Anyone Can Know

I came to Japan for the Spring Break, and I have been visiting a lot of shrines and temples connected to Japan's Shinto religion. Unlike Western religions, Shinto is not normative–it does not aim to tell people how to live their lives or how to think about the world. Instead, it focuses on being descriptive, aiming to provide explanations on how Japan came to be. Thus, it is tightly interwined with Japanese folklore. 

During my trip, I've had the chance to talk about Shinto with other Japanese people, and I've come to realize that although traditions like visiting the shrines are still widely observed, not many of them hold these deities to be anything more than part of the country's mythology. Interestingly, I've also realized that they don't know much about Shinto to being with. They were surprised when I told them I'm familiar with most of the legends and lineages. I noticed they were shaken by the realization that someone who does not live in Japan knows more about the culture that engulfs their everyday lives.

This is not uncommon, it happens to everyone. It's easy to think that our proximity to our culture (and for that matter, to things we are familiar with) provides us with knowledge that outsiders cannot access or fully grasp. During my time in Tanzania, I realized that there were many people who knew more about the culture and history of my countries (Guatemala & Japan) than me–but I found myself constantly refusing to acknowledge it... 

Letting go of the notion that we have exclusive insight on topics closely connected to our identity is a very difficult thing to do. Of course, I'm not trying to say that our personal experiences cannot provide us with unique perspectives that outsiders would have a hard time understanding–what I mean is that even if we have those unique experiences, we can still be uninformed of many aspects of our own culture, for we are fallible and infinitely ignorant (click here for more on infinite ignorance). 

This applies not only to culture and religion, but to pretty much all types of knowledge. Although everyone is prone to error, everyone is also capable of knowledge: Guatemalans who have spent their entire lives in Latin America can learn about their own culture from Europeans; professors who have spent their entire lives doing philosophy can be proven wrong by freshmen; and priests who have preached for decades can be corrected on matters of the Bible by atheists. 

Anyone can know. To reject this is to regress to the intellectual elitism of the pre-enlightenment. Instead of denying this truth, whenever confronted by an outsider who is more knowledgeable than us, we should feel not insecure, but encouraged. Encouraged because it serves as a reminder that our ignorance has no end, and thus, our learning possibilities have no limit either, extending indefinitely to infinity.