The Certainty of Uncertainty

The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

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A Book in the Clouds (Part 2)

In December 2015, I posted a word cloud of the first draft of the manuscript. That image, courtesy of the wonderful site was the following:

The original word cloud, generated from the first draft.

Today, I generated another word cloud, based on the manuscript as it stands today, two years and four months later. Given that they are not consistently generated and that each generated word cloud can be reconfigured in multiple ways (color, round or square edges, text orientation), it is still nevertheless interesting to compare the two and observe how this visual representation reveals changes that have emerged in the process of revision and preparation.

Word cloud of words in submitted manuscript

Word cloud courtesy April 24, 2018

Schrödinger’s Cat Walks Into a Bar and Doesn’t

Things are progressing well with the manuscript preparation and all of the artwork and permissions that I need have been received. And so, it seemed fitting to highlight one of those illustrations here to give you a sneak peak.

Below is an illustration of Schrödinger’s cat—a famous physics thought experiment dreamed up by Erwin Schrödinger to mock the idea that quantum uncertainty at the subatomic level had anything to do with the real world. He wrote:

[To demonstrate how absurd this theory is] one can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if, meanwhile, no atom has decayed. [1]

Schrödinger pointed out that the mathematics of this experiment would claim that the living cat and the dead cat were “mixed or smeared out in equal parts”—that is, until someone looked, the cat would be both dead and alive. He accepted the idea that we could not know what was going on at the subatomic level, but the idea that the quantum superposition of the particle in question translated into the superposition of the cat (simultaneously alive and dead) was absurd to him. He concluded, “There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks,” meaning, our unclear picture does not mean that reality is unclear, only that our ability to capture that reality is.

To illustrate this discussion, Kathleen Kimball has produced this brilliantly creative representation of a cat both alive and dead. Enjoy!

Illustration © 2018 Kathleen Kimball. All rights reserved. Used by permission.



[1] Schrödinger and Trimmer, “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics.”

How It’s Coming Along

There’s a lot that goes into publishing a book. A lot more than you might think just from movies, TV, and your own intuition. By way of update as to the progress of The Certainty of Uncertainty, and to give you a little insight into how this all works, here’s how the book goes from an idea to something you hold in your hand.

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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?

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Some Words from Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins at a microphone on stage

Peter Rollins opens for Rob Bell’s “Holy Shift Tour,” in Washington, D.C., March 27, 2018

Last night I had occasion to attend Rob Bell’s Holy Shift Tour featuring Peter Rollins. Rob Bell was amazing and captivating as always, but I confess, I was there to hear Peter Rollins.

I have long been an admirer of Peter Rollins ever since he came to a conference of the United Methodist Campus Ministry Association in 2009 and spoke as our headliner. I furiously scribbled down as much as I could. His thoughts on our unwitting complicity in the very evils we claim to resist, on the idolatries we create even in our theology, and on the role of unknowing have been deeply influential.

And so to honor that, I present a brief snippet from The Certainty of Uncertainty in which Peter’s words help to brilliantly illustrate the book’s message of the value in embracing uncertainty:

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Exciting News!

I am very happy to announce that I’ve entered into an agreement with Wipf & Stock Publishers to publish The Certainty of Uncertainty. 

I’m really excited about working with a great publisher like Wipf & Stock, who have published such great scholars and theologians as John Howard Yoder and Walter Brueggemann. Wipf & Stock publishes titles in a wide range of topics including biblical studies, theology, ethics, church history, linguistics, history, classics, philosophy, preaching, and church ministry, which makes it a great home for The Certainty of Uncertainty, with its romance of theology, philosophy, and linguistics.

Watch this space for details on the forthcoming publication!

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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Who Is This Book For?

The Certainty of Uncertainty is for two groups of people: the Certain and the Uncertain. Yes, I know, that’s everybody. But it’s not everybody for the same reason.

The Certain

There are among us people who are very certain, never admitting of any doubt or brooking any possibility that they might be in error about their beliefs. This is particularly the case in matters of religious faith, where the Certain are frequently absolutely so and view doubt as a moral failing.

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