C.S. Lewis and Epistemic Humility

So, I’ve been doing some on-again off-again reading of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which is one of those books that I had always meant to read, but never really got around to reading until recently. All in all there’s been some great thoughts in the book (though some bad ones too, and I’ll mention those in a bit) and I’ve enjoyed reading it. However, one of the most consistent things that I keep noticing, and this seems to be particularly emphasized in one of his chapters on faith (Book 3, Chapter 12), is his practice of epistemic humility. Throughout his writing he consistently makes mention of the fact that he is not as well-educated on some of these topics as he could be, there are others out there more educated on the topics than he is, and that sometimes he is making an assessment on something that is external to his experience. For example, in his introduction to that twelfth chapter he writes (in relation to the topic of deeper faith and the likelihood that some of his readers won’t be able to understand it and might just need to skip the chapter) “Of course, all this tells against me as much as anyone else. The thing I am going to try to explain in this chapter may be ahead of me. I may be thinking I have got there when I have not. I can only ask instructed Christians to watch very carefully, and tell me when I go wrong; and others to take what I say with a grain of salt – as something offered, because it may be a help, not because I am certain that I am right.” I’m very glad of this, because as much as I love a lot of what Lewis writes (he has certainly helped me to see some theological concepts with a new set of eyes) Mere Christianity also has some horrible ideas and theology within it, but those things are flexible. In particular Lewis’s writings on the subject of women are very representative of a man of his time and are terrible in their quality. His admission of the externals to his knowledge and experience help make those mistakes fixable. He is suggesting a set of ideas that can be corrected or amended. This is epistemic humility and it is a wonderful thing.

That humility of knowledge is very much reflective of the kind of attitude I saw in many of my university professors and is an attitude that I do my best to emulate, but it is one of the places where I most often fail. I feel like in my blogs I sometimes do a bad job of making this clear, but it is very much my intention to be clear that I don’t know enough, I don’t have a set-in-stone opinion, and that I’m still learning. To borrow from Lewis – take what I say with a grain of salt, as something offered, because it might be helpful, not because I think I am certainly right. Or to say it another way, I’ve found that a difference between me and a lot of people I know is that I like to discuss ideas and offer helpful suggestions where most people prefer to make statements of certainty. Making truth statements does fall within that practice of discussion and suggestion, but it’s usually not the goal of what I’m saying. So, I want to continue my practice as a student of theology, and part of that practice is being honest about what I do and do not know. In particular, I feel like theology is a hard subject to talk about authoritatively, as it seems to also require knowledge of sociology, psychology, history, political science, and a host of other disciplines, all in various amounts, in order to be maximally effective and applicable to the people needing to use it, but I only have very limited knowledge and experience within those fields.

Lewis ended his chapter with this idea, and I think I shall do the same with this post, “But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one’s eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people’s eyes can see further than mine.”