The title for this post is a reference to a book by Alan Watts which I recommend to everyone.
These posts aren’t really about atheism anymore. (I might return to that topic later, but…) This one is about theism, and how I approach things like theology and the life of faith, given the fact that I take atheism seriously, among other things. The overriding theme for me in these posts is uncertainty (what Watts meant by Insecurity) – my uncertainty, of course, not necessarily yours. When I turned away from God, it was because of uncertainty. When I turned back to God, it was also because of uncertainty.
I think that this uncertainty is both a necessary position and a strong position with great potential. If nothing else, I occupy this position, and yet live a life of faith, am going to seminary to become ordained, am involved in pastoral ministry in the parish and have been involved in many kinds of ministry in the past. I seem to be able to serve the congregation where I am an intern despite being uncertain – I would actually say because I am uncertain. I am able to pastorally serve them, to pray, to preach, and to teach in ways that seem to edify and help build them up.
I know that many other people, some of them reading this blog, feel that they have good reason to be certain in their beliefs. All I can say is that I don’t know what that feels like. At the heart of my uncertainty is the understanding that I am definitely wrong – the question is to what degree? I think the best I get in this life is, maybe, to be able to become less and less wrong over time. I do understand, though, that everyone thinks they have good reasons to believe what they believe, and so I try to respect that. I don’t think all beliefs are of equivalent value, but that’s another blog post series I’d say.
I spent the previous post talking about why I think that uncertainty is a necessary position. I certainly have more to say, but I don’t have the time and motivation to spend a lot of words on this topic right now (on top of what I already spend on comments).
Rather, I think I want to talk about why uncertainty is a strong position.
First, uncertainty necessitates humility, and humility is a virtue. If you can’t be sure, the way that you make claims will change. You’ll shy away from absolutism, and even when you get on a high horse, that high horse is shaky and tenuous and you’re just as likely to fall off. I don’t think humility is ever misplaced – its like patience in that way.
Second, uncertainty leaves options open. I don’t love everything Barth says (reading his entire Church Dogmatics for a thesis wasn’t pretty) but I think he does a good job of talking about why we can’t nail God down. I think he backtracks sometimes with his view of Scripture and the nonetheless that it implies, but he makes the strong case that God is a subject, not an object. We are in relationship with God, and definitional statements about someone you’re in a relationship with are only going to carry so much weight. My wife isn’t composed of what I’d call her attributes, taken as such. I think God is no different. We can talk and debate about attributes of God as a kind of shorthand, a way of figuring out if we’re talking about the same Person and so on, but our definitions are not definitive by a long shot. Uncertainty takes the limitations of human cognition and language seriously. If you’re skeptical about these limitations, read Job or start here.
Third, uncertainty allows much more easily for reconciliation. If I believe that I posses the Immutable Truth of the Universe, and you disagree with me, I have to dismantle my entire worldview in order to find common ground with you. My options are to assume that you are either misguided or knowingly wrong. In neither case is there a chance that I’ll see your point of view as valuable. I think this puts a ceiling on the amounts of respect I can have for you, if I am this certain.
Similarly, and Fourth, if you are uncertain, it is much easier to see where you are wrong. For example, in an ethics class in seminary last year I decided to do my final moral argument on abortion. During the course of looking at the topic, I actually changed my view significantly. This was because, while I held the view that I held going in, I viewed it through the lens of uncertainty. And now that I hold a different view from before, I am still open to new information and new points of view on the topic. I can defend my view rationally, but I don’t take my view and absolutize it.
Fifth, in my case, uncertainty is just honesty, and honesty is a difficult and a good thing. Its where I’m at, and pretending otherwise is just misrepresenting myself. I’m not saying this to comment on anyone else either way, just saying what it means for me. My capacity for certainty in my own views has been pretty radically dismantled over the years…and I don’t miss it.
Sixth, human beings see what they want to see. Your brain, without your conscious effort, filters out the vast majority of the sensory stimuli that you absorb in a given day. The way that it filters these stimuli can change over time. A simplistic example: when you’re angry with someone, have you noticed that you see all the little things about them that make you angrier? These things were always happening, but your brain is no longer filtering them because of your mental state. This principle is present at a neurological level as well. Your brain has a powerful heuristic function that it applies to what you perceive. Given that, it seems that a little uncertainty is the right kind of leaven. It ups the odds that you’ll see things you’re not looking for – in yourself, in other people, in the world around you, etc.
Seventh, and again I can only speak about myself and a few other people I know well here, uncertainty allows one to exist and interact meaningfully with the postmodern world and also live a life of faith at the same time. I personally found certainty to be impossible to defend, and I suppose as consolation I have a lot of good company in theorists, philosophers, theologians and mystics. Obviously, many disagree with me here, and that’s fine.
Which leads me to another strength of uncertainty – Eighth – that it can help see things from another’s point of view and encourage mutual respect. Certainty is easy to threaten – anything that seems to be contradictory is a threat, and people never behave well when they feel threatened. When someone disagrees with me, I don’t feel that it is a threat (most of the time – no one’s perfect of course). Of course, sometimes it is also a threat for other reasons, but that’s another topic.
Ninth, faith. Uncertainty and faith go hand in hand. Here, I mean not faith as cognitive assent, but rather faith as existential trust. The locus of faith is moved away from the self, from the ego, from your own ideas and beliefs. It can be very, very restful. It is a difficult act of letting go at first, but when you do let go, you find that you are…unexpectedly buoyant. That without the rigid certainty you so valued in the past, clung to like a lifeline, you find that…everything continues just as it did before. If God was there before, God is still there. The only thing that has changed is that, well, see above.
Next, the pitfalls of uncertainty.