Being in Uncertainty

Claire Creffield, an atheist who finds that, sometimes, “invoking the concept of God seems a very compelling way indeed of doing justice to the strangeness, the beauty and the peril of our lives,” asks whether a religious person could ever conceive of religion as a “non-creedal” way of “being in uncertainty” instead of as a provider of truth.  Could religion evolve from being centered on a set of shared beliefs to being a unique aid to philosophical reflection?

My inclination is to answer in the negative, at least in the context of the Western religions with which I’m familiar.   Religion cannot be a way of being without some defined sense of what it means for it to be.  Even after Creffield’s imagined metamorphosis, you would still have rules of interpretation plus acceptable and unacceptable interpretations guiding religious discourse and practice.  Look at the world of literature, to which Creffield wonders if this new religion would be comparable: it’s not governed by doctrine or creeds, per se, but the field of legitimate interpretation has its limits, even for works as complex as Hamlet or Moby-Dick.  Try arguing that the young Danish prince was really on a satanic quest to find and slay the White Whale.  See how far that gets you.

Religious myth, however, has historically functioned differently than literature.  As Karen Armstrong notes, religious myth was essentially a plan of action: “it could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture, but it was up to you to take the next step and make the ‘truth’ of the myth a reality in your own life.”  Myth called for ritual and communal purpose.  While its truth may not have been that of rational thought–logos–it nonetheless was a truth that gave meaning to the human condition in all its strangeness, mystery, tragedy, and absurdity.

Separating “truth” from religion, then, makes religion into something otherwise than it is.  You can step away from literalism without passing beyond the boundaries of the religious, but you cannot detach religion from its mythos, which provides a kind of truth.

Being in uncertainty, though–now there’s a plan of action religion can adopt.  Too much of religion suffers from charlatans selling certain answers to the sort of questions that ought to elicit awful wonder and humble silence.  These self-appointed prophets make a fine living dispensing sure guidance on self-aggrandizement, what specific behaviors God wills for you,  whom you should hate and hope goes to hell, and how you should distrust science and other secular pursuits–while having complete, unquestioning trust in them.  These poor souls lack faith because faith begins with the first step onto uncertain terrain, into dense fog that clouds the senses, and in a direction one can at best hope is the right way.  Religious faith is belief in things unseen.

Faith ultimately serves the logic of love, and the path of love is anything but certain. Death always threatens to take our loves from us and make our love seemingly foolish and self-defeating.  Religion that enables believers to incarnate their faith, hope, and love–in ritual, myth, and community–in and for a being who is infinite, ineffable, and wholly other, calls for the endless affirmation of uncertainty.  The more certain the religion, the less faith inspires it, the less hope nourishes it, the less love directs it.

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14 thoughts on “Being in Uncertainty

  1. I think all the major religions – even the “eastern” ones – started as steps toward “being in uncertainty.” If you read Jesus actual teachings in the Christian Scriptures (not the reinterpretations, but the original words) , what you find is that those He asked to follow him were asked to b in uncertainty, and to trust that God would provide, no matter what. It is true that He also called his followers to act differently because of that thrust, but it is a trust relationship first and foremost.

    Of course, historically, He was also a Jew preaching to Jews – something that many modern Christians ignore.

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    • “faith begins with the first step onto uncertain terrain”

      Acknowledging the uncertain is the beginning of faith? If, as you say, faith is belief in things unseen, it seems like the beginning of faith should be the initial willingness to believe in an explanation without evidence.

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        • The scientific mindset, the position of “I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to do my best to find out”, is entering uncertain terrain with a blank map and a readiness to start filling it in as you go.

          Faith is stepping into uncertain terrain believing it already explored, using a map with no particular correspondence to the territory. Some believers are carrying more detailed maps than others, but none of those maps have been drawn with a close eye on the actual terrain, and bear no necessary correspondence to reality.

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          • Is the scientific map truly blank? Would it not include presuppositions about how the world functions, an accepted methodology for mapping, and a history of interpreted empirical facts already written upon it? If you’re going to start filling it in as you go, then you’re going to proceed with some sense of how you ought to fill it in. Science has its own axioms.

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            • Not all the map is blank, parts of it have been filled in through centuries of painstaking experimentation and research. But the parts that haven’t been filled in this way are left blank – science does not pretend to knowledge it doesn’t have.

              And science does have it’s own axioms, but they have a proven track record. If you couldn’t make sense of the world through the scientific method, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because the computers we’re using to communicate wouldn’t work.

              As Eliezer Yudkowsky put it better than I ever could:

              It’s a most peculiar psychology—this business of “Science is based on faith too, so there!” Typically this is said by people who claim that faith is a good thing. Then why do they say “Science is based on faith too!” in that angry-triumphal tone, rather than as a compliment? And a rather dangerous compliment to give, one would think, from their perspective. If science is based on ‘faith’, then science is of the same kind as religion—directly comparable. If science is a religion, it is the religion that heals the sick and reveals the secrets of the stars. It would make sense to say, “The priests of science can blatantly, publicly, verifiably walk on the Moon as a faith-based miracle, and your priests’ faith can’t do the same.” Are you sure you wish to go there, oh faithist? Perhaps, on further reflection, you would prefer to retract this whole business of “Science is a religion too!”

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  2. This is a beautiful post.

    I think uncertainty is essential to faith (not just because of the Hitch Hiker’s guide argument). It’s been too many years since I read The Cloud of Unknowing to do justice to any sort of summary, but it really struck a cord with me. All the doctrine and preconceived concepts of God often do more to hide Him – keep God at arm’s length, safely walled off behind clerical and creedal explanations – than to bring us into relationship.

    I’m not certain that it’s impossible for religion to evolve from being centered on a shared set of beliefs though. One could dispute whether Unitarian Universalism is religion or a philosophical society, but they are a covenanted rather that creedal community.

    Strangely, to some extent Judaism is as well. Reconstructionists don’t require assent to any specific creed and I’ve even met a couple Orthodox Jews who are agnostics. That’s okay because despite the secular term used to describe that branch of Judaism, the uniting factor is orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

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  3. “Faith ultimately serves the logic of love”

    And I’m sorry (or maybe I’m not), but this is rubbish. Utter Deepak Chopra woo woo. I don’t need faith to know my wife loves me, or that I love her. I have evidence.

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    • You have evidence, yes, but you also have to interpret this evidence and you have to assume, because you cannot prove, that your consciousness of this evidence discloses the evidence as having the meaning it appears to have. Consciousness, however, is supremely tricky: we can be deluded, for example, or unaware of what is happening deep down into our consciousness and subconsciousness. What appears to be evidence of a freely-chosen act such as love may deep down be influenced by the play of forces beyond our awareness. This is why I say that, at bottom, all knowledge presupposes faith: faith that reality is as it appears to be. When we’re faced with a seeming reality as complex and mysterious as the self and its inner workings, we need faith all the more. We furthermore need faith that love has meaning and worth despite the prospect of loss and death that can at any moment leave us broken and miserable and lost.

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  4. ‘…whether a religious person could ever conceive of religion as a “non-creedal” way of “being in uncertainty” instead of as a provider of truth.’

    I would say that’s Quakerism in a nutshell–at least to this Friend.

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