Imperfect Sources of Wisdom

It would be impossible to find a flawless source of wisdom. Unitarian Universalism rejects the very idea. We understand that knowledge is constantly being revealed, and that revelation will likely never cease. We must come to understand that every prophetic voice, every person of science, every sage is a person with limits and flaws.

Even more importantly than that, we understand that every person, regardless of their perceived flaws and mistakes is a being of inherent worth and dignity from whom we might still learn something. Any person, no matter how little we like or agree with them, might still have wisdom and knowledge to share with us.

On our page, we share quotes from flawed people regularly. People like Mahatma Gandhi, whose wisdom on nonviolence is almost universally celebrated, but who had questionable views on gender and caste roles. People like PT Barnum, who was  an impassioned advocate of African-American equality and voting rights (as well as a Universalist), but also exploited humans and animals in ways we condemn today. We will continue, albeit rarely, to share quotes from the likes of Billy Graham, with whom we agree about very little, but who knew a great deal about motivating people and running a church that has the power to manifest its vision. It is good that we remember the humanity of our heroes and our cultural opponents, and look for points of agreement where they exist.

Likewise, each quote, no matter how perfect it seems in its own time, could be rooted in ignorance or some form of discrimination we are not aware of. As we continue to share quotes that use dated, sexist language, and refuse to “fix them”, please understand that this is out of respect for the pain our fore-bearers caused, and the pain they endured; our heritage is not cleanly on only the right side of history.  We will not hide from the fact that every person knew something we can learn from. Or that every person had traits which we should not celebrate. Every person has inherent value, but none of them is perfect from every angle.

Part of the growing tradition of Unitarian Universalism is recognizing the flawed history of the human race; recognizing that we are on a long and winding path. The justice we fight for is not a decades-long struggle, but one spanning millennia. We can draw wisdom from flawed sources, seeing that these were each a small victory in the larger fight. Let’s remember that we cannot know how our best and brightest will be remembered a hundred years from now.

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