The Wisdom of Uncertainty

(Atheism I is here)
(Atheism II is here)

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.

10 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Uncertainty

  1. Do you think there’s a difference between uncertainty and cynicism?If you are this rooted in uncertainty, where does your (clearly very strong) motivation for taking action come from?Just being difficult right before classes start 🙂

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  2. @ PaulGood point. I’m actually wrong about everything – except the belief that I’m wrong, in which I am perfectly and objectively correct 🙂@ HeatherDefinitely. I think cynicism is emotionally desensitized, and it is also a particular kind of certainty.That’s a good question. It depends. I’ve definitely got more than one motivation, even in a single situation. Its the usual gamut – wanting to please myself, wanting to please others, wanting to alleviate pain and suffering and anxiety, what pleasurable feelings come from relationship and moral behavior…occasionally perhaps I have ‘higher’ motivations, which I would say is driven by intuition on the one hand and commitment to what that intuition tells me on the other.Broadly, my motivation is probably imagination. I imagine things and I want to manifest them somehow. I always have. Every child goes through phases – maybe a dinosaur phase or a King Arthur phase or whatever – I just never grew out of them. I’ve just added a social justice phase and a theology phase and so on. But my life is primarily composed of some kind of daydreaming or another.

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  3. Dear Doug,Thank you for the three posts so far. I just finished reading them (Tue. Sept 4). You had me hooked with the first two, but this one is particularly compelling. You’ve put into words thoughts that I’ve had a hard time articulating for myself. There are times I cling so tightly to certainty that my soul cramps. Recently I’ve found myself letting go about some things and becoming, as you say, more bouyant in the process.I have a ways to go, though. I wish I had read this post when it first came out last week. I would have preached a different sermon on Sunday, I think. I was too certain of my take on Luke, and I think I muffled the gospel with my “righteous” indignation as a result. When I cling, I find I’m filled with fight. When I let go, I find I’m filled with faith. Does that make sense?Your post comes at a good time. It’s helping me sort through some personal and professional issues with less angst and more…I almost said “certainty”, but that would defeat the point, wouldn’t it? How about “less angst and more peace”?Thank you for the ministry of your blog.Yours in Christ,Mark

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  4. @ MarkThank you so much for the comment. I’m glad that this post was/is helpful to you. I think that “less angst and more peace” is an excellent way to seek to live. And I feel the same – that when I feel certain I also feel full of fight.One thing that this, what, maybe discipline of uncertainty helps me realize (at the best of times) is when something is worth fighting for. Because everything is tested and questioned, some things will rise to the surface again and again, and it is through this process that I feel my life becomes more meaningful. At least I hope so.

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  5. Doug,Just listened to Erwin McManus talk about uncertainty, I don’t know if you guys are talking about the same type of uncertainty, but I’m rethinking the role of uncertainty in the Christian life. How does that look within the sovreignty of God? Can we have certainty about the fact that God has a plan for us (or at least knows what’s going on) while surrendering to the fact that we don’t know what it is? Anyway, it’s worth exploring.

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