Reflection 79: The Lust for Certainty vs. The Risk of Trust

Occasionally, but far too infrequently, I am able to share a Reflection – written by someone else – that highlights an important aspect of Radical Decency in a special way. This week, I am pleased to offer the following piece by Alan Jones, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and the author of several books on spirituality and psychology of religion, including “Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality.”

Central to Radical Decency is the vital necessity of collaborating across the political, religious, class, and ethnic categories that so deeply divide us. In the area of religion, I have expressed this thought in the following way:

“Fully committed to Radical Decency’s values, my hope is this: Each of us will embody the best in our chosen religious tradition and, crucially, be a clear voice, within that tradition, for resisting the ever present temptation to compromise these ideals for the sake of money, members, and power. Then (to complete my dream), these like-minded religious people, and their secular sisters and brothers – with a growing recognition of their common purposes – will knit together into a powerful, perhaps even irresistible force for creating better lives and a more humane and decent world.”

Reflection 56: Religion – Debasement, Inspiration, Lessons Learned.

This Reflection offers a passionate statement of this same sentiment from the perspective of a leading Christian thinker.

One of the most powerful and provocative lines in this Reflection, for me, is this:

“Issues of truth are central but it makes a difference how we bear witness to the truths we espouse.”

This sentiment is, I think, wonderfully exemplified by the piece itself. Alan speaks forthrightly and unapologetically from particular Christian perspective he embraces and is equally direct and vivid in expressing his frustrations with the situation in which we find ourselves – even as he eloquently invites the kind of open and engaged dialogue so vital to our hopes for a more humane and decent world.

“Lord, I Do Believe! Help My Unbelief!”: The Lust for Certainty vs. the Risk of Trust

This text doesn’t exactly describe my condition. It’s more, “Lord, I don’t believe this stuff anymore, at least not in the old way, yet I believe. Where do I go from here?” I’m caught between “believers” who seem crazy and a new tribe of “cultured despisers of Christianity” who think that they are “rational” and have all the best arguments? Yet I’m not willing to give up just yet. My protest about belief isn’t quite right either, in that I take comfort in a way of believing which is as ancient as it is deep. In responding to the plague of fundamentalism and literalism in the world I could be easily misunderstood. Liberals, atheists, progressives, Jungians (the list is endless) have their fundamentalists and literalists too. It’s not just Bible thumpers and Islamic fanatics.

The problem? The triumph of scientific language as the privileged language. The late Joseph Campbell phrased the problem this way:

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

I’m not alone. I have some good companions among the unbelievers as well as the believers (in many cases, this isn’t a matter of real difference). Where I find myself has more to do with tone, attitude and style than believing things as if they were hard data.

What concerns me, then, is something that sounds, at first, rather weak. It’s all a matter of tone, of cadence, in communication. The old adage “Truth lies in the interpretation” comes to mind as does Charles Williams’s insight in his appreciating the genius of Dante’s great poem. We can say true things falsely.

There’s a lot of emotion bubbling up in me too. It feels rotten to have something you treasure trashed and caricatured largely in ignorance. It’s an old trick: to take the worst of theirs and set it alongside the best of yours. So it is with me with regard to the “cultured despisers of Christianity”. Mind you many of the believers don’t help. And it’s small comfort to know that an unbeliever can be as big an idiot as a believer. Maybe it’s a human trait impossible to eradicate? Liberal Christians make fun of Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists condemn progressives to the outer-darkness. Self-satisfied atheists consign all believers to the loony bin. MSNBC ridicules members of the Tea Party. FOX News sees a socialist under every bed. We are a culture into anger and alienation. The tone is all wrong. Issues of truth are central but it makes a difference how we bear witness to the truths we espouse. And it’s serious business not least because this cult of polarization is played out in Congress. Who do you want to cast into the outer darkness? Why do you want to cut off the conversation?

Jonathan Reé concludes his review of Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An anthropology of the moderns with these words: “Latour speaks with urgency when he asks us all to set aside the script of secular modernity – to stop insulting each other and learn to pluralize, apologize and ecologize. We must prepare ourselves for diplomacy, he says: we must talk to one another or die.” This is something of what I mean by the centrality and importance of tone and cadence. It’s not that the achievements of the modern scientifically minded aren’t impressive. They can justifiably

“take pride in their discoveries and innovations, but they should stop presenting themselves as embodiments of pure objectivity, or prefigurations of the future of humanity . . . They should accept that they are just one idiosyncratic human grouping among many others, and recognize that they may have as much to learn from the rest as the rest could ever learn from them.”

Listening more carefully to one another might help us all to get off the high horse of moralism. Morality, as Latour defines it, is “a constant anxiety over practical dilemmas, and an inexhaustible sense of being in the wrong.” People posing as moralists don’t seem to understand this. That’s why art is central to this journey of the heart and mind because it brings doubt and delight, heartache and hope. All of which inevitably leads us into politics. As retired Senator Al Simpson puts it,

“In politics there are no right answers, only a continuing series of compromises between groups resulting in a changing, cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions, where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom. That’s politics.”

The late Jacob Bronowski (Simon Critchley reminds us) warned of “the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts or tortured ghosts.” Bronowski “thought that the uncertainty principle should . . . be called the principle of tolerance. Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. Heisenberg’s principle has the consequence that no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with “zero tolerance,” as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.”

So, where are we? Adam Gopnik’s essay in the New Yorker, (February 17 and 24, 2014), “Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fail?” identifies two separate issues: “The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement.” He also identifies two groups – the Super-Naturalists (there is something that holds everything in being) and the Self-Makers (“materialism” demands that life has no intrinsic meaning. You have to make it up for yourself).

Gopnik points out, “people don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning” — all those who show up at Midnight Mass “to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.”
Which brings me back to the cultured despisers with whom I want to be in conversation. As Bruno Latour reminds us, “We have to touch people.” We should slow down and learn to appreciate the diversity of human intelligence; and we should forgo the exhilarating brutality of “straight talk” in favor of the diffident generosity of listening, considering and conversing – in short, of “speaking well”. “We must prepare ourselves for diplomacy: we must talk to one another 
or die.”