Confidence v. Certainty

The Importance of What We Can't Know

At the end of The Wizard of Oz (still wonderful after all these years), the Wicked Witch of the West is confounded, a failure. Dissolving in puddle of water, she moans, “What a world, what a world.” I’m with her.

Many religious people feel a need for clarity. They need to have a sense that they are right, or at least on the right path and relatively sure of their direction. This is an understandable yearning, but what may be insufficiently appreciated is the important place for confusion and uncertainty in our spiritual life.

What we cannot possibly know or understand with certainty occupies much more of the universe than what we do know, and our uncertainties may be a more important part of who we ultimately will be. I think of the depth of what the Incarnation must mean for all created life, for all matter, and realize that the dogma as we know it, profound and deep as it is, is only the surface. What cannot possibly be put into words matters more than what can be.

The desire to be absolutely clear about the best doctrinal or moral path is understandable but probably misguided. I remember a time when as a young man I went to confession, trying to make sense of a moral dilemma that was a knotted mess. The old priest listening to me said, “Just confess it as it is before God.” No doubt this saved him some time, but it was also liberating. I saw that God obviously knows what I cannot know about myself, can fathom it and deal with it and heal it, and I can do none of this. But even putting it this way anthropomorphizes God. It doesn’t account for the constant mystery of God’s presence.

When I was younger I expected certain forms of guidance and moral direction from prayer, but I have come to think that we never get these things except in ways that are potentially misleading. Instead of clear direction, we may be blessed in prayer with a sense of presence and mystery, which tells us nothing.

As Christians, we tend to make too much of morality. On the right there is an emphasis on “family values” and sexual morality, and on the left social justice, but Jesus has little to say about specific forms of moral behavior. Here a certain case can be made for those who speak of being “spiritual but not religious.” This designation may often indicate a shallow understanding, but it may also be a natural reaction to the moralism of people for whom being religious means having strong opinions about everything from same-sex marriage to gun control (on either side of those issues). The spiritual but not religious may find themselves more moved by the experience of beauty or feelings of gratitude than by the things openly religious people point to as important, and they are not wrong to feel alienated from what is often presented as Christianity.

Jesus does not challenge us to be good; he says, “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” True compassion comes not from decent behavior, important as that is, but from insight born of the gratitude and surrender. It requires a thorough transformation. We start out on that path to the Kingdom by becoming “like little children.” And here we have to take care not to fall into a sentimental trap. Our current notions of childhood are only as old as the Victorians and come clouded with visions of innocence and purity. The English Dominican Simon Tugwell has pointed out a more ancient meaning: Little children don’t know anything. When we understand this about ourselves we are ready to begin.

Our true understanding of the following of Christ comes when we are willing to place ourselves in the hands of the living God, not knowing anything that has not been shown to us in Christ, not knowing where we may be led, but having confidence that whatever God has in store for us will involve the depth of the love we see in Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection. Confidence isn’t the same thing as certainty. It matters more. It opens a door that certainty closes, and it allows us to hope.

Published in the 2013-06-01 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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The Kingdom & the Flea Market

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