Ways of Knowing
By Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship
When I was 19 I fell in love with Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. These exciting explorations of truth and beauty, meaning and love, brought me into a deep curiosity. Having first encountered them on my own, I proposed doing an independent study project about them at my college. I was assigned a crusty old philosophy professor as my teacher.
At our first session I shared exuberantly what made me particularly interested in the Dialogues. “At some point,” I said, “Socrates often references a mystical source, or a myth, to explain what he’s trying to say. That’s what really interests me. At what point does he turn toward mythology, or the word of the Delphic Oracle, or other non-rational wisdom?” The professor, who was likely to smoke two or three cigarettes at once, sneered at me while he held his flaming lighter underneath an unlit one dangling from his mouth. “That’s not what’s important,” he said, definitively. “If that’s the kind of thing you want to explain, you should study fiction.”
I remember little of the content of the rest of the sessions; I mostly remember that each week I would go home and cry. And then I would put myself back together with the help of a male roommate—a philosophy major who would help me to translate what the professor had said and bridge it back to anything I cared about. After I limped through that project (my final paper was a sarcastic dialog between the professor and me) I quit reading Plato, became an English major and commenced studying fiction.
I recalled that long-ago experience recently, listening to a podcast from Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental biology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. A lifelong love of plants led her to the study of biology. She describes her first day of college, when she declared she was there to learn why the world was so beautiful—why purple asters and goldenrod grew together.
Her professor, with or without multiple cigarettes in his mouth, responded about like mine had. He encouraged her to go study art. But Kimmerer, not as easily intimidated as I was, stuck with science, and eventually learned a scientific explanation for the goldenrod and asters’ affinity: together they hold a wide color expanse which attracts more pollinators.
Kimmerer went on to write several books which connect her scientific mind and her indigenous understandings, and they are profoundly beautiful and wise. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants is the most spiritually nourishing book I have read in a long time. It is also great science.
If I could have learned from teachers who held realities together as Kimmerer does, I might have studied plants myself. Rote memorization of the names of the parts held no interest for me. Indeed, study of literature wasn’t that fun for me either. Never once did we pause over Shakespeare or Austin, Melville or Woolf to say, “Wow—isn’t this beautiful?” Instead we picked apart. We parsed. We analyzed.
This kind of analytical, deconstructive thinking is how certain brains work. Scientists learn about plants; indigenous people learn from them, Kimmerer says. The trouble is that too much education emphasizes learning about the world—the natural world, the human body, the ways we interact—at the expense of learning from the world.
When I was in seminary, besides getting academic grades, we students evaluated each other on the qualities which at that time, United Church of Christ members had said they valued most in their ministers. (I went to a UCC seminary, though I was UU.) Those qualities were empathy, compassion, and clear communications. I’ve always thought it would be great if every student in every subject was evaluated by peers for these qualities, along with whatever academic subject they are learning.
Empathy, compassion, and clear communications spring from a different kind of knowing than does parsing complex theological doctrine. Both are important. I want surgeons or airplane pilots to know the details of organs and engines, not just be kind to me. But that type of knowledge can also be used as a measuring stick to judge some people inferior, and with that judgment comes trivialization at best and extermination at worst.
It’s certainly what white settlers did in the face of the different kinds of wisdom of indigenous people when they arrived on the land: judged them to know nothing of value. I weep to think who we might be if, instead, they had showed respect for different ways of knowing and chosen to learn from it. I am sure that our planet would be in much better shape, and our ways of interacting with one another would be profoundly different.
The poet Audre Lorde writes about these different ways of knowing and concludes, “The white fathers told us: I think therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”
The world is a richer place when we respect the many different ways that people exhibit brilliance, and come to know what they know. May we create a world together where all ways of knowing are honored and respected.