Humility: The Art of Knowing What We Don’t Know

From Benjamin Papa  ·  August 20, 2006

A common misconception about the Unitarian side of our Unitarian Universalist history is that the Unitarians left the Congregationalist tradition of which they were a part because they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity – the notion that they were Unitarian as over and against Trinitarian. It’s certainly true that most Unitarian Christians, then and today, emphasize Jesus’ humanity rather than the more orthodox emphasis on his divinity. However, the biggest bone of contention that the early Unitarians had with the Calvinist Congregationalist establishment of which they were a part was not about whether or not Jesus was divine, but rather was related to the value of human beings. A core Calvinist tenet was “the utter depravity of humanity.” The idea that humans are worthless – nothing without the redeeming grace of God to clean us up and make us whole. Unitarians rejected this notion so vehemently that they ultimately were transformed themselves from being the liberal branch of the Congregational tradition into a separate denomination altogether, the Unitarians.

The practical results of this shift in theology were both wide and deep. There was explicit and widespread appreciation for human endeavors – art and especially science. In fact, Unitarians placed such a high value on humanity’s ability to uncover “truth” through intellectual rationality and the scientific method that, over time, many Unitarians began to reject their Christian heritage altogether in favor of a more secular, humanistic vision of the world. In the early part of the twentieth century, when the formal Humanist movement was in its heyday, the Unitarians, and to a lesser extent, the Universalists, played major roles in the creation of the Humanist Manifesto and other hallmarks of the movement.

The Unitarians of history and the Unitarian Universalists of today take human beings very seriously. One of the clearest and most talked about manifestations of our belief in the basic goodness of humanity is our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, especially the first one that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And I thank God that we do dare to affirm every person. Far too much of the time in our world, whole categories of people are demonized and written off as unimportant, immoral, or even evil. There are so many forces in society that rob us of our self-esteem, that I believe the strong humanist strain in Unitarian Universalism is one of our greatest strengths as a movement.

But there is another spiritual quality that serves as the yin to the yang of humanism’s confidence. I am referring of course, to the trait of humility. By humility I mean the attitude to be willing to be critical of oneself and open to the Spirit’s guidance even when it differs from our own preconceived concepts. Humility goes hand in hand with traits such as meekness and modesty. It requires sincerity, honesty, and introspection. Perhaps most important of all, humility asks us to listen to one another and to the universe. To believe that we have a great deal to learn and that we will never know everything. Humility.

Many of you know that in addition to being a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry, I am also an attorney and mediator. I love my mediation work because it allows me to pull together my skills as an attorney and as a minister to help individuals and groups who are in conflict to work together toward a fair resolution to whatever dispute they are experiencing. I have spent much of this summer attending training seminars around the country and doing other work related to my mediation practice. All of these hours of meetings and seminars have reminded me that a core presupposition of mediation is the idea that true conflict transformation and even interpersonal healing can come only when we are willing to listen to one another – especially those with whom we disagree. Different from the litigation system, the parties in mediation do not rely on a judge to make their decisions for them, but rather the mediator facilitates discussion in such a way that the parties are empowered to make their own decisions.

I have seen in my practice over and over how crucial the act of listening is to conflict resolution. When we are in the thick of an interpersonal or other type of dispute, we feel a strong need to be heard. We want to make our point. We want the other person to know how much they have hurt us, to know that they are missing the point, misunderstanding our position, maybe even being downright mean. But I am coming to learn in my own life, both in my personal life as well as through my work as a mediator, that we will only bridge the gap between ourselves and those with whom we disagree when we step back, calm down, and listen. When we are humble enough to know that what we have to say and what we think is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

A couple of years ago, my partner Brad and I attended a weekend couple’s enrichment workshop in Houston, Texas. We, along with about six other couples participated in a program that followed the Imago model of human interactions, which is based on the work of Harville Hendrix in his wonderful book,Getting the Love You Want. I highly recommend that book and any of Hendrix’s books for a model of how to think about and participate in relationships. One of the core exercises that all of us at the workshop in Texas engaged in over the weekend is called the Couple’s Dialogue. The central feature of the Couple’s Dialogue is, even in the midst of an emotional disagreement, to learn not only to listen to your partner, but to reflect back verbally to him or her exactly what he or she is saying.

Now I don’t mind telling you that I was skeptical. I am not a particularly touchy-feely person and I was less than thrilled by the prospect of spending three days repeating back to Brad how he was feeling about one thing or another, especially the ways in which he was frustrated with me. But I also have to say that participating in the workshop made a believer out of me. You see, Brad and I are very much alike. When we disagree about something, our modus operandi is to try and convince the other one of the validity of our particular position. We are both very good at crafting logical arguments and turning phrases just so in order to try to get each other to see the error of his ways. Over the years we have spent hours making our case to one another in ways that would make my high school debate coach cry tears of joy. But too often the true underlying conflict was never resolved because at the end of the day, we had never truly listened to one another.

The beauty of the Couple’s Dialogue model of communication is that it made us, when we were in the listening role, to put all of responses – the “yeah, but”; and the “that’s not what I meant” – on the shelf. Our sole responsibility was to listen. To understand what the other person was feeling. To humble ourselves enough to know that all of our well thought out responses and logical counterarguments are not what is called for. What is called for is humility. Listening. Openness.

Like many of you, I have been disheartened on an almost daily basis by the vitriolic, patronizing, and short-sighted rhetoric that seems to flow endlessly from officials of the United States government these days. Something is deeply wrong with how our society conceives of itself when our President and Secretary of State insist publicly that, no matter the level of tension, we refuse even to speak to countries with whom we disagree, such as Iran or North Korea. Not even to speak? Why in the world not? How can we ever expect to resolve our differences if we are not even willing to have a conversation? What do we think we have to lose by talking with one another and learning more about each other’s perceptions and ideas? We might find that we are all reasonable human beings who love our families and countries. Why do we seem to be so intent on waiting until we can justify a bombing raid in the name of the seemingly endless “war on terror”? I pray for the day when interpersonal conflict doesn’t automatically mean we sue each other and conflict between countries doesn’t necessarily mean we kill one another.

The world’s religions, both major and minor, have a great deal to say about humility. A traditional African proverb states that “It is humility that exalts one and favors him against his friends.” Jesus taught in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Koran, the holiest book of Islam, tells us “Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers…” Hinduism’s Bhagavad-Gita tells us to “Be humble, be harmless, have no pretension…” And I could go on and on. As a religious person, I have to take seriously the fact that so many wise people over so many millennia, across so many continents taught such a similar lesson. There is value in humility. In knowing what we don’t know. In listening.

Some of us sitting in this room today believe in God or some other form of a higher power. Others do not. Some believe in life after death. Others do not. The fact of the matter is that none of us in this room can say for sure that what we believe about these questions and others like them is objectively true with a capital “T.” We simply do not know. The good news is that we can act from a place that realizes that we don’t have all of the answers to all of the questions. Instead, the whole world, and Unitarian Universalists in particular, make up a vast matrix of ideas and beliefs – a beautiful patchwork quilt of many colors and patterns. And we can listen to one another. If our inclination is always to be led by our heads, maybe we can try to develop our intuition and also try to follow our hearts more of the time. If we are more often led by our emotions and instincts, we can grow by learning to take seriously scientific research and academic learning. But more than anything, I hope all of us can balance our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person against the fact that no one person or group of people has cornered the market on truth. May all of us know what we don’t know, open our hearts and minds, and learn the art of humility. Amen.

Francis: ‘Humility, service as pathway to Jesus’

From The National Catholic Reporter:

So what is the pathway to Jesus?

If you listen to Pope Francis, it is through humility and service. It is a path, Francis said in a homily at Casa Santa Marta the first day back after the holiday season.

According to Vatican Radio, Francis took the words “Remain in the Lord,” from the first reading from the apostle John, as the starting point for his homily. It is a “counsel for life,” Francis said, that John repeats “almost obsessively.”

The apostle shows “one of the attitudes of the Christian who wants to remain in the Lord: to understand what’s happening in one’s own heart.” For this reason, he warns us, “Do not to trust every spirit, but test the spirits.” It is necessary, Francis said, to know “the discernment of spirits,” to discern whether something helps us “remain in the Lord or takes us away from Him.”

“Our heart,” he added, “always has desires, has cravings, has thoughts.” But “are these from the Lord or do some of these things take us away from the Lord?” That’s why the apostle John exhorts us to “test” what we think and desire:

“If this goes along the line of the Lord, it will go well, but if not … Test the spirits to see if they really come from God, because many false prophets have come into the world.”

What, then, is the criterion to determine if something comes from Christ? St. John, Francis said, has a clear “simple” idea:

“If a thought, if a desire takes you along the road of humility and abasement, of service to others, is from Jesus. But if it brings you to the road of sufficiency, of vanity, of pride, along the path of an abstract thought, it is not from Jesus.

We think of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness: All three proposals the demon makes to Jesus are proposals that intended to take him away from this path, the path of service, of humility, of humiliation, of charity. But the charity accomplished with his life, no? To the three temptations Jesus says no: “No, this is not my path!”

Francis then invited everyone to think about what happens in their own hearts. What do we think and feel, what do we desire, do I examine the spirits? “Do I test what I think, what I want, what I desire — he asked — or do I accept it all” without discernment?

“So many times, our heart is a road, everything passes there … Put it to the test! And do I always choose the things that come from God? Do I know which are the things that come from God? Do I know the true criterion by which to discern my thoughts, my desires? Let us think of this, and let us not forget that the criterion is the Incarnation of the Word. The Word is come in the flesh: this is Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ who was made man, God made man, who lowered Himself, humbled Himself for love, in order to serve all of us. And may the Apostle John grant us this grace to know what is happening in our hearts, and to have the wisdom to discern what is of God and what is not of God.”

Humility: Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Graphics: Borders


Graphics: Journeys

Boy Traveling Away From Home

Graphics: Joy

Enthusiastic Girl Jumping into Air

Sermon: Joy & Woe are Woven Fine

Sermon located at:

Sermon by Steve Edington
About two weeks ago, thanks to Time Magazine, I learned that I am among the happiest people in the land – or the happiest at my job anyway. Really, the magazine did a survey of the people who were the happiest, and least happy, with their jobs. Whatever their criterion for happiness was – and they didn’t actually say what it was – members of the clergy, from a wide range of faith traditions, came in first. Firefighters came in second. Ministers, Firefighters, and on down from there to Gas Station Attendants, who were the least happy with their work. (Hey, I just report this stuff; don’t ask me to explain it.)
Now, I have to tell you, I tried mightily to come up with some kind of cute and clever reason as to why ministers and firefighters got grouped together as numbers one and two at the top of the happiness scale, and couldn’t get anything at all. The punch line just wasn’t there for me. But if you can come up with one let me know. Maybe I can use it somewhere else.

Well, that Time piece did generate a certain amount of chatter on a UU ministers’ chat line I’m on, with a bunch of us trying to figure out if we’re as happy as we’re supposed to be. It happened to be the day before Thanksgiving when I logged into the conversation. I was in a whimsical kind of mood just sitting around by myself. Michele and Gordon had already departed for New York. I would join them the next day. So I dashed off a few thoughts of my own on the subject to the chat-line, using the title “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
I clicked “Send” and didn’t think much more about it…until later that evening when I started getting requests from several of my colleagues asking if they could quote me on what I’d said in their sermons. Which sent me back to re-read just what it was I did say. Then, when I came to write this sermon, I figured that if some of my esteemed colleagues out there are using my stuff I might as well get some mileage out of it myself. So, with some minor editing, here’s a part of what I said:

“Throwing in the usual caveats about happiness being hard to define, and knowing that we’ve all had our less than happy times as ministers, I can buy into what Time is reporting…I certainly don’t go around deliriously happy all the time, as that would be a little hard to take and would make me very hard to take as well. But with over 35 years in the ministry and with still a few trips around the block yet to come, I don’t know of anything else I could have done with my life to this point that’s given me a better overall sense of satisfaction than being a minister has…Here’s why I think we clergy come out at or near the top of the happiness scale:

[First] “Ours is one of the few callings and professions left, especially when it comes to the UU ministry, where you can be an actual ‘Renaissance Person’ and make a living at it. I don’t know of any other career I could have chosen that allows me to draw on as wide a range of interests and involvements as I have, and feel they are part of a larger whole. Or, to put it another way, being a minister has allowed me to live a largely un-fragmented life, even with the various fragmented times and moments every one of us experiences now and then.

[Second] “Ministry is not an end in itself or only a way to make a living. Granted there are times, as we all well know, when it feels like just a job and a pain-in-the-wherever job at that. But ministry is really about serving a higher cause or purpose – named in a variety of ways – that transcends even the word ‘ministry.’ I know there are other professions that can rightly make the same claim, but I think it is especially pronounced with us. I think a fundamental component of happiness, or state of well being, is living with a sense and awareness that you are participating in something greater than yourself, and the ministry gives us that.”

Then, just to wrap it all up on a down to earth note, I added this: “I’m going to save what I’ve just written here so I can refer to it when I’m in one of my what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-when-I-chose-to-do-this? kinds of moods. But it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m in a quiet lull before the Holiday storm and craziness, and thinking that all in all I rather like where I am and what I’m doing.”

As I mused a bit on this conversation with colleagues, and with the happiness rankings in Time magazine, I think what we were really talking and writing about was joy. I don’t mean to split semantic hairs here, but I think it is possible to live a life of joy without always being happy or having fun. One of my former UU minister colleagues – now passed away – expressed this idea very well in a meditation piece he wrote on joy and fun. These words are by the late Rev. John Taylor: “It is not difficult to bring fun into our lives, but it is a life-long task to find joy…Fun arrives, contributes its brief sensation, and leaves…Joy is a product of effort, time, and sacrifice…it is pried from the great stones of existence…Fun is escape which we all need; joy is fulfillment which we all seek.”

Just for the record, I’m in favor of – and seek out – both joy and fun. Fun is sitting around with a few friends and a few brews and a nice spread of food and watching the Patriots thrash their latest opponent. The kind of fun, that is to say, that I can get into and need to get into – the “kind of escape we all need” as Rev. Taylor put it. Joy is more of an ongoing quest, in Taylor’s words again, for the “fulfillment we all seek.”

On the Christian calendar this is the first Sunday of the four Sundays of Advent. The four themes of these Sundays are joy, hope, peace, and love. For Christians they are the four themes to be meditated upon in preparing to celebrate the arrival, or advent, of the birth of Jesus. Beyond any particular religious observance, however, I would say these are four basic elements that one needs to possess internally in order to have any kind of a spiritual life – whatever a person’s faith stance may be. With that in mind let’s explore a little further this theme or element of joy.

To John Taylor’s wise words that I’ve already offered I would add these from the 18th century British romantic poet, William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine, clothing for the soul divine, under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.” The language may be a bit archaic, but the words are wise. What Blake and Taylor are each saying in their own way is that joy is something that is meaningfully arrived at in the midst of the test and challenges and even pains that life inevitably places upon us. What I’d like to do then for the next several minutes is offer a few perspectives which, while not guaranteeing us joy in the sense that I’ve been describing it, can hopefully keep us open to it, and keep alive the possibility that the “fulfillment which we all seek” can on occasion be found and realized.

One perspective is to maintain an awareness that we live in the midst of the choices we have made and the ones that have been made for us. In working with Ric Masten on the book I introduced last week, one of his poems that really stood out for me – and the one that he specifically requested that I end the book with – is called Master of Ceremonies. I’ll take you through it:

I refuse to believe in personal free choice it feels like I have it but when I back away from something I have chosen it always turns out that the choice I made was based on something I didn’t choose
I arrived predetermined gifts and talents, DNA, IQ, disposition all of which begat the artist that begat the actor-playwright that begat the troubadour that begat the poet that begat the minister adding up to the master of ceremonies that I am now.

Ric is expressing in a poetic way what the theologian Paul Tillich called “finite freedom.” We make our choices within the boundaries life gives us, including our mortality. Which gets us back to the poem:
I ask myself how lucky can you be?able to make a good livelihood by assisting the creation of unforgettable moments for audience and congregation but most of all for the couples I have danced with on the beaches and rocky promontories

The last couple of lines refer to the weddings Ric’s officiated in his Big Sur area, and what he’s really celebrating in the poem itself is the life he’s been able to give himself within the time bound existence he’s been given to live it in. And then he closes the poem with these words:

For someone who doesn’t believe that my choices are free
I rejoice in the life that has chosen me.

As I said, this is the note on which Ric wanted to end our book, and I was more than willing to oblige. He wrote this poem sometime after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, which he continues to battle. And that battle, as those of you who are on his weekly e-mail list know, has certainly had it less than joyful moments, especially in recent weeks. Joy and woe are indeed woven fine. But to be able to look at the givens in our lives and the finite freedom choices we’ve made in the face of those givens, and then be able to say, “I rejoice in the life that has chosen me” is to know joy.

Another condition or perspective for keeping joy available and attainable is to have a sense of peace with one’s personal past – with all that you chose and didn’t choose but got anyway. In his book The Wind in Both Ears the Universalist minister and one-time Dean at St. Lawrence, the late Dr. Angus MacLean, wrote, “I believe that in order to be truly free one must make peace with his or her personal past. This is a freedom made up of some appreciation, some understanding, and some forgiveness.”

That’s good – appreciation, understanding, and forgiveness. What is it that you can look back upon and value and appreciate – say “yes” to? And there are, no doubt, things that got visited upon you, that you cannot value or appreciate; but can you come to understand how they happened? But sometimes understanding only goes so far as well. And when appreciation or understanding are difficult if not impossible, then can forgiveness – of others or even of yourself – come into play?

The freedom of which Dr. MacLean speaks here in not the freedom of forgetting or dismissing, which isn’t really freedom at all. But rather it’s the freedom of reconciliation, of being reconciled to oneself and to all that has brought you here – that life that chose you as well as the life you chose: the joys, the pains, and all that’s in between. This is a season when remembrances are especially pronounced; some of them bring us joy and others remind us of the unhealed parts ourselves and our world. This is a season that reminds us of our need to be at peace with our personal selves; for having this kind of peace, however much of a struggle it may be at times to get it, is another condition that keeps joy available.

My final perspective this morning for keeping joy available is to be able to believe in your “eternal spring.” The two words are from a line by Albert Camus that is a part of my personal scripture. Camus once wrote:” In the midst of winter I discovered that there was within me an eternal spring.” Camus was an avowed atheist. But if religion can be defined as having a passion for life, which is one of my several definitions of the term, the Camus is one of the more religious atheists whose works I’ve ever read. I find the phrase “eternal spring” to be a wonderful metaphor for that which ultimately sustains and nurtures us. I’m also struck by Camus’ saying that he found his eternal spring in the midst of winter rather, than, say in the pleasantries of summer. The promise of life is found, he’s saying, in the midst of death and diminishment. His words resonate well with those of John Taylor’s: “Joy is the product of time and sacrifice…it is pried from the great stones of existence…but occasionally it surprises us in the midst of effort.”

The surprise of joy in the midst of effort; the eternal spring in the midst of winter. For me, these are the essential messages of this season. They are the eternal messages that are behind these stories and the myths of this season. Light fades and fires are lit. The cold comes and fires of warmth are kindled. The earth dies and a birth is celebrated. In the midst of winter the eternal spring is found. This is what we are promised. The challenge is to believe and act on such promises, for that and only that is what makes them real since, in the end, they are promises we have to make to ourselves and to each other. The challenge to us is to be a sustaining community where joy is found in the midst of effort and even woe, and where we offer to one another “a rose in the winter time.,”:
Stephen Edington
December 2, 2007

Chalice Lighting: Struggle and Joy


Every day brings struggle, every day brings joy. Every day brings us the opportunity to ease the struggle of another, to be the joy in another’s life. May this flame remind us to carry our light to each other and to the world.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

Chalice Lighting: Deep calls unto deep, joy calls unto joy, light calls unto light


Deep calls unto deep, joy calls unto joy, light calls unto light. Let the kindling of this flame rekindle in us the inner light of love, of peace, of hope. And “as one flame lights another, nor grows the less,” we pledge ourselves to be bearers of the light, wherever we are.


1997 UUMA Worship Materials Collection

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

Commentary: Hope for Peace

By Marlene J. Geary

“Large parts of the world are faced with starvation, while others are living in abundance. The nations were promised liberation and justice, but we have witnessed and are witnessing, even now, the sad spectacle of liberating armies firing into populations who want their independence and social equality, and supporting in those countries by force of arms, such parties and personalities as appear to be most suited to serve vested interests. Territorial questions and arguments of power, obsolete though they are, still prevail over the essential demands of common welfare and justice.” – Albert Einstein, 10 December 1945, speaking on a Voice of America broadcast about world peace.

I listened to the speech above and thought “well, not much has changed; the geography has simply shifted.”

In October, the Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to the European Union [EU]. I remember hearing the news and thinking “um, why, exactly?” All I hear about these days are the economic problems going on in Europe. So I went and looked it up and the Nobel Organization had this to say:

“For over six decades [the EU] contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. (“The Nobel Peace Prize 2012”. 17 Oct 2012)

Fair enough. Sixty years ago, Europe was just a few years into rebuilding after the second world war. Germany was still occupied by four separate powers. The Marshall Plan had just ended and the various economies within Europe were on their developmental way up. Groups of European countries were forming that would later coalesce into the powerful economic, political and diplomatic force that the European Union is today. The Nobel Organization goes on to say that in the seventy years prior to this period in the 1950s, France and Germany fought three separate wars and it is an achievement to have reached a point in 2012 where war between France and Germany is inconceivable.

And further, democracy has been introduced to three former dictatorships: Greece, Spain and Portugal. We no longer think of Europe as strictly “East” and “West” in the Cold War sense, not since the Berlin Wall was torn down and the countries in the Eastern bloc were brought into the union. The European Union has done much to restore balance to the countries of the Balkan peninsula. And Turkey has made significant advances in the field of human rights as a part of its effort to achieve full member status of the European Union. All of this was mentioned as a part of the reason the EU was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

I wonder what Albert Einstein would say about this new Europe, this union of 2012. Sure, there are still power and economic struggles and vast philosophical differences between and inside of the countries of the European Union. Europe was torn in half by the Iron Curtain for decades. In 1945 and for many years afterwards, it was barely possible to hope for more than formally strained relations. But here we are: peace in Europe is a Nobel reality.

The wars beginning in Europe in the 20th century alone wreaked devastation upon the entire planet and killed millions upon millions of people, often by the tens of thousands in a single day. If Europe can find believable Nobel peace after all of that, then maybe we can believe that the countries of other regions of the world can, too.