The Certainty of Uncertainty

The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Faith, Doubt, and Inspiration

Rev. Mark Schaefer, author of The Certainty of Uncertainty, is featured on the most recent episode of Rev. Dr. Robert LeFavi’s podcast: Inspirational Sermons: Insights from America’s Best Preachers. Rev. Schaefer was invited on the program to talk about his sermon on uncertainty and doubt—“Am I Lost If I Have Doubt?”—the latest version of the sermon that gave rise to the The Certainty of Uncertainty.

Visit the podcast website to read the transcript and listen to this and other episodes. You can also listen to the podcast episode on the Spotify player below.

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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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.

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You Have Permission…

…to listen to a great podcast.

Mark Schaefer appeared on Dan Koch’s excellent podcast You Have Permission, a podcast for anyone asking those deep and timeless questions that humans can’t seem to stop asking. Dan wants to make clear that you have permission to take both Christianity and the modern world very seriously, and hopes to facilitate that by introducing you to people seeking God across the whole Christian spectrum, engaging these hard questions in a multitude of ways.

Dan and Mark talked about faith, doubt, our need for closure and certainty, and the importance of embracing uncertainty in faith.

Listen to the podcast.

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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In Pod We Trust

In the past week, Rev. Mark Schaefer, the author of The Certainty of Uncertainty, had the occasion to appear on two very excellent podcasts to talk about the book and the themes it addresses, as well as life, science fiction, and Oreo cookies. Listen to the podcast episodes by clicking on the links below!

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