred and then turned the whole thing upside down on a plate, ready to eat. It was not the prettiest cake, perhaps you might not even call it a cake, but I did eat it.
With access to almost all the knowledge that is available to humankind in our phones, we can look up hundreds if not thousands of recipes for cakes. We can watch countless YouTube videos on how to bake a cake. But the thing is it isn’t until we have actually try to do it ourselves, until the we apply the knowledge, that we begin to gain the wisdom needed for successful baking or really anything. And as I have learned, even when I do something over and over again on my own, I still may not gain the wisdom I seek. I am still seeking pancake wisdom.
With knowledge at our fingertips, you would think we would become increasingly wise, capable of more and more achievements than ever before. And to some degree, there is accuracy in that. I can tell you that I would never have found where the Prius engineers put the battery that starts the car without a YouTube video. With this knowledge I was able to replace it. Possessing knowledge sometimes isn’t enough. We need to apply it. And when applying it, sometimes we need to listen to someone—or a lot of someones—with a different perspective or perhaps different experiences that can help us grow, understand, and perhaps become a little wiser.
When I was in my late twenties, I decided to build a wooden shed in my backyard. I went to Home Depot and bought the plans, ten pages of mimeographed directions, a pallet of wood, a circular saw, a hammer, and a bag of nails. A truck delivered the wood on my driveway, 2x4’s and plywood, and I began to build the shed, but it just wasn’t as easy as following the directions. I broke 4 wooden-handle hammers in the process, either while hammering or when trying to pull nails out that didn’t go in straight. So many nails didn’t go in straight. And the frame I built didn’t look exactly like the one in the directions. I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. Fortunately, my neighbor was watching me go through my many trials. Little did I know, he was a carpenter. Finally, after watching me build my crooked frame, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He came over and offered me a few pieces of carpentry wisdom. He showed me the tools that would make the job easier and more likely to succeed, and told me to go buy them: a steel hammer and a nail puller, both of which I still have. He also told me that is was okay, if not essential at times—and implied this might be one of those times--to completely start over or tear down all or part of what I had built that didn’t fit together exactly right. He was the one who taught me to measure twice before cutting a piece of wood—measure twice, cut once he said over and over again. He was very much my carpentry Miyagi. I did build the shed, and it looked very much like this one, and while I learned a great deal in the process, I am not by any stretch of the imagination a carpenter.
Why is it that just having knowledge doesn’t make us wise? Well, I have a couple quotes about knowledge and wisdom I want to explore that might help us unpack this. And maybe offer us some insight.
I use tomatoes in my Jambalaya. I have used tomato paste, tomato sauce, sliced tomatoes from a can, fresh sliced roma, cherry, black, heirloom, beefsteak, plum, and compari tomatoes in my Jambalaya. Each one has a different flavor. Some add to the Jambalaya, some not so much. And so I continue to be seeker of tomato wisdom, understanding that while I am exploring through my taste buds, I am also keeping an awareness of the importance of everyone’s taste bud reflections. As we share our taste bud reflections with one another we grow in understanding of each person’s experience of umami.
The next quote is by Rock and roll musician, Jimi Hendrix. He said: “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.” When we are exposed to or find a certain piece of information that seems interesting, funny, something that catches our attention, we can play back it back to others or in more modern terms, open a file and share it, perhaps post it on Facebook. This is just parroting back information; it is not wisdom. Wisdom is about listening—taking in information and letting it sit within us, weighing it against our values, our principles, our ethics and morals, our past experiences and life lessons.
Lately I have been listening to people talking about the Coronavirus or Covid-19. I don’t know enough about Covid-19 to speak with any expertise, and I also realize that I may not ever know everything there is to know about the virus before it potentially impacts my life and the lives of those I care about, including all of you. So I have been wondering, should we begin assessing our pandemic preparedness. I have talked with my ministerial peers about what they are doing. Some nothing. Some are assessing their congregation’s preparedness. Some are considering ways to maintain communal connections if their congregations are unable to gather for a time. Some are searching for pastoral words to calm their congregations without minimizing or catastrophizing the situation. I will ask you to listen and reflect before taking steps to respond to any future local outbreaks, should any occur. I know that Covid-19 is on my radar and I am available to listen to your concerns and feelings. Together, we’ll figure out what—if any—steps we may chose to take. We just need to keep calm and remember to wash our hands. That is applying wisdom to this context.
Isn’t wisdom always about context? Whether the context is baking a cake, comparing tomatoes, carpentry, viruses, or building community.
What about communal wisdom? Wisdom we assess, affirm, promote, apply as a community. We come together here to wonder about and makes sense of our beliefs in community. Unitarian Universalists are non-doctrinal. We don’t tell others what they need to believe. Instead, we listen to and hear the experiences and thoughts of others as they reflect on the information from their life experiences, their world view, their values, principles, ethics and morals. What happens when we gather together and share our knowledge and wisdom with one another? What communal wisdom rises from that kind of open exchange. One good example of that is our Unitarian Universalist Principles.
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
These came about because Unitarian Universalists from across this country discussed what it is that holds us together as a denomination, what we believe or believe in, and how we can describe ourselves to others. It took over 20 years to complete all seven principles. This was a process of consensus-building, word-smithing, voting, and ratifying our collective wisdom.
And you know what, there is an eighth Principle that will be voted on in 2022. Right now many of our congregations have voted to add this eighth Principle to the 7 Principles that they already affirm and promote within their congregations and to the world. Consider the eighth Principle: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” This eighth Principle is a result of the collective knowledge and wisdom of many Unitarian Universalists. The process of adding this Principle started over 20 years ago.
“Paula Cole Jones, of … the mid-Atlantic district of the Unitarian Universalist Association, … developed the idea of the existence of 2 different paradigms in Unitarian Universalist circles: the Unitarian Universalist 7 Principles and Beloved Community (deep multiculturalism). After working with congregations on these issues for over 15 years, she realized that a person can believe they are being a “good UU” and following the 7 Principles without thinking about or dealing with racism and other oppressions at the systemic level…She realized that an 8th Principle was needed to correct this, and talked with Bruce Pollack-Johnson about some of the components that should be in it. Bruce put together an initial draft in 2013, and the two of them worked with a group of anti-racist activists … to refine it. Bruce’s congregation (the UU Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia) incorporated [this new eighth Principle] into their Covenant at that time, then in May 2017 formally adopted it for themselves and recommended that the UUA adopt it.” (from the eighth Principle of Unitarian Universalism website)
As I said, it is a long process for wisdom to be ratified by Unitarian Universalists. The question we may ask ourselves, reflect on together, and ultimately vote on, is does the wisdom in this eighth Principle reflect who we want to be, how we aspire to act, and what we choose to promote within these walls and beyond these walls.
I hope you take time to examine the relationship between knowledge and wisdom through your own lens. Life can seem like a pressure-cooker at times and deciding how to shop through the store of considerable knowledge at your fingertips is part of your personal spiritual preparation and, as such, part of our collective spiritual preparation for a flavorful and sustaining life. Consider drawing on the values and Principles that you relish as you ingest information and then use the truths to fuel you search for truth, meaning, wisdom. And remember to turn to those around you and garnish your truths with their experiences, perspectives and wisdom. Be knowledgeable, yes, but be sure to leave a little room on your plate for wisdom. Because no one gets all the wisdom, but everyone gets some. If you listen to the stories, the stories of the people in this Beloved Community, you will hear it.