Wednesday, 6 July 2011

In Praise of Uncertainty

On 19th June, our Friend, Chrissie Hinde, citing the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, and her book When Things Fall Apart, ministered that to have our lives sorted out and secure would be sort of dead, and that we are often closer to spiritual discovery when we keep falling out of the nest.

I can understand that we can all feel a need for certainty, probably as much in settled times of peace and prosperity (when were they, exactly?) as in these days, which we regard as troubled. “May you live in interesting times,” is said to be a Chinese curse, not a blessing. We can easily feel the need for a bit more security.

Or at least we would like things to be a bit clearer than they usually are. It seems to me the more aware you are, the more aware you become of how complex everything is. Quakers, given a choice, prefer simplicity, and we sometimes convene a Meeting for Clearness when the cloud of unknowing gets a bit too much. I can appreciate that. Too much security makes for lack of freedom, but too much freedom can be scary.

I suppose the one profession that strives for as much clearness as possible is the law. Our elected legislators rely on law-drafters to get their Acts of Parliament phrased as precisely as possible. Lawyers try to build every contingency into contracts and wills, so that if push comes to shove, anything that can happen is covered. Lawyers like to pin down the exact meanings of words, so that they do not shift.

Of course, pinning down a butterfly kills it. Poets like their words to take wing and fly.

Some people are very uncomfortable with the thought that meaning can be personal and dependent on context. They prefer the facts. It seems to me that facts are good, in their proper context, as long as they don’t get above themselves. Take Michel-angelo’s David. It would be possible to ascertain the facts: the volume of the statue, its weight, hence its density; the place of origin of the marble, its chemical properties, etc. All scientists would pretty much agree on these facts. But none of this conveys the meaning of the sculpture. You feel it, in your own way, or you don’t feel it – some people are probably sculpture-blind, just as some people are tone-deaf.

I have the feeling that if the importance of facts gets out of hand, or if law becomes involved in faith, there is likely to be trouble. I think Jesus had the same difficulty with the lawyers and book-men of his day. To me, the right way to live is not about the precise and scholarly interpretation of the minute detail of an antique text in an ancient language, but about spiritual awareness. Which is fresh and new, and is nice work when you can get it, on a good day.

What worries me rather is what happens if, having experienced what they feel is a spiritual revelation, people feel that they have arrived at the facts, once and for all time. They tend to call it The Truth, not ‘my take’ or ‘our version,’ and they tend to start trying to impose it on other people: ‘You must see everything our way, or your immortal soul has got no chance, you’re headed for eternal damnation, and Serve You Right.’ It may be that they do this out of genuine love for other people, wanting only what is best for them which, they are convinced, their message is.
The problem I have with this is not that I wouldn’t want to preach and proselytise unless I was really sure of my message. These preachers are sure of their message. They know that they are right, without a doubt. The problem I have is that I don’t feel comfortable about pushing someone else in a matter which I regard as deeply personal and which needs to be spontaneous to be authentic, even if I were sure that it would be good for them.

If you are absolutely certain that your beliefs are correct, you may cease to listen to any other point of view, cease to search and to discover anything more, and cease to learn. My experience tells me that you need to receive spiritual revelation again and again. Some may say, ‘I don’t need to learn any more. I’ve got it all.’ My belief in the importance of humility doesn’t allow me to be very comfortable with this position.
As Chrissie ministered, if certainty involves coming to a halt, then in a way one’s spiritual awareness is no longer growing. Like a tree, if it is not growing, it is dying.

So there are problems associated with certainty, especially absolute certainty, just as there are the problems of success. People who have the mixed fortune to receive huge amounts of money from the Lottery have the opportunity to know that. It will totally alter their lives, not always for the good. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

My take on spiritual awareness tells me it is better to make friends with uncertainty than to try and get it all under control, cut and dried. I hope that this does not sound pessimistic or cynical, as in, ‘You’ll never sort it out, so there’s no point trying,’ but rather more encouraging: ‘If you don’t know it for a fact, that’s fine – stay with it.’

To stay alive, we need to keep growing, and to keep growing, we need a vision – not a vision of certainty, but a vision of hope. This involves an apparent paradox: we need to entrust ourselves to a journey which is of its nature unpredictable and therefore seems untrustworthy. To entrust ourselves to the intrinsically doubtful is where faith comes in.

Paul Hunt

1 comment:

Gordon Ferguson said...

“Are you the Old Man of the Earth?” Tangle had said.
“I am. What can I do for you?”
“Tell me the way to the country whence the shadows fall.”
Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.
“That is the way,” he said.
“But there are no stairs.”
“You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”
She turned and looked him full in the face—stood so for a whole minute, as she thought: it was a whole year—then threw herself headlong into the hole.

From "The Golden Key" by George Macdonald.