This week I mark my 63rd birthday.
Every year when my birthday rolls around, I intentionally try to reevaluate my life — to see what’s working well, what isn’t, how I want to grow if I can.
In arriving at this year’s conclusion, I thought of a passage in Plato’s “Apology,” which recounts the trial of Socrates.
Socrates tells the court about an unnamed politician with whom he had a conversation.
“When I left him,” Socrates remembers, “I reasoned thus with myself: I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he.”
I don’t rank up there with Socrates, but this rings true for me as well.
Residing in a world full of know-it-alls, the main thing I know now — is how little I know for sure. I say this not out of despair or disappointment, but out of recognition that many things I once held to be absolutely true later turned out to be false.
The starting point of wisdom is recognizing that the vast universe of your ignorance stretches light years beyond the weedy spare lot of your actual knowledge. There are far more things you don’t know than things you do.
But if you can recognize your limitations, you’re at least that much smarter than those who remain inordinately impressed by their own intelligence.
The truth is, none of us is that darned smart.
Take religion, for instance.
I’ve devoted my life to the practice of my Christian faith. I’ve studied it. I’ve written about it. I’ve preached about it. I’ve tried, imperfectly, to live it.
But do I know 100 percent for sure that it’s true? Nope. I don’t. I hope it’s true. I think it’s true. I think it’s the truest truth that exists.
Could I be wrong? Absolutely. Do I sometimes suspect I’m wrong? More often than you might imagine.
Nearly everybody who thinks about God seriously remains an agnostic, which is to say he or she recognizes it’s impossible to prove or disprove, even to yourself, the presence of a supposed being who is both invisible and silent.
Some folks are religious agnostics and others are irreligious agnostics. I happen to be a religious agnostic.
The only folks who bother me on this subject are those extremists who aren’t agnostics, who claim to know everything for sure.
They smugly proclaim there’s nary a doubt that God is real — and no doubt that he thinks exactly as they do. Or they smugly proclaim God doesn’t exist, that he’s a fairytale, a figment of billions of gullible nincompoops’ collective imaginations.
Well, there’s always a doubt, friends. Whichever side you’re on, you’d do well to doubt your own hubris.
That’s the reason belief in God requires faith.
Anne Lamott, one of our better Christian writers, has observed that “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
I believe in God. I’ve encouraged others to do the same. Lord willing, I’ll continue in this path as long as I have breath.
But I might be wrong about all of it. There might be nothing out there. When I die bye and bye, I might end up just as dead as a squirrel or a dog or a goat. (Unless, like Methodism founder John Wesley, you believe animals will go to heaven.)
You might be wrong about whatever you believe, whether it’s for God or against him.
This isn’t just the case with religion. Your plans for your children might be wrong. Your judgments regarding your ne’er-do-well brother-in-law might be wrong. Your feelings about the #MeToo movement or abortion or America first or immigration or guns or Medicare might all be pure stinking wrong.
Live long enough and you’ll find out how true that is.
“We know in part; we prophesy in part. We see through a glass darkly,” St. Paul admitted 2,000 years ago.
As I said, this isn’t a cause for despair. It is, though, a cause for humility. It’s a good reason to talk less and listen more.