Prophetic Imperfection: Inadequacy in Human Insight

As your administrator, I need to admit to you that I am not perfect. You are not perfect, nor is anyone else; anyone at all. Unitarian Universalism rejects the very idea that any person can present flawless wisdom to the rest of us. We understand that knowledge is constantly being revealed, updated and revised. Such revelation will likely never cease. We will always have more to learn as individuals and as a species.

We must understand that every prophetic voice, every person of science, every sage is a person with limits and with flaws.

On our Facebook 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. Martin Luther King Jr, appropriately well regarded for his oratory and organizing skills, apparently plagiarized large sections of his dissertation at Boston University.

Just as important as the humanity of our heroes, we must understand that we can learn from 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.

People like PT Barnum, who exploited humans and animals in ways we condemn today also was  an impassioned advocate of African-American equality and voting rights (as well as a Universalist). Billy Graham, with whom we agree about very little, can teach us 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 alike. We can build on points of agreement where they exist.

Like them, our wisdom is imperfect and incomplete.

It matters that we recognize that 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. We will 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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