How we understand knowledge, how we define knowledge is changing, and I believe that Unitarian Universalism is on the leading edge of this change.
For the last few hundred years, we have all sort of implicitly followed a “Hierarchy of knowledge.” Think about what knowledge is most trusted in our society -- probably something written in a book, or on the evening news. For many centuries the bible was an authority for knowledge, and for many it still is. Anything written in the bible was God’s immutable truth, unchanging. And the interpretation of that written word was to be done by learned men- men who had been trained in the “right way” to interpret and study the words. I notice that I tend to give a lot of authority to things published in scholarly journals. The more footnotes the better!
But the paradigm seems to be shifting. If we really value the inherent worth and dignity of all people, we start to notice who is left out in a paradigm where “truth” is limited to that which is published by an academic press. Not everyone has access to professional journals. Not everyone has enough education to read those articles. And if you look at the sources of our UU tradition. [If you want to look at those, you can look on the back cover of your order of service] the very first source, at the top of the list, is Direct Experience. Everyone has that. Our tradition had the radical egalitarian idea that each and every one of us gets to draw on our own direct experience of the world as an honorable source of knowledge and wisdom. But I think we have only begun to realized what this means, to realize how radical this idea is.
First, we are realizing that who you are is important to what you know. Remember back in 1990 when congressional hearings found that women and minorities were under-represented in medical research? There was an assumption that whatever was true for male bodies must also be true for female bodies. Women with heart conditions were being mis-diagnosed because the research about heart conditions had been conducted mostly with male subjects. Well, medicine is not the only field where this kind of thinking pervades. Throughout history most of the folks doing the thinking and the writing assumed that their own experience was transferable to all other people. Says Ivone Gebara, an eco-feminist Catholic theologian from Brazil, “they refer to the experience of a part of humanity as though it were the experience of all.” [p. 25] She goes on to say that women and children, Blacks and indigenous groups are commonly perceived as those who know the least “The history of domination has so deeply marked the foundations of our culture that we end up claiming, as if it were our own, the type of knowledge put out by those who hold political and economic power.” [p. 26]
We don’t live in an abstract world, we live in a concrete world in a body different from anyone else’s, in a neighborhood different from all the other neighborhoods. Each of us has different knowing based on our context.
And how we know things is different for each of us as well. Each of us has a physically unique brain, and learn and grow in different communities, different schools, different cultures. Some of you may remember the work developed in 1983 by Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University on multiple intelligences. This brought to us the radical idea that the kind of intelligence tested with pencil and paper was not the only kind of intelligence. He posited that there are different kind of knowledge, and different ways of getting knowledge. Many of us heard this theory and said, wow, I see the truth in that, but still most of us had a residual belief that the linguistic and mathematical intelligences were the important ones, the real ones.
A few years back some Sunday School teachers and I worked very consciously to create a separate Sunday school class for kids who seemed to learn in a very kinesthetic way. They walked to the park every Sunday and then climbed a tree where, worn out from their walk, the teacher presented their lesson. I began to wonder, how could we teach the usual lessons about UU principles and World Religions in a more kinesthetic way? Could we make up a game of tag that taught the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Could we make up a ball game that taught the Buddhist sense of non-attachment? But there was nothing like this in any of the curricula published by the UUA. But this different way of learning was difficult to pursue because it was different than the way we were used to teaching. We realized that most of the folks who taught Sunday School and designed the lessons were folks who had liked Religious Education as children, and had been successful and comfortable with the traditional ways those lessons had been taught.
Gebara speaks about a similar phenomenon in the fiends of “higher” learning: “…when we spoke of scientific knowledge, of philosophical knowledge, of theological knowledge, or even of “true” knowledge, we were always referring to knowing gained and disseminated by men. What was left to women and to the poor was so-called experiential knowledge, knowledge based on everyday experience; but this was not automatically recognized as real knowing.” (p. 25) In the great hierarchy of knowledge, everyday experience has traditionally been at the bottom.
Other non-human beings fell off the bottom of that hierarchy- they were assumed to have no knowledge at all. But remember the words from our children’s story this morning: “Remember animals were here first, so they know better than people how to live. Their wisdom is older. They’re more at ease I a desert place, the Indians say…. Look how Badger burrows into the cool dark earth—while man has to walk in the heat of the sun.” Maybe it’s hard to even imagine a hierarchy of knowledge where animal wisdom is near the top, and where learning from animals is more precious than learning from books or from MSNBC. But if we begin to crack open the structures of how we define knowledge as a culture, many new sources of knowledge, many new ways of learning become open to us.
Keith Basso, an Anthropologist at University of New Mexico, describes another way of knowing and transmitting truth. He has spent most of his career with Apache nations, his most recent work mapping the places named by the Apache people in Arizona. As he and tribal leaders visited many of the places named by the Apache, the elders told the history of each place and how the name evoked that history. Yet, Basso writes:
“One could still maintain that the Western Apaches have yet to produce a tribal historian – but only were one to judge… by Anglo-American standards of what historians are and how they practice their craft. And there, of course, is the rub. For by now it should be clear that Apache standards for interpreting the past are not the same as our own, and that working Apache historians … go about their business with different aims and procedures. It may also have been surmised that few Apache people would wish to change these procedures, much less abandon them.” [p. 30-31]
The Apache people held their history not in books and journal articles, but through an oral tradition, tied closely to the places where they had lived and farmed for generations.
This suggests an even more radical idea- that where you know is important. After our hymnals were printed we add “earth centered spiritualities” to our sources. But what is missing from that list is the earth itself. What we are learning from these earth-centered spiritualities is that there is not just one truth for all times and places. Each place has something special and unique to teach us. If we generalize those teachings we cut off their roots; we lose some of their wisdom when we take them away from the place where they were born and lived.
An analogy from my own traditional rituals and celebrations was the strangeness of IT was celebrating the winter holidays in California, reading stories about the freezing cold and snow of the Christmas season while looking out my window at the green returning to the grass covered hills, and the pouring rain was more common to a California Winter Solstice. Now, returning to a climate with cold snowy winters, the traditions and stories and images that seemed arbitrary in California seem beautiful and are filled with meaning.
Or Think about the Children’s Story this morning [The Desert is Theirs by Byrd Baylor] The lessons of life in the desert are so different than those of life in Ithaca. Baylor writes: “Rain is a blessing counted drop by drop. Each Plant finds its own way to hold that sudden water. They don’t waste it on floppy green leaves. They have thorns and stickers and points instead." If you lived in that dry place where water is sudden and scarce, what would you know in your everyday experience? How different are the lessons I learn every day living in Ithaca where the challenge is to stay dry and warm,
Why does it matter how we know what we know, or where that knowledge comes from? Because day in and day out what you know effects what you do. Says Gebara “Our everyday lives are full of examples of how our knowing has ethical implicates; in other words, of how it affects the quality of our actions…My actions and my relationships with people change depending on my style of knowing. Therefore, the relationship between ethics and epistemology has nothing abstract about it; it is rooted in the concreteness of our lives.” (p. 24)
So if we understand where our knowing comes from, then we have a better chance of understanding why we do the things we do. And when we notice that what we hold to be true is not leading to right action in the world, we can challenge our knowing, investigate where our ideas come from. Gebara is an Ecofeminist, and so she is particularly interested in tracing how ideas came to be that oppress women and other minorities, and the ideas that lead to a degradation of the earth. She is especially interested in tracking the ways that our religions have implicitly legitimated these paths of our society. One of the ways this happens is by the assumption that truth is something that is unchanging, that can be determined by folks in authority for all people in all times.
The hope is that as we become aware, we can interrogate our knowledge, interrogate the sources of what we know. Says Gebara: “The idea is to loosen the soil of our certainties and to ask to what degree these certainties rest on foundations that might be more valid at one time and less so at another” (p. 30) And as we change what we know, and how we come to know it, we do this not to create a new immutable truth, but to bring our context into our way of knowing, and to stay aware of context as we share what we know. This will not only help us be open to truth that falls out side our usual ways of knowing, but will also help us act as ethical agent s in the world, as Gebara says “all we have to do is get to know our own neighborhood better in order to understand how to behave in it.”
As we head out into our neighborhoods this coming week, may it be with eyes open to see beyond the hierarchies of knowing, to the truth our neighbors know in this very time and this very place.
Byrd Baylor The Desert is Theirs. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1975.
Keith H. Basso. Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Ivone Gebara Longing for Running Water. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999.