The world has a certainty problem.
Everywhere we turn, we encounter those who are quite certain about their religious beliefs, their political opinions, and other positions on a range of issues. Their certainty seems almost unshakeable, even in the face of clearly contradictory fact.
Of course, there are those who do not claim to possess absolute certainty, but many of whom have a great hunger for that kind of certainty. But why should that be? What drives us so often to seek to find concrete certainties?
The desire for certainty has at its source a fundamental, unavoidable reality: we are all going to die.
Perhaps not today, perhaps not soon, but some time. This fact lurks in the back of our consciousness and deeply affects us. For we do not know the time or manner of our impending death, and that lack of knowledge creates uncertainty and anxiety. As a way to combat that anxiety we attempt to establish as many certainties as we can.
The proponents of the “terror management theory” of psychology argue that it is our dread of death that causes us to seek to stave off the terror of death by creating a sense of self-worth and purpose in a meaningless universe. Further, these theorists argue that we create worldviews that give us a meaning and purpose and that we defend those worldviews at all cost, preferring the certainty of our beliefs to the uncertainty of unknowing.
This drive for certainty has a number of ill effects on us. First, our tendency to dig in on our certainties prevents us from appreciating the merit of opinions different from our own. The more we become committed to our own certainty, the more likely we are to see opposing political views as treasonous, different religious views as heretical. Certainty is the enemy of constructive engagement with the Other.
Second, we begin to fashion ideological and religious systems that seek to provide certainty. These systems reinforce the idea that the goal of human life should be to obtain this certainty. This, in turn, creates extraordinary pressure on the faithful to have that certainty. Some versions of religion prioritize faithful assent to such a degree that doubt is equated with a significant moral failing.
Third, spiritual violence is perpetrated on people of faith when their political and religious institutions demand certainty of them. In spite of their declarations to the contrary, people are rarely as certain as they claim to be. Their declarations of absolute certainty are often covering a deep and terrifying doubt. The dissonance between what they must publicly profess and what they feel inside can create a great crisis. They can feel that their faith hangs on by a thread, that every piece of information that challenges a held belief has the potential to bring down the whole house of cards of their faith. They can lurch from one certainty to another, ever seeking a more and more solid foundation for their existence, never feeling satisfied, and living with an internal spiritual tension that can become unbearable. This, in the end, is the biggest problem with our quest for certainty, because that certainty is not only unhelpful, it’s impossible.
In the book, we will explore the inescapable uncertainties in our lives: in our systems of belief, our language, and our experience of the world itself. We will come to see that the certainty we crave does not exist.
But then we will see that the lack of certainty is a good thing. We will see that our faith is strengthened when we embrace uncertainty. We will see that doubt is an essential and vital ingredient in a healthy faith, and we will see that embracing uncertainty helps us to engage with people of different religious traditions not as competitors for the claim on ultimate truth, but as fellow travelers on a journey of seeking meaning and purpose.
The Inescapable Uncertainty…
…in our Religion
People frequently turn to the religious traditions to find the certainties they crave. This is not surprising, many religious leaders offer religion for this exact purpose. In fact, religion is used to satisfy a whole array of needs that it only does imperfectly. Religion does not provide all the answers to your questions. It does not guarantee financial or earthly success nor is it a charm against troubles and challenges. It does not banish all doubt. The tension between how religious faith is marketed and how it actually works is another factor in increasing the desire for certainty, as the faithful jump from one religious understanding to another in pursuit of that elusive certainty.
But there is a clue within the religious traditions themselves that certainty is not what the religious enterprise is after. There are stories in sacred texts describing the doubt or lack of certainty of holy men and women. Mystics and theologians frequently remind the faithful of the deeper, unattainable mystery at the heart of religion. And the language of religion is primarily built on metaphor—a phenomenon built not on certainty, but in pointing toward the indescribable, ineffable reality. The metaphors of faith are the biggest clue that religion is not interested in certainty, but are providing a mechanism to talk about what cannot be described fully. The metaphorical and poetic nature of religious faith is the surest sign that the religious enterprise is not an enterprise grounded in a certainty, but one that embraces uncertainty and reflects that uncertainty in language of faith.
… in our Language
But it is not only in religious language that we find uncertainty. Uncertainty is found in all of our language. Were we to speak in mathematics, we might have some hope for precision and exactitude in our communications with one another, but we do not. Human beings do not communicate mathematically, we communicate through human language, a medium of great expressiveness and beauty, but it is not a medium of precision and certainty.
Language is full of obstacles to precise communication. We mishear what others have said and misread what others have written. We translate imperfectly—and in some cases disastrously—from one language to another. We fail to perceive meaning, or interpret the same word as meaning different things. We misperceive context, subtext, and implied meaning. We communicate in ambiguous ways or fail to pick up on the ambiguities of another’s expression. And we miss the figurative nature of one another’s speech.
Even were all of these obstacles overcome, we could still never attain absolute certainty and precision in our language because of the overwhelming presence of metaphor in our ordinary speech. Our language is built on a foundation of metaphor. Even that last sentence employed a metaphor (“built on”). And metaphors are not exact descriptors; they are signposts. They are concrete illustrations of an abstraction. They give us tools to be able to talk about a concept, but they do not define the concept perfectly.
Given the sheer abundance of metaphor in language, the ability to use language to convey any kind of certainty, religious or otherwise, is impossible. The fact that we have to use language to describe the world around us means that we can never have certainty that our understanding of the world or of one another’s experiences is perfect. There will always be that uncertainty.
…in our Senses
Of course, it is not only our language that prevents us from being uncertain about the world. Our senses frequently betray us. Philosophers have long wondered whether our senses could be trusted to tell us what the world was really like. Our own experience tells us that while our senses are generally reliable, they cannot give us absolute certainty that we have experienced the world as it truly is. Internet arguments over the color of a dress, laboratory experiments that trick the brain into hearing the wrong sound, and the brain’s tendency to smooth over inconsistent data in order to craft a more coherent picture of the world all contribute to the understanding that our experience of the world through our senses is not one of absolute certainty.
…in our Science
But regardless of what our senses tell us, surely our reason, our science, can give us the certainty we seek, can’t it? We frequently imagine that science is an enterprise that is meant to settle questions, to answer definitively whether eating after 10 p.m. is bad for weight loss, whether using cell phones will give us cancer, and so on. But science is not an enterprise of certainty—it is one that seeks to come up with likelihoods. Scientific experimentation does not provide the kind of definitive answers we are looking for. A typical experiment might tell us that out of a certain number of lab rats, changes due to the administration of a particular substance resulted in statistically significant changes in the majority of the subject animals. But that result is far from giving us a certainty about the studied substance’s effects. The result is a demonstrated likelihood about the substance and the end result of a process immersed in overlapping probabilities and statistical models.
In the end, science doesn’t give us an absolutely certain result; it gives us the most likely explanation. And given that the entire scientific mission is predicated on challenging pre-existing finding and testing and retesting results, science is not an enterprise that seeks to cast out uncertainties—it revels in them.
…in our World.
Ultimately, it is not just our religious systems, or our language, or our senses, or our scientific methods that are full of uncertainties—the universe itself is full of uncertainty. Even were we able to derive perfect results from our experiments, and be assured that we were perceiving those results and the world itself accurately, and that we were communicating them perfectly to one another, and building religious systems of faith around those understandings, we would still have to deal with uncertainty, because the world itself is uncertain.
The simple stability of the Biblical universe (a flat earth covered by a dome of sky) or the Ptolemaic universe (a stationary earth around which moved the sun, moon, and planets, with stars fixed into a celestial sphere) has yielded over time to an understanding of the universe as a far more expansive (mind-bogglingly huge) and far more mysterious place. Einstein destroyed our ability to claim that there was an absolute anything in the cosmos—not an absolute velocity, absolute position, or absolute frame of reference. Where we think we are, how fast we think we’re moving, and when one event happens in relationship to another all depend on our frame of reference. It is impossible to claim with absolute certainty any of those things to the exclusion of any other perspective.
Further, the field of quantum mechanics has challenged our abilities to be certain about the fundamental building blocks of the universe. According to quantum physics, for example, it is impossible to identify both the location and the momentum of a subatomic particle. We can know one or the other but not both. Even more distressing is the notion advanced by some physicists that not only can we not know both things at once, but that a particle does not actually have both things at once. Even more bizarre, there are experiments that demonstrate that an unobserved subatomic particle travels along multiple paths simultaneously on its way from one location to another, a phenomenon that some physicists believe has implications for our everyday experience.
All of this goes to show that our uncertainty about the world is not a function of our language, senses, and science alone. This uncertainty is written into the very fabric of the universe itself. At the end of the day, we discover that our quest for certainty is futile. Uncertainty is inescapable.
Uncertainty is unavoidable—but that is not a bad thing. Embracing uncertainty is not only necessary; it is good. Embracing uncertainty gives us a richer faith, a humbler attitude toward the world and one another, a powerful way to engage with others, and a powerful tool to combat fear.
Contrary to bringing down the whole house of cards of faith, uncertainty helps to enrich faith. It injects religious faith with a strong dose of humility. This, in turn, opens up the believer to a deeper sense of mystery and an ability to embrace ambiguity. The mystics have long seen faith in this way and their teaching offers us an insight into the power that is available to us when we can cast aside the certainties of literalism and embrace the wonder of metaphor and mystery.
In addition, we see that far from being inimical to faith, doubt is actually necessary to authentic and meaningful faith. So many people of faith have doubts about what they believe, but these doubts are not obstacles to being faithful, they are a rich and powerful experience of faith. For it is in the acknowledging of unknowing that true faith resides. The great faith traditions call their adherents not simply to believe in certain proposition, but to trust in God or some higher purpose. Embracing unknowing creates the space for real trust—something that cannot be done with perfect knowledge—which is at the heart of religious faith. Doubt is revealed to be not the enemy of faith; but its twin and counterpart.
Embracing uncertainty also gives us the ability to engage across religious traditions. If we no longer have to view religions as competing truth claims but can see them as different metaphorical systems attempting to describe and experience the same ineffable mystery, then our interreligious encounters become fundamentally transformed. No longer do we have to assert our own faith at the expense of others. No longer do believers have to claim that because they believe X, Y must be wrong. Nor need they water down their own faith claims to be acceptable participants in interfaith encounter. Each can boldly proclaim their own faith and their own beliefs, all the while understanding that their particular understanding is a metaphorical system that does not preclude the applicability of different metaphors to the same ineffable, indescribable reality.
It also provides for a way to deepen an understanding of faith. No longer is a doubt or a crisis of faith a sign of faith’s end; it is a sign of its health and vitality. Living with uncertainty creates a far more robust religious faith than existing in a state of static certainty. Some of the greatest religious thinkers have experienced “long dark nights of the soul”—those experiences of alienation from God and of profound doubt—and have nevertheless demonstrated some of the most powerful faith from the midst of these wilderness experiences. Embracing uncertainty opens the door from this kind of powerful and transformative religious experience, even in times of doubt and uncertainty.
Embracing uncertainty helps us in concrete and specific ways. Embracing unknowing gives us the creative space to grow in understanding. Uncertainty, not certainty, is more often the goad toward learning, toward personal growth, and personal success. It provokes creativity and innovation. Our understanding that we have not attained all knowledge and all certainty, drives us toward exploration and improvement.
Finally, embracing uncertainty offers us a tool to combat fear. Embracing faith in the midst of uncertainty is a powerful statement of fearlessness. It is standing face to face with the void and daring to step into it. In the same way that love embraces uncertainty and is fearless in its faithful commitment, a faith willing to embrace uncertainty and doubt is the most powerful antidote to fear. This faith is not the easy, wide road of seeking power, control, and certainty that so many others take. But the more people who take this path, perhaps the more well worn it will become, the more visible and available it will be to others caught in the same trap of fear and existential anxiety.
This is a faith certain of uncertainty: fearless, open, and honest. It is a faith, free from the chains of certainty and rigidity, free from the shackles of literalism and judgmentalism, that can liberate us from those same prisons. A faith that acknowledges—and embraces—the certainty of uncertainty is a faith that can eliminate narrow religious and political thinking, a faith that can drive out the need for simplistic answers and extremist ideologies, a faith that no longer sees the world as us versus them but sees all as fellow travelers, a faith that can eliminate the divisions based on creed, doctrine, and ideology.
It is a faith that can change the world.