The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

Category: Excerpt (Page 1 of 2)

Book excerpt

The One Thing Certain: Why We Desire Certainty

By the time you finish reading this book, you could be dead.

It’s not that long a book, but even so, a car accident, a slip and fall, a random crime, a plane crash, a sudden and devastating disease, a heart attack, a brain aneurysm, or any other random lethal misfortune could claim your life before you get to the final page. Or not. The problem is that you don’t know which fate awaits you.

We, perhaps alone among the creatures that inhabit the globe with us, can contemplate our own mortality. We are aware of the basic fact that one day we will cease to exist. We are conscious of the reality of our inevitable deaths, but we don’t know what it all means or what, if anything, lies beyond death.

The Tragic Sense of Life

Miguel de Unamuno author of The Tragic Sense of Life explains why we desire certainty
Miguel de Unamuno

The Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno wrote that our fears and anxieties around death drove us to try to figure out what would become of us when we die. Would we “die utterly” and cease to exist? That would lead us to despair. Would we live on in some way? That would lead us to become resigned to our fate. But the fact that we can never really know one way or the other leads us to an uncomfortable in-between: a “resigned despair.” 1Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, 38.

Unamuno refers to this “resigned despair” as “the tragic sense of life.” For Unamuno, this tragic sense of life created a drive to understand the “whys and wherefores” of existence, to understand the causes, but also the purposes, of life. The terror of extinction pushes us to try to make a name for ourselves and to seek glory as the only way to “escape being nothing.” 2Ibid., 64.

There is an additional consequence to our mortality beyond this “resigned despair” and the “tragic sense of life.” Our awareness of our own mortality also creates a great deal of anxiety. Because we know neither the date nor the manner of our own deaths, we are left with unknowing and uncertainty, and are plagued by angst on an existential level.

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When What You Say Isn’t What You Mean

One of the main sources of uncertainty in our lives is the medium we use to communicate about that world: our language. There are many pitfalls to clear communication among which is the problem of implied meaning and subtext. Below is an excerpt from a chapter of The Certainty of Uncertainty entitled “The Slipperiness of Language” reflecting on this very point:

Implied Meaning and Subtext

As I sit here writing this chapter, there is a young college student across the table. It’s that time of year when colds are making their rounds and this young man is sniffling. Repeatedly. I reach into my bag and pull out one of those travel packets of tissues. “You need a Kleenex?” I ask him. “No, thanks. I’m good,” he responds. He has misunderstood my statement; it wasn’t a question. It was a face-saving declaration to him that he needed a Kleenex. He understood the text of my question but neither the subtext (your constant sniffling is driving me crazy) nor the implied meaning (please blow your nose).

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God Is a Metaphor

What does the word God mean? At first glance this seems like an easy question; everyone knows what God means. But the more we look at it, the more we realize that the meaning of that term is far less set than we might have thought at first.

An ‘Improper” Proper Name

The religious philosopher I.M. Crombie said that the question “Who is God?” seems like a proper question at first, but it becomes clear that it cannot be properly answered. That is, if a child were to ask, “Who is Tom?” the question could be answered by saying, “Tom is my brother,” or by pointing to Tom himself. But as Crombie notes, “If a child asks ‘Who is God?’ he can only be given statements (such as ‘He made us’) by way of answer. He can never be brought into a situation in which it is proper to say, ‘That is God.’” Crombie concludes that the term God is an improper proper name—that is, it looks like a proper name (e.g., Tom) but does not work like one, in that its use is not based on acquaintance with the being it denotes.1I.M. Crombie, “The Possibility of Theological Statements,” in Religious Language and the Problem of Religious Knowledge, ed. Ronald E. Santoni (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 91.

Crombie continues by noting that God seems to have the same characteristics as terms like point or Huckleberry Finn from geometry and literature, respectively. A point seems to have an inherent contradiction in its meaning: it is simultaneously sizeless and occupies a location in space. Like the term God (simultaneously transcendent and immanent), point seems to be identified by contradictory rules—the only way it can be identified. Likewise, identifying Huckleberry Finn as “the best friend of Tom Sawyer” is the only way a fictional character can be identified because one cannot point to the actual individual. In these ways, point and Huckleberry Finn seem to be improper proper names.

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Metaphor and Knowing the Truth

The claim that religion is metaphor is not a claim that there is no underlying truth; it is a reminder that the truth we proclaim through metaphor is imperfectly known. As such, it stakes out an important middle ground in the question of what we can know.

There are those who argue that language should be used only to make objective statements about objective realities and truths. These objectivists believe that using metaphor is using words in their “improper senses” to stir emotions and, therefore, leads “away from truth and toward illusion.”[1] Their belief is built on the idea that there is an objective reality independent of humanity that can be known, an idea that can be comforting in an uncertain world.

Screen cap from the X-Files reading "The Truth is Out There"

We’re with you, Muldur and Scully

On the other side of the issue are the subjectivists, who argue that truth depends entirely on one’s own perspective. It is an idea found at the heart of post-modernism, known for many things, but in the arena of philosophy and religion primarily known for one basic tenet: there is no absolute truth. It is not simply a rejection of the medieval idea that truth came through divine revelation, or the modern idea that truth was known through human reason; it rejects the idea that there is an absolute truth at all.[*]

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Faith as the “Solution to Our Problems”

We human beings often perceive an emptiness at the core of our selves and we long to find something to fill it that will make us whole. Our entire consumer economy and much of our culture is built around satisfying, or purporting to satisfy, this longing. Our popular music affirms the idea that some object (or some person) is the answer to that gnawing emptiness at the core of our being.[i]

Now, religion is frequently on record opposing the consumerist solution to deep existential problems. The church, for example, denounces the idea that goods, sex, money, drugs, fame, or power can ever fill that void. But on closer inspection, it appears that organized religion is not opposed to the idea that something can fill those gaps. It’s just not the something that the other folks are marketing.

Peter Rollins, a religious philosopher and theologian in the “Emergent Church” movement, points out that contemporary Christianity buys right into this consumerist attitude: there is a problem you have, and the church has the solution to fix it. No, the solution is not sex, drugs, or rock-n-roll, or the acquisition of material goods, or power and status; the solution is Jesus. And the church is here to provide you with that product.

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Rumi’s The Indian Tree and the Metaphors of Faith

One of the biggest obstacles to interfaith understanding is an inability to perceive each other’s metaphors as metaphors rather than literal claims. An awareness that one’s own tradition is rich with metaphor is essential in understanding the metaphorical nature of other traditions. With that understanding, we are able to see that all the religious traditions are about a deeper purpose of unraveling and exploring mystery.

It is a sentiment expressed so beautifully by the poet Rumi in his poem The Indian Tree, here in this translation by Coleman Barks:⁠1

Portrait of RumiA learned man once said, for the sake of saying something,
“There is a tree
in India. If you eat the fruit of that tree, you’ll never grow
old and never die.”

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Is Uncertainty Written into the Universe?

In the smallest realms of the universe, at the subatomic level, the laws of relativity do not apply. Instead, the strange world of quantum physics rules. At the heart of quantum physics is a concept known as the uncertainty principle, a rule that maintains that it is impossible to know both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle. You could say that all this principle is really saying is that it’s impossible to know these things. Clearly the universe is not so strange that a subatomic particle doesn’t actually have both a position and a momentum, right?

Then again, the subatomic universe is up to some pretty strange things.

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Who are you gonna believe: me or your own eyes?

On February 26, 2015, the internet broke.

A woman posted a photograph of a dress on social media and asked what color the dress was, as she and her friends were unable to agree and were “freaking out.”

This kind of disagreement happens all the time. I had a years-long argument with a friend of mine whether a particular shirt I owned was blue or green.  I saw it as green, she saw it as blue.  I have the same argument now with a different friend about the color of my couch. But as blue and green are on the same spectrum and the shirt could arguably have been said to have been blue-green (or was it green-blue?), that argument was simply about where an individual drew the line between the two colors.  The dress was different.

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Confusing Religion with God

In an earlier excerpt, I discussed the curious phenomenon of atheists and fundamentalists having the same understanding of religion.  Not only do both atheists and fundamentalists treat religion as a straightforward system of fact-claims, but they likewise frequently confuse a religion for the God the religion points toward. Religions are man-made; they are the metaphors that we have constructed to try to identify the divine mystery we believe lies at the heart of reality. But so very often, people forget that any sufficiently worthy divine reality would, of necessity, have to transcend any given religious system.

An example of this phenomenon concerns the question of whether different religions worship the same God. At the time of this writing, a professor at an evangelical Christian college has been suspended because, in a statement in which she pledged to wear a headscarf throughout Advent as a declaration of solidarity with Muslims, she stated that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” Although her superiors did not object to the declaration of solidarity or to the wearing of the headscarf, they strongly objected to the notion that Muslims and Christians worshiped the same God, and for that reason, suspended her.⁠1

Now, to be fair, from the college’s point of view, the only proper understanding of God is the Christian, Trinitarian theology that affirms that Jesus is God, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, through whose sacrifice on the cross the salvation of humanity is made possible. Since Islam rejects the divinity of Christ (although it affirms his messiahship and prophethood) it cannot be said to be worshiping the same God, or so the thinking goes.


But note what has happened: such a position—and it is not the only one of its kind; there are many analogues in many different religious expressions—confuses a tradition’s understanding of God with God. Such an equivalence between understanding and reality can only be made when one’s understanding of the subject is perfect—and our understanding of God is not. Yes, Islam and Christianity (and Judaism, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, etc.) have very different conceptions of God. They all use different metaphors to describe the unknowable God, the Eternal One. But no one is in a position to say that all those metaphors are not pointing in the same direction. Indeed, if there is only one ultimate reality in the universe, then all such efforts to grasp this reality must point in that direction. To claim that different religions worship different gods because they have different conceptions of God is like claiming that different stargazers are looking at different skies because each is focusing on a different constellation. Each may have a different understanding of what the sky looks like, but the same sky looms behind them all. And yet, we continue to fail to distinguish between our religions and the divine reality to which they point. We continue to fail to see a distinction between the journey and the destination.

An, Kirlkand. “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? College Suspends Professor Who Said Yes.” The Washington Post, December 17 2015.

Even Children Don’t Like Uncertainty

In the movie Annie Hall, the main character Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, flashes back to a time in his childhood that showed that even as a child he was afflicted with a fair amount of existential angst:⁠1

Doctor: Why are you depressed, Alvy?

Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flicker.  (Young Alvy sits, his head down – his mother answers for him)

Alvy’s Mom: It’s something he read.

Doctor: Something he read, huh?

Alvy: (his head still down) The universe is expanding.

Doctor: The universe is expanding?

Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!

Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business? (turning back to the doctor) He stopped doing his homework!

Alvy: What’s the point?

Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!

It’s a scene meant to be an “even then they knew” kind of scene for the character, highlighting the neurosis that has plagued Alvy his whole life, but the subject of Alvy’s anxiety is not arbitrary. The expanding universe is disquieting. It’s a far cry from the steady state universe, the fixed, eternal “world without end” universe that was assumed to exist before Edwin Hubble started looking through his telescope.

In fact, even though certain aspects of Newton’s theory of gravity had made it unlikely that the universe was static (over time all the stars should fall together), the idea of an expanding or contracting universe was never even suggested prior to the twentieth century. People believed either that the universe had always existed forever in an unchanging state or that it had been created at some point in the past more or less as it looks today. Perhaps this was due to people’s desire to believe in a world that is eternal and unchanging. A universe that is certain.⁠2 It was troubling to learn otherwise.


IMDB. “Annie Hall: Quotes.”

2 Hawking, Stephen. The Illustrated a Brief History of Time. Updated and expanded ed.  New York: Bantam Books, 1996, 9-10

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