Being Right

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 16 October 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)

The title of my sermon today is “Being Right,” and it is a sermon about… humility.

Indeed, the worship theme at Throop Church for the month of October is humility, but this may not have been so apparent yet. Two weeks ago the theme was pre-empted by our annual blessing of the animals, and last week Rev. Tera focussed on atonement, because of Yom Kippur. But today I will look at humility, and, as I have done with other topics, I will try to see how it can be interpreted from a Unitarian Universalist perspective.

Now, there are different types of humility. There is intellectual humility, where we acknowledge that we do not know everything, that there may be things we cannot know, and — the most difficult, I think — where we acknowledge that some of the things that we think are true may not be true when looked at from another perspective.

And there is what we might call physical humility, represented for example in one of the stained glass windows to your left, in which Jesus is shown washing the feet of Simon Peter before the Last Supper. This is the humility shown by people who care for the bodies of others: nurses and medical aides who tend to the needs of the sick, parents who care for babies, children who help their aging parents.

And there is spiritual humility, which is related to what Rev. Tera spoke of last week — atonement, asking people forgiveness for wrongs we have done them.

My goal today is to find a common thread that connects these different types of humility, and, along the way, to point out some ways that the concept of humility has been misused, and to think of ways that we might reclaim the word.

I have to admit that when I first started to think about what to say about humility, my mind went straight to the idea of intellectual humility — and that is why I chose the ironic title “Being Right” for the sermon. I jumped immediately to the idea of acknowledging that we do not know everything; that we might be mistaken about some things; and that even if we are right about something according to our own interpretation, others may see things differently.

Perhaps this is because of my profession as a mathematician. In mathematics, we deal in statements that can be proven to be true, beyond even a shadow of a doubt. Nothing in real life is like that, even the most well-established scientific truths. This is one reason why — anecdotally, at least — lawyers do not want to have mathematicians in the jury.

Let me give you an example of a situation in which I had to learn some intellectual humility. It’s a story — a long-standing story — from the 25 years that my wife Bella and I have lived together, and I tell it with her permission.

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who take dishes out of the dish drainer once they are dry, and those who don’t.

(You know who you are.)

Before Bella and I started dating, we exchanged many letters. We had met in the summer of 1989, just before Bella returned to central China to finish two years of teaching English there, so for a year we corresponded in the old-fashioned way, with letters written on that thin, translucent air-mail paper that seems so quaint now in the days of transcontinental instant messaging. In one of those letters, Bella mentioned that she did not like taking dishes out of the dish drainer. After she returned to the United States, she lived in Irvine and I lived in Berkeley, and when we could, one of us would visit with the other for a week or two. I remember distinctly that on my first visit to see her in Irvine, she reminded me again that she didn’t like removing dishes from the drainer.

So I was fairly and justly warned.

Now, this means that over the course of the past 25 years, I have spent a fair amount of time removing dishes from the drainer — or, even worse, drying all the dishes with a towel, because someone stacked wet dishes in the drainer on top of dry ones that hadn’t been put away!

You will be relieved to know that I put this time to good use. Over the course of 25 years of putting dishes away I developed an entire moral and ethical theory of the dish drainer. I can prove, philosophically and beyond doubt, that putting wet dishes on top of dry dishes is unethical, immoral, and a threat to the very fabric of civilized society.

Yet I refrain from sharing this theory with Bella.


Because there are many things that need doing in our household, many more things than the two of us have time to do. It’s true that Bella sometimes puts wet dishes on top of dry ones, but that’s because her attention is focussed on other things… she might use those extra minutes to hang out the laundry to dry, or put the recycling in the bin. The fact is, her housekeeping priorities and mine are different. That’s actually a good thing, because we each do complementary things.

Plus, if I complained too much about the dish drainer, then Bella might justifiably complain about the little stacks of books and papers that I seem to leave in various places about the house, without thinking. I imagine she has an entire moral and ethical theory about that.

So there’s one example of how two different people can have different conceptions about what is right. Perhaps it was a little lighthearted. Here’s a more serious story on the same theme.

Ayn Rand was a 20th-century American writer and philosopher, the creator of the philosophy known as “objectivism” and the iconoclastic leader of the objectivist movement for more than two decades. She is perhaps best known for her book Atlas Shrugged, a thousand-page brick of a novel that tells of a fictional future in which America’s leading industrialists and inventors, tired of being dragged down by freeloaders, take their marbles and leave. The mysterious John Galt, their leader, has created a hidden community in the mountains of Colorado where they can live out their dream society. The rest of the world, lacking their bold capitalistic leadership, falls into chaos. Riots, starvation, and the deaths of millions ensue — it all goes to show how the world just couldn’t continue unless we allow wealthy industrialists unfettered freedom from such hindrances as taxes and environmental regulations and a unionized workforce.

I have to confess, I have not read Atlas Shrugged, because life is short. However, I’ve done something nearly as good and much more fun: I’ve followed the blog of a writer who did read Atlas Shrugged, and who, each week, blogged about the portion that he read. From March 22, 2013 until July 8, 2016 — 179 posts — Adam Lee summarized plot developments and provided critical commentary about the politics of the book. I’ll give a link to his blog when I post this sermon online.

Adam Lee has an interesting comment to make about this hidden utopian community of individualists. In the book, each member of this community has to pledge to be guided only by their own self-interest. And yet, somehow these strong-minded, non-altruistic individualists never argue amongst themselves. Every time two of them may come into conflict, one of the two recognizes the superior skill and ability of the other and politely gives way — you know, just how it happens in real life.

The reason there is no conflict is because every single person in this community thinks just like Ayn Rand. She was not able to conceive that different people, with different assumptions and honorable motivations, might possibly disagree with the self-evident truth of her positions. And so she imagines an entire village of strong-minded individualists all thinking in exactly the same way. This same problem — the failure to recognize that there will be differences of opinion even among people trying to reach the same goals — this same problem was the downfall of many actual utopian communities in the real world.

And a final story about intellectual humility, from a collection of Zen Buddhist koans published in 1919:1 The story goes that a university professor came to visit Nan-in, a 19th-century Japanese Zen master, in order to learn about Zen.

Nan-in served his visitor tea. He poured until the cup was full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the tea overflow from the cup, overflow from the saucer, spill on the table, and spill on the floor. “Stop!” he said. “It is too full! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The Zen master tells the professor that he needs more intellectual humility. It is always very satisfying to tell someone else that they need more humility.

The point behind all of these stories is that intellectual humility asks that we value other people’s ideas and perspectives, that we make room for them, even when we are sure that we are right. This is a reflection of the Unitarian Universalist First Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Let’s turn to physical humility — this is where someone does something usually considered “lowly,” like unpleasant cleaning chores, or tending to someone else’s body. In the Christian scriptures, the classic example is from John chapter 13, where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. This tradition continues today during Easter Week: On Maundy Thursday, religious leaders wash the feet of people considered lowly — this year, the Pope washed and kissed the feet of a dozen people at a refugee center.

This is a once-a-year event for the Pope, but a daily event for many other people. In the hospital, the doctor swoops in and makes a diagnosis. The surgeon operates. But afterwards, the nurses and nursing assistants care for the patient’s body. They wipe the brow, tend the wound, check the catheter, change the bedpan. They recognize and acknowledge the fragile body that each of us lives in, and they care for us by caring for our bodies.

Those of us who have cared for infants know this same humility. Those of us who have cared for the elderly know too.

Physical humility lies in seeing the personhood of others; in seeing that their bodies are sacred, in all their humanity; in seeing that their needs are as important as our own. Again, the First Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Traditionally, though, this recognition of others is sometimes perverted. From “the needs of others are as important as my own,” we move to “the needs of others are more important than my own,” to “my own needs are worthless.” I reject this form of humility; we can recognize the worth of others without denying our own.

Is it a coincidence that nursing, and child care, and the education of young children — is it a coincidence that these are all traditionally viewed as jobs for women? Is it a coincidence that women are expected to be drawn to careers that are seen as physically humble? Is it a coincidence that the perversion of humility that asks us to deny our own needs plays out in feminine spaces?

The third type of humility is spiritual humility: atonement, and the asking of forgiveness. This can be very difficult. I know, because I have hurt people in my life, and I have asked for forgiveness.

And the first drafts of my requests for forgiveness always start: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But what I really meant was…”

And then the second draft is “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But when I was arguing with you all I was trying to do was…”

And the third draft is: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But I really thought that what I was doing was right, because…”

It takes so many drafts to finally find the courage just to say: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. I should have known better, and I will try harder in the future.”

Spiritual humility is the practice of asking for forgiveness for a mistake without justifying why you made it.

These three types of humility — intellectual, physical, spiritual — all do have one thing in common.

In order to live them out, we have to acknowledge the Unitarian Universalist first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and we have to listen.

We have to listen, to understand how we may be wrong in our ideas. We have to listen, to learn what physical help someone else needs. We have to listen, to hear how we may have hurt someone, so that we can apologize for doing so.

The first step towards humility is listening.

The word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means the ground, or the earth. Over the millenia the word humility has developed a meaning of being low; a humble person is sometimes viewed as someone who the powerful might trample in the dust, or grind beneath their feet.

But there is another view of the ground, of the earth, of the soil; a view supported by the earth-centered traditions that are among the sources of Unitarian Universalism, a view that we here at Throop see every day in our garden: the earth as a source of life, the earth as a source of strength.

Humility does not mean denying one’s own self, sacrificing oneself on the altar of everyone else’s needs.

Humility means seeing oneself as part of the web of all existence, not at the center, but part of the whole. It means seeing oneself not as being first, but neither as being last.

And most importantly: Drawing its strength from the earth, humility is not weakness — it is the strength to see yourself as being equal to others, and others as equal to you; the strength to balance your needs with those of your friend, or with those of a stranger; the strength to know that your viewpoint is one among many; the strength to know when it is your turn to give help, and when it is your turn to receive it; the strength to know when you have wronged someone, and the strength to ask for forgiveness.

Humility comes from strength; and the person who cannot be humble is the weakest of all.

Let us take strength from the earth, and see one another.

Let us take strength from the earth, and see ourselves.

Let us take strength from the earth, and use that power to support one another, with grace and with humility.

Go in peace.

Image credit: Kitchenscape, by Flickr user FraserElliot. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

  1. I’ve modified the wording from the version I found online. 

One thought on “Being Right”

  1. Lots to think over. A line that really hit home was “Spiritual humility is the practice of asking for forgiveness for a mistake without justifying why you made it.”


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