The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

Category: Reflection

The Casualties of War

Right now in Ukraine, thousands are fighting to defend their land against a Russian invasion, cities are being bombed, and nearly a million people have become refugees, fleeing to neighboring countries.

Or are they?

They are. But not everyone believes it to be true. In fact, many Ukrainians are facing the extraordinary reality that some of their relatives in Russia—even close family members like siblings and parents—refuse to believe what is happening in Ukraine. They will insist that the Ukrainian government is neo-Nazi, that Russia is just conducting peacekeeping operations, etc.

To address this troubling reality, one Ukrainian set up a website called Papa Pover (meaning “Dad, believe me”) to help Ukrainians speak to their Russian relatives about the war.

But why is this a front the Ukrainians should have to fight at all? Why do their relatives not simply believe the reality of the devastating conflict in Ukraine?

Part of the answer is that the Putin regime has tried hard to control the flow of information inside Russia and most of the media outlets are state-controlled and parroting the governmental line. But part of it is that their relatives don’t want to believe.

Continue reading

The Capitol Insurrection, Qanon, and Absolute Certainty

The violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 is the consequence of many things, but at its heart is the need for absolute certainty.

On January 6, a crowd of rioters stormed the United States Capitol, intent on disrupting the ceremonial tally of Electoral College votes by a Joint Session of Congress. They were fueled in large measure by a misguided belief in claims of widespread electoral fraud—claims that have been repeatedly debunked—as well as by White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism, and a healthy dose of conspiracy theories, in particular the QAnon conspiracy theory. How is it that so many people can commit themselves to a cause whose foundations are easily falsified and whose basic ideology has long been discredited?

It turns out that more than truth, more than accuracy, we crave certainty—even if we’re wrong about the things we’re certain of.

Continue reading

Embrace the Uncertainty

I’ve long been a fan of Nate Silver’s and its accompanying podcast, but the title of an episode earlier this week was in perfect sync with the outlook of this blog: Embrace the Uncertainty.

In the context of Silver’s podcast, the title refers to the inherent uncertainty in election polling and the anxiety that such uncertainty produces in people with an interest in the results of the election. Specifically, those supporting Biden in the current contest look at the forecast model—which, as of the date of this writing, predicts that Biden has an 88% chance of winning the election to Trump’s 12%—and wonder whether that means that Biden will, in fact, win the election. Silver, as an accomplished analyst, cannot do what he’s being asked: give a guarantee about the results of the election. All he can do is share the percentages that his model provides: 88% to 12%. “Embrace the uncertainty,” is all he can say.’s rolling forecast

In reality, it’s all anyone can ever say. As readers and fans of The Certainty of Uncertainty know, uncertainty is unavoidable. There is always a chance, always a risk, no matter how assured we might be in our convictions.

The reality of inescapable uncertainty and doubt is all the more so when it comes to forecasting politics, where you are relying not only on individual preferences but also on the ability to accurately record those individual preferences. Given that, all you can do is play the percentages—as Nate Silver does—and embrace the lingering uncertainty about any prediction, however much we might desire more certainty.

Continue reading

Indigenous Peoples, Colonialism, and Metaphor

The Great Smoky Mountains in the lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee
Overlooking the Quallah Boundary of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, Cherokee, NC

For over a decade, I took groups of university students on a week of service-learning to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in western North Carolina. There we had occasion to learn about Cherokee history (including the long history of oppression and suffering), culture, tradition, politics, and faith. On one such trip, we were speaking with Bo Taylor, an expert in native dance and music at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. He is also a committed Christian who continues to embrace traditional Cherokee spirituality as well. He told us a story, which I will paraphrase as follows:

When the white men first came to our lands, they saw us singing songs to the sun and they said, “Ah, they’re sun worshipers!” Then they saw us dancing around the fire and singing songs and said, “Ah, they’re worshiping the fire!” And so they thought that we were savages and heathens. But that’s only because they never stopped to ask us what we were doing. Because if they had, we would have told them that there is only one Great Spirit who is the Creator of all things. The Creator has an emblem in the sky: the sun, the fire that burns in the heavens. That fire also burns on the earth and is a sign of the Great Spirit in our midst. And we know that that fire burns within us giving us life: the first thing that happens after you die is that the fire goes out and the body grows cold. Now, let me ask you, have you ever heard of a fire in the heavens, the fire that dwells on earth with us, and the fire that dwells within?

Of course, at this point, all the Christians in the room sheepishly admitted that this was one way of understanding the Trinity. We said as much. Bo continued:

We had the same religion that you had. We just used different names. But you never stopped to ask us. You just assumed we were heathens and savages and that we needed to be forcibly converted to your religion. But we’d already had it.

Bo Taylor, image for essay Indigenous peoples, colonialism, and metaphor
Bo Taylor

Bo’s story is the perfect illustration of what happens when we confuse our metaphors for the reality they point to. Both sets of metaphors, the traditional Christian articulation of the Trinity and the Cherokee sun and fire, point to an ineffable reality beyond ordinary experience. But in this case, the white evangelists could not distinguish between the metaphors they employed and the reality those metaphors pointed to. As a result, they were incapable of seeing another set of metaphors pointing to the same reality they were purporting to proclaim.

Continue reading

A Plague of Uncertainty

A simple glance at your social media newsfeeds today will tell you that all anyone is thinking about is the novel coronavirus and its associated disease COVID-19.

The reaction you’re probably witnessing on those same feeds ranges from indifference to calm cautiousness to outright buy-up-all-the-toilet-paper panic. On the latter end are people acting like we’re in the opening scenes of The Walking Dead or Contagion. And on the former end are those who seem utterly unconcerned about the coronavirus or its effects. They’ll say things like, “The flu kills way more people a year than this virus has but we don’t close down March Madness for the flu!” Or they’ll point out that the mortality rate is low, at most 3%, which means that most people will suffer the disease with low impact.

But what goes unrecognized in such an analysis is that it’s not the disease that’s frightening; it’s the uncertainty.

Continue reading

Am I Lost If I Have Doubt?

Doubt is a problem for people of faith.

In fact, for so many people, doubt is the antithesis to faith. Doubt is a weakness, a failing, an inability to be faithful enough. Just look at the way this idea is presented in our popular culture:

Doubt or faith, opposite signs. Two blank opposite signs against blue sky background.
Doubt and faith literally pointing in opposite directions
A man kneeling before a cross with the caption "Faith or Doubt?"
Faith or doubt

I’ve seen this problem manifest itself in a couple of troubling ways. First, are the people who insist that they are certain even when they are not. They live in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance, clinging to their certain beliefs while attempting to shut out anything that might give them cause for doubt. They close themselves off to new insights, different opinions, and, ultimately, to the world itself in an exhausting effort to maintain their treasured certainty free from doubt.

Second are the people who acknowledge their doubt, but in so doing convince themselves that they are not faithful. And the questions that haunt them become increasingly painful: Why can’t I believe the way others do? What is wrong with me that I have doubt? Am I lost because I have doubt?

A Common Problem

I have seen this kind of painful questioning in the context of ministry. For years, I gave an annual “Faith Questions” sermon—a sermon in which members of the congregation asked me questions about matters of faith, the Bible, and so on. One year, I decided to do an entire sermon series on the most frequently asked questions that had come up in the previous nine years. Among the most commonly encountered questions was one that seemed to get asked in some form every year: “Am I lost if I have doubt?”

In the sermon that I preached as a part of that series, I argued that faith without doubt was impossible, both because doubt and uncertainty were inescapable, but also because true faith doesn’t ignore or shut out doubt, it requires it. The sermon seemed to resonate with a lot of people and when I shared a similar sermon in local congregations, the response was even more positive.

It was clear that I was on to something and that this was a message the people were longing to hear. When given the opportunity to write a book, this was the book that needed to be written.

And so, if you are a person struggling to maintain certainty in the face of encroaching doubt, or if you are the doubter who feels as if you’ve been failing at the enterprise of faith, you are the person I wrote The Certainty of Uncertainty for. The Certainty of Uncertainty is for you.

—Mark Schaefer
Author, The Certainty of Uncertainty

The Certainty of Uncertainty is available at Amazon and at other online retailers.

Our Metaphor Who Art in Metaphor

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray

As I have written throughout the book, religious language is replete with metaphor. But the problem with metaphors is that they quickly lose their metaphorical power and we are quick to literalize them away to the point where we no longer even recognize them as metaphors.

It can be shocking, then, to take a moment to reflect at just how metaphorical our religious language is. To do this, let’s take a look at perhaps the most famous prayer in the world—the Lord’s Prayer or “Our Father”—the prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples and recited by billions of Christians around the world.

Continue reading

Uncertainty, Metaphor, and Community

Let us imagine two people are having a conversation about love. The first one says, “Love is tumbling headlong through a field of fragrant wildflowers.”

“No it isn’t, you fool!” shouts the second. “Love is being drunk on the sweetest wine!”

Wildflowers in Vermont

To us, this seems a preposterous situation because there is no need to denounce one metaphor in favor of another. Both can be true simultaneously.

In fact, the only way the above conversation makes sense is if neither speaker realized that they were using metaphors. That is, if each believed themselves to be speaking in literal truths.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

An Easter Message

The Easter narratives in the four gospels differ in a number of significant details. But among all the details provided in these narratives, the one that is perhaps the most enigmatic is this passage from Matthew’s gospel. After the women report the tomb to be empty, they and the disciples return to Galilee where they have been told they will see Jesus. We read:

Οἱ δὲ ἕνδεκα μαθηταὶ ἐπορεύθησαν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν εἰς τὸ ὄρος οὗ ἐτάξατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν προσεκύνησαν, οἱ δὲ ἐδίστασαν.

Then the eleven disciples went to the Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them, and when they saw him, they fell down in worship—but some of them doubted. (Matt. 28:16-17)

Let’s recap: the disciples hear a fantastic story from the women. They go back to Galilee to the mountain they were told to go to. There they encounter the Resurrected Christ and fall down before him, but some… doubted?

Continue reading