The blessing of uncertainty

Once upon a time, several years ago, a friend and I were having a conversation. We had different viewpoints. Different is mild. Really, we had opposing viewpoints. If my view were accurate, hers would automatically be both factually and morally wrong. And the other way around.

Okay, so: we’re both adults, we’re both intelligent and articulate individuals, we’re (mostly) emotionally mature, we respect each other, and we’re not looking for an argument.

This seems like the ingredients you need to bake up a rational discussion in which you can both learn a little something and maybe walk away a more intelligent and empathetic person. And so it was going.

Until I said something like, “Well, there’s so much we don’t know about [this subject]. We really can’t be certain, so we have to make the best decisions.”
She straightened. Her face congealed. The air around her changed, and she said in an offended tone: “Oh but we do absolutely know for certain.”

The discussion was over. And I realized that a discussion had never even started, not really.

Sure, we were both saying words and nodding and listening, taking turns, communicating at some level. But the level I thought we could reach was never an option.

Learning requires uncertainty.

To understand someone else’s perspective (even a little), you’ve got to acknowledge that your own is limited. That your views come not from absolute truth but from subjective experience.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable. And, for many people, uncertainty not only feels uncomfortable, it feels wrong. It’s the equivalent of moral failure. That’s how they understand faith: as a certain thing, something you don’t question, something that’s as sure and certain and known to you as your own name. And to doubt, to question, to have uncertainties about your faith or some doctrine of it is to be, at best, a weak and backslidden believer. At worst, it turns you into a heretic.

My faith isn’t seen as faith by most in the religious community I left behind. It doesn’t check the necessary boxes. Doesn’t bear witness to the correct doctrines. Most of all, it’s not clear enough, not strong enough, not certain enough.

There but for the grace of God go I, they say. And mutter and shake their heads.

There by the grace of God go I. Striking out into uncertainty. Holding onto faith by my fingernails and bearing a backpack full of questions. I’ve been here a long while. Years. It felt very much like a desert at first. Turns out, though, this might be the only promised land: the land of not-knowing, listening, learning from each other, doing justly the best we can, course correcting, walking humbly.

And the desert shall bloom and rejoice.