Absolutely Convinced or Radically Uncertain?

Some thoughts this week on the slippery notion of ideological and religious certainty.

Philosopher Philip Clayton,

“The days are gone when we can just list the doctrines — mother church can decide and we can just sit there with those as a given.  Given is no longer a given. And I think there is an attitude of radical uncertainty and radical doubt. And rather than saying can we integrate doubt and faith, I want to speak of a faith which incorporates the radical doubt, which is the doubting miraculously finding faith within it.”

Clayton articulates an important shift:  a faith not built upon persuasive propositions (if you’ve not heard a better argument, you’ve not talked to the right people) but upon wrestling with life’s mystery and paradox. Faith born of deep probing doubt. Faith that exists in harmony with doubt, not in opposition to it.

Paul Fromont quotes existential psychologist Rollo May,

“People who claim to be absolutely convinced that their stand is the only right one are dangerous. Such conviction is the essence not only dogmatism, but of its more destructive cousin, fanaticism. It blocks the user from learning new truth, and is a dead giveaway of unconscious doubt”

Pretty obvious stuff, but so often lost in the passion of religious fervor: absolute certainty as a marker of toxic religion – a posture of certainty that snuffs out the small voice of creation – a rigidity of mental logic that that bounds and gags the transcendent freedoms of Spirit.

May concludes,

“The person with the courage to believe and at the same time to admit his doubts is flexible and open to new learning, and I’d add, open to new depths of meaning and new vantage points from which to gain new or different perspectives. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. To believe fully and at the same moment to have doubts is not at all a contradiction: [rather] it presupposes a greater respect for truth, an awareness that truth always goes beyond anything that can be said or done at any given moment”

When discussing religion and spirituality, I prefer the word “confidence” over certainty. And sometimes “confidence” is too strong a word. Hope, however, is never too strong. A shared hope is always welcome in any community. Hope is a bridge between communities. Hope promotes inclusion and safety. Hope lives on, even in the face of death. Hope is the yeast of faith.

As new generations accelerate and deepen the shift from institution-centric, lay-clergy models of religion to networked sharing and collaboration — what Duke theologian David Morgan calls an extended community of interpretation — theology will change, perhaps radically. And among the major changes will be the way we collectively re-imagine and re-envision our certainties, confidence, hope, and faith.

As this collective re-imagining transforms religion from the inside-out, from the bottom-up, from expert to amateur… may it not coalesce into yet another static propositional confession. May doubt (the posture of honest uncertainty) remain authentic and always new – and not become a religion unto itself. May religion be continually redefined as (re)generative, inclusive, shared experience, offering a depth of freedom not found in ideas, but in what the best ideas always point to. Inertial. Pointing father. Pointing beyond the visible horizon.

One of the 20th century’s greatest scientific thinkers, Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, talks about faith, doubt, religion, and uncertainty in this engaging four-minute film. Time well spent.

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that could be wrong… I don’t have to have an answer; I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.” – R. Feynman


2 thoughts on “Absolutely Convinced or Radically Uncertain?

  1. Hi John,

    Merry Christmas from Minnesota where pretty much the whole state is snowed in. Pretty cool to be forced to slow down and take in Christmas without rushing anywhere.

    My comment is that the old distinction between walking by faith and not sight might be important here. It signifies the need to hold to the good we can’t see, even when the things we can see erode our faith in the wisdom of holding to the good. The shared etymology of good/god is well known. But Sanskrit “gadhya,” the form that precedes both, means–according to my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary–“what one clings to.” Faith is what the good person clings to, by that rendering, even when doubt might seem more realistic or reasonable. Moral courage and faith/belief in God seem to be married at a fundamental level in the human heart.

    A further comment: I’ll be grabbing a copy of Rollo Mays’ “The Courage to Create,” which was referenced in the link you provided. The prohibition on idols, I think, speaks to the very core of faith. God cannot be represented (and so cannot be an object of sight, but only of faith, to connect above). But God must be said to be good and creative. I hope to find in May a commentary on creative goodness rendered as faith in God. I’ll let you know what I find.

    Thanks for this wonderful blog!

  2. Thanks Tracy. Good to hear from you. Moral courage and faith/hope do seem to be related at some intangible but unmistakable place. And I think your comment on idols is spot on. Doubt is a healthy response to the idolatry of our own beliefs. Doubt and belief held in dynamic tension seems much healthier than a belief which suppresses doubt. I would also suggest that when this tension is actively lived out, it further encourages healthy praxis.

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