The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

1,089 Days

One thousand, eighty-nine days. Two years, eleven months, and twenty-five days. That’s how long it was between the commencement of my work on The Certainty of Uncertainty and the release of the published work this past weekend.

On September 1, 2015, I began my sabbatical leave after thirteen years of campus ministry. The purpose of my sabbatical was to find rest and restoration after nearly a decade and a half in ministry, and after some particularly challenging years. But I have always found great restoration in being creative and so I was looking forward not only to the time away from my work, but also to the opportunity to create something. And that something was the book idea I’d had for a while.

An Idea Forms

In the fall of 2011, as part of a sermon series on “Questions of Faith,” I preached a sermon entitled, “Am I Lost if I Have Doubt?” In that sermon I argued that faith and doubt were inextricably linked and used insights not only from religion, but from science as well. The sermon was generally well received and it became clear that a lot of people were struggling with questions of doubt and uncertainty. This sermon, in turn, led to a number of conversations with a close friend on the question of faith and uncertainty, and started me on a long-term reflection on the topic. 

A few years later, on Doubting Thomas Sunday (usually the Sunday after Easter), I preached a modified version of that same sermon and titled it, “On the Necessity of Doubt.” In that sermon, I expanded the previous themes and added a reflection on Thomas’ doubt as a necessary element for a robust faith. That sermon, too, resonated well with folks. And here it was that I knew I was on to something.

I had been thinking about writing on the topic of faith and doubt, but never found the time. When the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave was presented to me, I jumped at the chance and knew right away what I would spend my leave working on: a book on uncertainty and doubt as necessary elements of faith.

The Sabbatical Begins

Once on leave, I threw myself into the work. I developed a fairly regular routine throughout my sabbatical. I would get up every morning, read or study a little in the morning, go for a 10–20 mile bike ride in the late morning, and then would head over to Georgetown to work. Some days I would go to the library and then head over to Saxby’s Coffee to write. Some days, I’d just go to Saxby’s or another coffee shop in the neighborhood. The very first day I entered the Georgetown University library, I felt a thrill unlike any I’d felt in a long time. As I collected the names of a number of books and made my way down into the stacks to find them, I remember thinking, So here I am, in the stacks of a library doing research—scribbling notes onto a yellow legal pad and entering citations in my EndNote—and I am having the time of my life. Had someone made me do this research, I would have found it a chore. But here, as an opportunity to be creative, as an opportunity to produce something original, I found the work exhilarating.

As I researched questions of certainty and uncertainty, I also explored the nature of religious language, researching its metaphorical nature and the implications of belief systems founded upon concepts that cannot be literally defined but can only be pointed at with metaphors. As one who had long studied language and linguistics, this aspect of my research was equally thrilling.

Some of the books I used in my research, the titles of which alone make me happy. (Photo: Jill Braunstein)

Indeed, I was getting to use all my degrees in this venture: my undergraduate and graduate Russian language and linguistics degrees, the research and writing skills from my law degree, and my theological knowledge from my seminary degree. And when I supplemented my daily research with weekend visits to different houses of worship—Methodist, Orthodox, Jewish, Islamic, Episcopalian, Catholic, Lutheran—I added an experiential element to my work that had the additional effect of restoring my soul.

After months of research and writing, I produced a first draft. Not having any University printing privileges or an office printer to make use of, I saved the manuscript on a thumb drive and went to the UPS store to print it out. I put the manuscript in a large three-ring binder and began the long process of reviewing and revising it. 

The initial edits went about like I expected. Fortunately, I had plenty of red pens.

When I returned to work at the end of my sabbatical leave, I’d had a first draft (actually a second, by that point), and something resembling a book manuscript. I sent it off to a friend who is a copy editor for her professional help in revising it and getting it closer to something publishable. When I got it back from her, reflecting a number of changes to improve tone and consistency, I had a serviceable manuscript ready to go.

But now what? 

Adventures in Finding a Publisher

How do you get a book published once you’ve written it? Honestly, I had no idea. It turns out it was a lot more difficult than I’d thought—and I thought it’d be hard to begin with.

Anne Hathaway hard at work. Will today be the day she finds my manuscript in the pile?

In the movies and on TV, a writer writes a book, sends it off to a publisher and the manuscript sits in a big pile until Anne Hathaway discovers it and makes you famous. In the real world, it’s not so simple.

Smaller publishers will deal directly with an author, but don’t receive unsolicited manuscripts; they will accept a book proposal and if interested will initiate further interaction. Larger publishers will not receive even unsolicited proposals and require a literary agent. And how does one get a literary agent? It turns out, you don’t just go out and get one like you’d get a lawyer. You submit a book proposal, just as you would a smaller publisher.

This process turned out to be a lot harder that I’d ever imagined. I’d come to understand through a colleague that publishing had changed a lot over the last few years. Publishers were far more cautious, especially when it came to previously unpublished authors. This became a great source of frustration as I received rejection after rejection from publishing houses and literary agents alike.

A work friend and colleague, Professor Naomi Baron—whose advice I’d been relying on by virtue of her experience as a published author and who’d helped me greatly in my drafting of a book proposal and in some reorganization of the manuscript—assured me that I’d had something worth publishing, but I began to despair. I thought so, too, but what would it matter if I couldn’t persuade anyone to publish it?

A particular low point was when my own denominational publisher declined to publish the book. They kept asking about course adoptions the book could be used for. “It’s not that kind of book,” I kept saying. But to no avail. Cautious, they wanted something they knew would sell and I didn’t have a large enough “platform” (read: no one knows who I am). If I couldn’t persuade the United Methodists to publish a book by a United Methodist minister serving as the chaplain to the national United Methodist university, who was I going to persuade?

At this point, a couple of options started to look more appealing. I’d been getting material in the mail from some companies offering publishing services. Out of curiosity, I submitted my manuscript to one of them and within a week they’d responded telling me that they’d accepted it and would publish it. The offer seemed too good to be true, particularly given the speed with which they’d responded. (Had they even read it?) They said they’d market the book and it’d be in book stores and on Amazon. But when I looked more closely, I realized that the language was very cleverly crafted to sound like that’s what they were promising. In reality, they were offering some marketing materials like posters and bookmarks, but they were not going to set up any book signings and they only offered to have your book available for bookstores to buy, but wouldn’t supply the book themselves. (Bookstores don’t go on Amazon to buy the books they stock.) I even searched for books published by them on Amazon to see if I’d ever heard of any of the books or the authors. Not so much. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that this was an option designed to appeal to people like me who really wanted to be published, but wouldn’t actually deliver what it promised. 

So, perhaps, I thought, I should just self-publish. Self publishing I’d done before; my earlier book project Religious, Not Spiritual, I’d self-published on Amazon CreateSpace in 2015. I could do that again, I suppose. It’s not like actually being published, but at least the book would be out there. I could tell people about it and maybe, just maybe, a publisher would pick it up if it did well.

The Right Match

And then, rather unexpectedly, one day in March 2018, I got an email from Wipf & Stock offering to publish my book. I read the email a couple of times to make sure that I’d read it right. I’d almost forgotten that I’d submitted a proposal to them a couple of months before. I’d heard really good things about Wipf & Stock and as I considered their offer, I knew that they were the absolute right match for me and for The Certainty of Uncertainty. A publishing house that specialized in books in religion, philosophy, and linguistics? Perfect. Plus, they’re a smaller house that has an interesting publishing model that allows them to take chances on authors who they believe have worthy ideas, not merely books that they think can sell. I and my book were home.

And at every stage of the ensuing process I had that initial impression confirmed. My interactions with my managing editor, the copyeditor, the typesetter, designer, and marketing folks was wonderful and easy. As grateful as I am to Wipf & Stock for offering to publish the book, I am proud to have my book associated with them.  

The End of the Journey

At this moment on the journey, I think about an example I came across in my research by Noam Chomsky designed to illustrate the range of complex meanings in even the most ordinary words:

Juan wrote a book about politics, which weighs two kilos in hardcover and one kilo in paperback.

Chomsky notes that there are two different books in this sentence: one is an abstraction—a concept referring to the collection of ideas, and the other is a concrete object in the world. 

I think about this sentence because over the course of this long journey, my book has made its own journey from abstraction to a concrete object in the world. And at the end of all of this journey, my book is now a book.

Even after all the words I’ve written in this blog post, I don’t know quite how to put into words what I’m feeling: satisfaction, pride, excitement, a sense of accomplishment, and a lot of relief. At the end of a long process of reflection, research, writing, revision, submission, failure, more submission, and ultimately finding the right match, the idea that had been rattling around in my head for so long is now out in the world. After one thousand, eighty-nine days this particular journey has come to a close.

But now that the book is out in the world, another journey begins. I’m relieved and excited to see where this one goes next.

1 Comment

  1. Robert Graef

    Thank you for pulling curtains aside to see the questions that lie beyond. I recently had my book on Ignorance published by Prometheus Books and was happy to find that it was picked up by a few chapters of the Socrates Café web of discussion groups. That done, there was time to join a different discussion group at Seattle’s Queen Anne Lutheran Church. Its provocative name is Beyond Faith.

    Your book is helping to fuel discussions in another group I moderate that’s titled, “Seekers, Asking 21st Century Questions About Our Faith.” Participants draw from a box of 270 questions (and growing) that have been taken from my readings, sometimes reflecting underlying questions authors dancer around without managing to address them directly.

    A comment from last week’s session is worth sharing: “Just like our question box, the compilers of catechisms were hot to collect what they took to the most important questions, but why didn’t they stop there instead of following them with canned answers reflecting their times’ orthodoxy? Why didn’t they let their students wrestle with them to develop a first-hand, not a second-hand faith?”

    Thank you for sharing your history of wrestling with grateful readers,

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