On Certainty

I have been thinking a lot about “certainty” as a buzzword and new obsession for the American people. I jokingly alluded to it in my comments about television seasons, but I do have serious thoughts about it.

In my book, “A Childless Person’s Annoying Guide to Parenting” which I haven’t written yet, I will repeatedly say that I think that one of the most important things a parent can be is consistent. I think having some things be reliable and consistent is huge for kids, but I don’t think certainty is something we can provide.

I woke up this morning to a great program from “On Being” on NPR. It  was a conversation among some smart folks about faith and civility on the ten year anniversary of 9/11. This one question from the audience jumped out at me:  “Voltaire said that doubt is an uncomfortable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one. How much of the toxic incivility of our politics is a misguided search for certainty? Please speak to the theological notion of certainty and faith.”

Here are two of the answers the panelists gave:

Theologian Serene Jones: “…I do think that, at the end of the day, there are some things that I as a person of faith am certain about and that is the fundamental equality of all humanity and the relentless love of God. I draw back from this notion that there’s nothing that we can be certain about. Those certainties make a huge difference in how you engage the world.”

I like that idea that there are a few core things we can hold as absolute certainties and use those to interpret and navigate through all the things that we can’t define and control in the world. That we use our few core certainties as a lens through which to interpret the troubles and conflicts we run into. This requires having an open mind about all the facts we’re given and being open to chaos and uncertainty. Holding a few core items as CERTAIN makes that easier, I think, it makes that less vulnerable. If we are trying to build bridges and create healing, I think that requires sometimes, I think, being willfully naive and giving circumstances the benefit of the doubt, even when we know better. 

The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg: “…A lot of the nastiness and of the kind of certainty that I think the questioner is disapproving of is a frustration and a fear that arises from this larger, you might say, constitutional crisis that our country is going through. And we kind of take refuge in going after each other because the problem is a little bit — we’re not quite ready to face that larger problem.”

A teabagger acquaintance, is CERTAIN that Michelle Obama is going to outlaw salt because he heard about it on Glenn Beck. One thing I am certain of, is this is not certainty that heals us.

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