Dear Donagh,

My sister is doing a course on spirituality… and she’s very enthusiastic about it.  She talks a lot about it but to be honest I don’t know what she’s talking about most of the time.  Even when I ask her a question I don’t follow her answer very well.  I have a feeling that I must be very stupid or shallow.  Is it always deep like that, or is there a lite version for ordinary people?  I need to be told it’s ok to be stupid!  I think you might be the one to help me, because you seem to respect people’s questions.  Thanks Donagh.  Colleen

Dear Colleen,

I have to tell myself every day that it’s ok to be stupid, because every day I bang my head against things I don’t understand.  Spirituality isn’t about being clever and articulate.  Jesus didn’t say, ‘Come to me all you who are highly intelligent and well educated, and I will give you full marks’ – or something.  (What can you do for someone who feels highly intelligent, etc.?)

It is acknowledged by all the greats that knowing one’s own ignorance is essential to any sort of wisdom.  St Thomas Aquinas famously had an experience that led him to say to Reginald (his secretary and friend) "The end of my labours has come; all that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me."  There are endless similar examples.  We are in good company when we know that we don’t know. 

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect?  It goes something like this: If I am incompetent in some area, then I am incompetent to know just how incompetent I am!  In the nature of the case I don’t know my own limitations; I can't see the contours of them because I am inside them, as in a kind of cloud.  To see my limitations I would have to be beyond them, and so they would no longer be my limitations.  That is certainly an interesting idea to play with. 

We are all blind to our limitations, but some of us don’t acknowledge that we have limitations, so we are doubly blind.  You and I acknowledge that we have limitations, and so we are somewhat protected from being completely narcissistic.  I knew an elderly man who entered a religious Order.  He had been in banking all his life, so it came as a surprise when he announced during his novitiate year that no member of that Order could teach him anything about philosophy.  In fact he didn’t know buttons about philosophy, but he never saw that.  His name might as well have been Dunning-Kruger.  He was like a blind man.  That is called ‘invincible ignorance’. 

Beside that kind of ignorance, all other kinds pale into insignificance.  It’s all right not to know a lot of things.  Young children are all geniuses, but there are vast amounts of knowledge they don’t have.  That doesn’t bother them much.  But it tends to bother grown-ups (except the ones who are snug in their Dunning-Kruger).  It is important to remember that everyone is ignorant, only about different things.  To know that I am enclosed by limitations is not a disgrace; it is a testament to the truth.  So just dive in with the rest of us and enjoy the fun.  When you swim in the sea you don’t have to swim to the bottom of it; but let’s never forget that it goes all the way to the bottom.  The only people who claim to understand religion fully are non-religious people: atheists and the lapsed.  But we have more fun.

The point is not to try to understand everything, but to understand one or two things as well as you can – things that are close to home, things that truly engage you.  It’s not as if most of the things you do are superficial.  Every single thing is deep, if you give it sustained attention.  No matter how small or slight it may seem, anything that brings you to an awareness of God is profound. 


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