Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: ‘That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God – of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from high heaven.’ – Immanuel Kant
“What do you do when you’re not sure?” asks Father Brendan Flynn, in John Patrick Shanley’s film Doubt. “That is the topic of my sermon today.” I would like for it to be the topic of every sermon, every day.
The human condition is pervaded by uncertainty. There is so much that we do not know about the world, about each other, about ourselves. This is obviously true, but I think we don’t really believe it. We certainly tend to act as if we know all that we need to know.
Ignorance is like those blind spots where the optic nerve passes through the retina and we cannot see. You may have been shown this before – that if you carefully move your fingers to a certain spot before your eyes, your fingertips seem to disappear. At all times, there are two dead zones in our field of vision, but how often are we aware of them? Five minutes per year? Less, I think.
And if we turn our eyes inward, we find the same. Social psychologists have found, for example, that peoples’ descriptions of their own personalities don’t agree very well with the way other people describe them. And other people usually agree more with one another about what we are like than they agree with us. (1)
Do you know why you do the things that you do? Do you understand how your life has become the way that it has become?
I think the world is a great darkness, illuminated by two tiny lamps, where the eyes of our understanding shed a little light.
When I look at the literature and philosophy of times long ago, it is obvious that people are certain that they understand the world. Of course the world is flat, it rests on a great ocean of water, and heaven is a place that lies beyond the highest of the celestial spheres.
When we cast our glance over our shoulder, how small the knowledge of the past seems; yet by and large, our confidence in our own state of understanding is exactly the same. We know what the world is like.
Thích Nhất Hạnh said “We should always ask ourselves, humbly, ‘Am I sure?’ and then allow space and time for our perceptions to grow deeper, clearer, and more stable.” (2)
So how do we respond to our uncertainty? How do the limits of our understanding inform our sense of the world, or our attitudes and beliefs? Are we even aware of our limits?
If we are not aware of the limits of our knowing, if we have never gone into the darkness to sound them out, why haven’t we? Are the limits of knowledge less important for life than knowledge?
In Actualizing the Fundamental Point, Eihei Dogen wrote:
When you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.
Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly below your feet, or in a drop of water. (3)
I believe that the ability to tolerate uncertainty is the clearest sign of wisdom. Those who cannot tolerate uncertainty cannot tolerate being human, and from this one mistake, ten thousand mistakes will follow. Awareness of our own limitations is the mark of humility, and humility is the beginning and the end of wisdom.
The anonymous author of the classic of Christian mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing extols :
My intention is simply to help you appreciate the exalted dignity of the contemplative work of love, in comparison to any other possible with grace. For the secret love of a pure heart pressing upon the dark cloud of unknowing between you and your god in a hidden yet certain way includes in itself perfect humility without the help of particular or clear ideas. (4)
The virtue of embracing the darkness of uncertainty lies in the achievement of humility, and none are more quick to do harm than those inflamed with certainty.
Our limitations can be hard to see in ourselves, but easy to see in others. All we have to do is remember that we are not so different, and when we hold an opinion or belief, we can pause, and ask ourselves with humility, “Am I really so sure?” Then we can hold on to our doubt, and we can cherish what it helps us to become.
1) Wilson TD. Strangers to Ourselves; Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The Belknap Press. 2002. pg. 84.
2) Hanh TN. Transformation at the Base. Parallax Press. 2001. pg. 26.
3) ed. Tanahashi K. Moon in a Dewdrop. North Point Press. 1985. pg. 71.
4) Anonymous. The Cloud of Unknowing. Image Books. 1973. pg. 67.