The importance of being uncertain

Posted on September 7, 2012 by


I’d rather be thinking about Heaven

Before I converted to Christianity, I was very certain of everything. The longer that I am Christian, the fewer things I am certain of, but the more certain I am about those things. It’s now boiled down to:

  1. God exists and He has a trinitarian nature.
  2. He has communicated how He wants us to live our lives through His Library…
  3. …and through nature, history, and tradition.
  4. But all of His teachings can be reduced down to the Golden Rule, which is simultaneously the simplest and most difficult rule of all.

In other words, the longer that I am Christian, the more certain I am of eternal truths, and the less certain I am of the day-to-day decisions I have to make. I am more certain that the saints are in Heaven than for whom I should vote in the next election. I am more certain that God is watching over us than whether I should homeschool my children. I am more certain that Christ wants us all to form One Church and is tired of our squabbling, than whether I should attend the Novus Ordo or Latin Mass, or whether The Others over at the local Baptist church really are all wrong about everything.

Life’s instructions are pretty darn complex. The first time I read the Bible, for instance, it seemed really straightforward. The second time, I needed some supporting documents to slog through the material. And this time around, I’m constantly combing through theological writings to figure out “What is meant by that and how does it interact with the other teachings?” Now I’m more confused than ever. Millions of people over thousands of years have been struggling to figure this stuff out, and we still haven’t managed to create a List of Absolutely Everything, which I find rather scary.

Nothing in the Bible contradicts anything else, but it is as if complexity were piled upon complexity. Do this, except in the case of that, especially when this… and then DON’T FORGET THE GOLDEN RULE. Oh dear. The Golden Rule.  Scrap that whole line of thought and start over again. The Golden Rule is the basis of all other rules, and it is written clearly on all of the hearts of men. But no one follows it.

The Golden Rule is so hard to follow that most of us just ignore it and concentrate on following the other 29387489104 rules instead, as that brings us more personal satisfaction as we mark them off of our spiritual to-do list. Jesus transmits it to us in an almost flippant manner.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

— Luke 10

Well, thanks for sharing that. Do unto others and whatnot. Sounds great, but there’s a reason why the Pharisees found that argument unconvincing. Too hard. Better to keep track of how many steps you can walk on the Sabbath and making sure your head covering sits properly.

Following the rules does not lead to enlightenment

But even if you choose the easier path of following all  29387489104 rules perfectly, there’s the question of Grace and Mercy to stump you in the end. You can’t put limits on God. He’s got His own plans, which you can’t comprehend. Sometimes I get dizzy thinking about it, and have to take a break. I put the scriptures away and concentrate on very straightforward things. I need to get up at 6:30 am to make it to my appointment on time. I’m going to take the kids to the pool today. I wonder what we’ll have for dinner. And then I stop feeling nauseous.

I used to think that this was some personal failing. I needed to “fix this problem” and get back my moral clarity. My mental security blanket. The surety that allowed me to feel confident and in control. Things are simple, and Christianity is about being a nice person and praying a lot. Anything deeper than that and I feel like I’m going crazy. However, over time I’ve come to realize that it is the precise opposite:

God is complicated. Understanding that makes you more sane.

I don’t need the certainty. In fact, it wasn’t very good for me. It made me a maniac, as Chesterton described. I had a very clear impression of a very small pattern.

There is sanity found in being uncertain. Of realizing that God is outside of the bounds of mere human comprehension. He’s outside of time. He’s outside of the temporal. If you think you understand Him, then you should check yourself into the nearest mental hospital, as you’ve lost your mind or never had much of one to begin with.

Losing your mind to Christ makes you sane.

It’s the sanity of mental humility, of sometimes being confused and not knowing the answer. You can’t know all of the answers about God. You can’t even know all of the questions. It’s the sanity of realizing that you don’t actually understand God, no matter how much you read about Him and how often you pray to Him, and how loudly you cry, “Lord! Lord!” A whole lot of people are crying out the same thing, and they don’t know much more than you do.

It’s the sanity of realizing that our interactions with other people are also infinitely complex. That we can never know with absolute certainty the right thing to do in every situation, as that would make us omniscient, and only God is omniscient. No, we’re just trying to slog through and make do, and then have faith that we get points for effort. That’s why we have to forgive each other, even though we usually don’t want to. Life’s complicated, and people screw it up. And then we have to deal with the fallout, which is often a messy and unsatisfying business. Everytime I find myself thinking, “Well, thank goodness I’m not like that,” I realize that I need to stop and take a reality check.

It’s not that facts are all relative, or that every opinion is equally valid, or that there is no absolute truth. It’s that we humans are incapable of perceiving and analyzing every possible eventuality. God is Truth, and God is rather complicated, so it makes sense that Truth is also rather complicated. God is the Word, but have you tried comprehending the Word lately? We can have a set of general rules we follow, but sometimes those rules don’t fit our situation. We are not in perfect control. Then we just want to throw our aprons over our heads and cry in frustration, or cling to our rules in denial. This complication was not foreseen… by us. Good thing we’re not in charge.

Most of us prefer to deny that reality, as it’s too scary to contemplate. We try to become The Expert on small aspects of our lives, so that we can be very certain in that domain. We’re an expert on marriage, on education, on economics, on bird classification, whatever. People ask us things and we can proudly say, “It is ever thus.” But then we’re stumped on an issue of our expertise and act like poor sports. It is ever thus! It is ever thus, I say! It can’t be anything else, we can’t be wrong, because then… then…  it’s complicated.

He knows that we’re not any more perfect than anyone else is, and He makes allowances for that. Let’s all take a moment to be grateful for that. And the next time we feel really really certain about something, when we can’t envision an exception or an alternate view, when our enemies seem monolithic and we lose empathy, when everyone else’s sins seem so much worse than our own, when we start to think that everyone doing what we say will make the earth a place of perfect peace, when reductionism takes its frightening and maddening hold on our minds, when everything seems very clear to us… let’s take a moment to pause and regain our sanity.

Our memes are not eternal truths. Our politics are not the Golden Rule. Our God is complicated. Thank goodness for that.

Posted in: Religion