Intellectual Humility & the Difficult Knowledge of Theology

Publication Date


Document Type


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2017 Bergamo Conference on Curriculum Theory and Classroom Practice

Conference Location

Dayton, OH


We seek, in this analytical essay, to complicate the conversation around knowledge production in the academy by proposing “intellectual humility” as a mode for moving toward new avenues of knowledge-making, particularly as an epistemic stance against the kinds of “intellectual arrogance” (Lynch, 2017) that have made certain avenues of knowledge, especially in the social sciences, mostly verboten in the last half century. Drawing on the conceptual frames of difficult knowledge (Britzman, 1998; Garrett, 2017; Pitt & Britzman, 2003) and weak theology (Caputo, 2006), we turn to our own stories of faith and inquiry as ways in to thinking humility, and through which we draw broader conclusions about what humility may offer that’s especially useful in this particular moment in the academy and beyond. The first author details how his own this project entailed taking seriously the realization that if the posts level the epistemic field, then that clears some room for taking up religious discourse, and its accompanying conceptual metaphors, as of equal potential usefulness to conventional systematic analysis in considering essential human questions. As a poststructuralist, religion’s theology all of a sudden becomes interesting and possible again.
We propose engagement with the difficult knowledge that our own intellectual arrogance as a field has turned us away from a collective deep discussion of human reality, purpose, and action for nearly half a century (see the work of Gert Biesta and Bill Pinar for exceptions). Our way back in, we think, is through something akin to Caputo’s (2006) Theology of the Event (known as Weak Theology) perhaps best manifest, actually, by Blumenthal (1993) who notes that “the intertextual approach to theology cannot yield absolute truth, valid for all. It can only lead to partial coherence” (p. 14). We think there is room for this partial coherence to matter around the immediate moment of alternative facts: alternative facts require the weakness (humility) of a hopeful response, perhaps once again in the social sciences, through theology.
Making a relation to difficult knowledge—and the difficulty of making religious arguments in the social sciences currently—for Garrett (2017), “means being able to recognize that there is knowledge we simultaneously do and do not want to have” (p. 24) whereby “sometimes the best lesson we can offer is that settled stories…and certainty are rather dangerous” (p. 34). We might unsettle the dangerous story that theology has no use for educational research, other than as a caution against the backwardness of faith in a patriotic god. There’s more there, humbly, in the weak event of taking up religious arguments again, we think. That is, if we’re to consider the possibility of evidentiary epistemologies as valuable in the work of combating ignorance and asserting certain values in and around education, then we’d do well to further diversify our sense of the possible in public education and its diverse standpoints to include the difficult knowledge of theology as a rich framework for pursuing new ends. Indeed, to our minds, this is the very stuff of complicated conversations.


English and Comparative Literature