In the course of reading an intriguing and thoughtful (and short) biography about the friendship between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield yesterday , I came across a very interesting phrase that I wanted to examine in a bit more detail. The Latin phrase, which occurs in a letter Whitefield sent to Franklin, reads: “Verbum sapienti sat est,” or, translated, “A word to the wise is sufficient.” In the context of the quote as it was originally written, Whitefield did not feel it necessary to belabor a particular point about Christianty because his audience already knew what he would say, so he simply can provide a brief word to the wise and rely on Franklin, who understood him and his thought process well, to fill in the blanks. By implication, one has to explain things to those who do not understand, but one can merely give a word to those who understand, and they can fill in the rest. It is for this reason that so many communications between people who know each other well have a certain jargon and shorthand that deal with subjects of insider knowledge, and use what one could consider jargon. Among my religious context, if I said F.O.T, others within that same religious context would understand I was talking about the Feast of Tabernacles and reply accordingly, while those who did not understand would require a more lengthy explanation about what it was and why I would mention it.
The worst enemy of understanding is not a lack of understanding but misunderstanding. So long as someone knows themselves to be ignorant, they can always be taught, because they are aware of their lack and are at least theoretically open to instruction from others who possess sound knowledge, assuming those people can be identified and the acquisition of said knowledge becomes a matter of interest or importance. It is for this reason, for example, that I read SQL guides, because it has become a matter of importance that I learn SQL and I confess I am not an expert in that particular area of knowledge. While it is a trivial and easy matter to replace a lack of knowledge with knowledge, even if it may take time and effort, it is a vastly more difficult matter to deal with misunderstanding. This is because people who misunderstand something believe they understand it but they do not, and so before they can possess accurate knowledge about what they are talking about, their false knowledge must be removed, a process that often involves a fair amount of embarrassment and wounded pride, which may even be harder to deal with than the acquisition of knowledge itself. To realize that we misunderstood something or someone is to admit that we were wrong, and that is not a desirable place to be. If we have misunderstood, though, it remains for us to admit error, so that we may start again at the beginning and build anew from an accurate understanding. Though this is difficult to do, there is no alternative if we want to end up with correct understanding.
The issue of understanding boils down to a simple question: would we rather become wise, or think ourselves to be wise. If we want to become wise, we will have to often admit error in ways of thinking, and be humble and childlike enough to be willing to go over the same subject matter again where we have learned amiss. This frequently happens in science or history, for example, where supposed knowledge is based on incorrect assumptions and where new paradigms or new finds overthrow the existing state of knowledge. If we wish to be wise, we must understand that our base of knowledge and understanding is going to be imperfect, and that even if we have a sure foundation, our own intellectual superstructure on top of that foundation is going to be flawed simply because we are limited and flawed beings. To the extent that we are able to remain devoted to truth but aware of our own fallibility, we are capable of increasing in knowledge, even if some of that increase is erasing mistaken knowledge and writing over it again correctly. In life, this proves to be problematic for a few related reasons. For one, people have pride and personal reputation staked on areas of supposed understanding, and so admit that one is wrong often carries with it a loss of honor and esteem that certainly threatens our view of our own competence. Additionally, we tend to think of repentance as a one-time only deal, in which we sweep away mistaken knowledge and are granted full and complete knowledge of the truth after that.
Instead, life is more complicated than that. What we consider ourselves to understand is based on a variety of different bases, all of which are subject to error in some fashion, being based on fallible human observation or reasoning. That which we gain from tradition is a mixture of sound and unsound, that which we read from scripture (or, if we are not religiously inclined, from secular texts) requires interpretation, which is always subject to error. That which comes from our own thinking is subject to the sorts of errors that are common to ourselves and all mankind. We are placed in a world in which we must make a choice of how to live and how to behave, but all options require faith, and all decisions are exposed by circumstances that follow afterwards. Becoming wise is a task that requires admitting folly and error. In life, if we want to become wise, we need to recognize that wisdom is an elusive goal and one that requires a great deal of reflection and humility. We will find ourselves mistaken often in life, and those who wish to attack us will do so readily through our errors, making it appear sometimes as if self-defense must require a defense of erroneous thinking or reasoning on our part. Do we have the faith that we will be respected if we are open and honest, and if our love of the truth outweighs our love of having our pride gratified? Let us treat others so that we may encourage openness and avoid humiliating those who must come in from the cold and admit their error, so that no one needs to be afraid of a price to be inflicted by us to become wiser and more understanding. Enough burdens to understanding God and others exist that we do not need to add anymore by being ungracious to those who wish to learn and follow the truth.