In a book that became very influential in post-modern culture, the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Following his own advice, Wittgenstein published nothing about philosophy for fifteen more years.
At this point, many of you are about to slip into a coma because I used the word “philosophy,” but I promise that the statement above will make more sense in a few moments.
Wittgenstein tried to prove the existence of philosophical self-evident truths by means of mathematics. Not surprisingly, he failed. His failure had a lasting effect on philosophy, religion, and wider society by contributing to the widespread distrust of the world, truth claims, and authority structures. Around the world today, individuals and groups distrust government, religion, and one another; this trend was strengthened and accelerated by Wittgenstein’s inability to prove that truth can be known. I’m tempted to call Wittgenstein the patron saint of the twenty-first century, but that might be uncharitable.
The author of the book of Sirach, which provides our first reading today, intended a meaning vastly different from Wittgenstein’s when he wrote, “What is too sublime for you, seek not; into things beyond your strength search not.” (Sir 3:21) Wittgenstein’s “we must pass over in silence” was the act of someone who admitted defeat in the face of eternal mysteries. Sirach’s “into things beyond your strength search not,” by comparison, was the act of someone who gave faithful worship to eternal mystery.
The unyielding truth that has defeated countless philosophers, theologians, political leaders, and common individuals is the inescapable limitation that this world imposes on us. Each human person is born with the innate capacity to sense God’s presence in the world. Like any other talent or skill, this capacity must be trained and developed in order to be exercised effectively. Our human limitations mitigate against attaining an adequate knowledge or love of God. Learning to use our capacity to sense God’s presence requires quite a bit of effort daily; in the absence of such effort, our lives become confused, frustrated, and tinged by defeat.
It is not surprising to me that so many people adopt an attitude of silent agnosticism or outright atheism; these are the unavoidable consequences of finding oneself unable to fulfill human nature’s primary goal of knowing and loving God.
A friend of mine, when he feels anxious, confused, or frustrated says, “I feel like a mosquito at the beach. I know what I want to do, but I don’t know where to begin.” When human nature’s primary goal of knowing and loving God is thwarted by insufficient knowledge or skill, one might well feel like a mosquito at the beach. The Scriptures provide instruction to help us avoid this existential anxiety, confusion, and frustration.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told a parable that echoed Sirach’s admonition, “Conduct your affairs with humility.” (Sir 3:17) Jesus did not intend to teach his fellow diners how to win the esteem of their peers; rather, the parable was about how to conduct one’s life in a way that affords an awareness of God’s presence at every moment. He said, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11) Humility is not self-abnegation or self-deprecation. Humility is the acknowledgment of one’s limitations (the very same limitations imposed on everyone by the finite world in which we live).
The humility taught by Jesus is the antidote to both pride and agnosticism because it is unflinching truth-telling; it is a public proclamation of humanity’s natural imperfection. This sort of humility is an act of faith because it rests on the affirmation that human limitation is the background against which God’s graciousness and mercy are clearly visible.
Jesus taught his disciples to live in faithful and loving humility, that is, the grateful acceptance of human imperfection. This humility isn’t an act that makes us less than we are or can be; rather, it makes us aware of the One who is always greater than us, the One whom all seek.
“Conduct your affairs with humility” (Sir 3:17) is faithful advice, not because God wants us to grovel or shrink from life’s opportunities, but because humility’s opposites, e.g., pride, arrogance, power, and self-importance are admissions of defeat in the face of eternal mystery. The path to an adequate grasp of the truth is eminently knowable, but it follows a mathematics that escapes the minds of many: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11)