The Secret to Living with Uncertainty

Several years ago two major universities simultaneously experienced computer server shutdowns. It happened in the early hours on the day student applicants were to be notified of their acceptance or rejection. So many students logged on simultaneously that the servers collapsed.

Can we blame the students for their anxiety? They wanted to know more about the next four years of their lives. None of us like uncertainty. We want to know what, when, what time, how long, and who with. We want to ensure our security, our health, our future. The multi-billion dollar insurance business exists because of these uncertainties.

Faith is not about answers

So does faith. Yet, we err if we think faith solves our uncertainty. Authentic faith is not about easy answers. Rather, it is about finding the courage and wisdom to live with uncertainty. Faith can help turn uncertainties into blessings. In fact, uncertainty can ultimately sustain and make our faith even stronger.

I first recognized this truth during a visit to Venice. The city has magnificent churches. Yet, these churches are built on lagoons. The soil is watery and muddy. How can such shaky ground hold up such extraordinary structures?

The tour guide explained the way it works. The churches are built on thousands of wooden poles that move with the tide. Those movements counter-balance one another, keeping the structure high and intact. The very shakiness of the structure keeps it standing.

God is with us

The same is true with faith. The uncertainties we face sustain us. They bring us closer to one another. They bring us closer to God. It is through the uncertainties, the challenges, the crises — what the Psalmist calls the “valley of the shadow” — that we see God is truly with us.

Uncertainties also sharpen our vision. They help us refine and grow in faith, separating the wheat from the chaff, the sacred from the mundane. The great psychologist Erich Fromm captured this truth. Even though he left his traditional Jewish background, its influence permeated his work. “Creativity” he wrote, “requires the courage to let go of certainties.” It is not certainty that leads to faith. It is the courage to live with uncertainty.

The whole world is a narrow bridge

We need this message today. Uncertainties abound around us. Perhaps we feel uncertain about a relationship. Perhaps we feel uncertain about our financial wherewithal or the safety of our job. Those of us who care about Israel are deeply uncertain about the wisdom of the proposed deal with Iran.

Amidst such uncertainty, faith sustains us. Amidst such fears, faith guides us. An eighteenth century rabbi named Nachman of Breslov said, “the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important part is not to be afraid.” In other words, life is uncertain. It resembles a rickety bridge. We walk across it in faith: Faith in our ability to do so, faith that the bridge will hold, and faith that God beckons to us from the other side.

Image courtesy of Lacey Raper.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.

  • allinthistogether

    I recommend one further step in the direction of uncertainty: allow yourself to be uncertain about whether or not there actually is a god at all. Then, if you like, you can choose faith without choosing to ignore/deny the evidence that suggests the possibility of no conscious god.

    • bakabomb

      This is true in the sense of the author’s anecdote about the wooden piles underlying the structures of Venice — provided one acknowledges the key is in the counterbalancing, which sustains the dynamic equilibrium.

      “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

      But now if you’d be so kind, could you please cite as specifically and in as much detail as you can, a couple of examples of the evidence you proclaim above. I’m requesting hard evidence, of course, not argumentation.

      • allinthistogether

        Yes. I suggest that the absence of any evidence that is available to the human senses that there is a god serves as mounting evidence that it is likely that there is not a god. While it is possible that some of the experiences that people have had inside their heads or hearts are experiences of a god, that is certainly not proven. There is nothing that distinguishes those experiences from other experiences of a voice or a feeling or contact with another being inside our heads – it could all be imaginary/emotional experiences. Similarly, revealed truth has all come through humans as scribes, so it is impossible to prove that any of it didn’t originate in the human imagination. And likewise with the theoretical proclamation that the universe itself is proof of a creator god – that is only one of many equally possible hypotheses (despite the reality that the universe is wondrous and beyond our full understanding).

        There is no sound known to be from a god, no image, no smell, no taste, and no touch known to be from a god. There are no dimensions, no weight, no chemical composition, no location, no personality. There is no physical evidence of any kind that is absolutely known to be accurately ascribed to a god. There are no book that a great majority of the world’s population would agree was written by a god. And there are many books that many different people claim as evidence that their god is the one true god, and many other kinds of physical evidence that different people claim as evidence of different gods.

        There is only the possibility that there is a god, and narratives that various cultures have developed to explain the universe by use of gods.

        I’m not saying there is no god – only that there is not adequate evidence to raise the premise that there is a god to the status of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And that “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold should be the minimum basis for teaching anyone (particularly a child) that something is certain truth. If humanity can teach itself to be more comfortable with uncertainty, we may be able to reduce the incidence of religious and cultural intolerance – can let go of the us vs. them dynamic between religions.

        We certainly don’t need certainty in a god in order to learn the most valuable lessons attributed to good gods. We may be able to experience more of the potentially divine by leaving the question open.

        • Sam

          I am a theist and I endorse this message.

  • Sam

    I concur. Faith for me has never been about certainty, but rather doubt. Coming to Faith made me actually face the false certainty that I lived with in my anti-theism.
    If you have not yet watched Lesley Hazleton’s Ted Talk, The Doubt Essential to Faith, I highly recommend it.

    • kalqlate

      Hi, Sam. I watched the Ted talk awhile back per your suggestion. Faith by definition:

      from Dictionary . com

      1. confidence or trust in a person or thing:
      faith in another’s ability.

      2. belief that is not based on proof:
      He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

      Faith, by common definition, includes no doubt. Instead it includes confidence and conviction. While it is true that a person can be said to be stronger or weaker in their faith, the words “stronger” or “weaker” do not infuse themselves into the word “faith”; they are applied TO the mindset that is faith.

      What you and Ms. Hazleton seem to do is to conflate “faith” with “hope”. Think about it… which word immediately evokes a sense of doubt? Those that haven’t adopted the NEW definition of “faith” will of course say “hope”. Inherent in “hope” is doubt.

      – When people have doubt, they say “I HOPE everything will work out”.
      – When people have confidence, they say “I have FAITH that everything will work out”.

      There is no doubt inherent in “faith”… except, again, by the NEW, conflated definition. When listening to Hazelton’s talk, and when I read your words, what I get is that you HOPE your faith and system of belief is correct–you have doubt, perhaps a tiny amount, in its correctness.

      A good question to ask yourself is why is it so important that you infuse doubt into the word “faith”. Is it so bad and unfaithful to express “I hope my faith is true” or “I have some doubt about my faith”?

      I actually think it’s fine if you seek to redefine “faith”. But I object to the idea that “faith” has implied doubt all the while.

      • Sam

        While I thank you for your opinion I obviously disagree. 🙂

        • kalqlate

          Hi, Sam. I would have no issue with discovering that my operative definition of “faith” is inaccurate. If your definition is now or becoming the general and more accepted and operative one, then it should find its way into dictionaries and general discourse in due time. However, currently, I see you applying a distinct conflation of “hope” with what I have experienced as the main operative definition of “faith”.

          You said: “I did not find a growing and willing embracing of ignorance.” I’m embedded in a HUGE family of faithful Christians. Not one of them would characterize their entrance and acceptance of their faith as a “willing embracing of ignorance”. In fact, quite the opposite. They greatly characterize it as an embrace of God’s before-hidden truth, and they express absolute confidence in that truth, for how could their god’s message be anything but absolute truth? They have “faith” that it is!

          What you are expressing to me when you make statements like “I was no more certain of God’s existence than I had been before” is not the “faith” of the faithful that I have known in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. What you are expressing is something I interpret different than “faith”.

          What it points to mainly is that you are not as “religiously” faithful as most people that I know who are faithful.

          As many people do, perhaps you have somewhat modified the religion to suit your needs and sentiments. I don’t know for sure, but I presume you label yourself a Christian. As far as I know, to be a true Christian, you must have faith (true belief and knowledge) of God as the Father and faith (true belief and acceptance) of Jesus as your savior. Again, your statement of “I was no more certain of God’s existence than I had been before” directly conflicts with those requirements. You have expressed yourself as a non-true believer; therefore by definition, you do not have faith in God–you do not know for sure whether He exists or not. Does that sound like someone who has “faith”?

          Do you label yourself a Christian or do you subscribe to your own modified version of Christianity? If you label and present yourself as a bona fide Christian, then with your uncertainty about the existence of God, you are half-stepping… you can’t be a true Christian. It’s impossible. With your uncertainty about the existence of God, you would be a “faithful patron” of Christianity at best.

          That is what your words express: you follow a modified version of Christianity in which it is OK to have doubts about the existence of God. To that, you can be 100% faithful, but you need to square in your own mind and heart that you are not a Christian–you are a Christian patron–someone who accepts and has faith in only some of the tenets of the religion and, for you, who is lacking a major requirement to be said to be one of Christian faith.

          Therefore, what your words have revealed is that the issue here is not so much a conflation of “hope” and “faith” but a true desire and need to modify requirements for “faith”, particularly “Christian faith” if Christian is what you claim to be.

          • Sam

            To be honest I find it insulting and intriguing that you are doing to me what you would not have done to you by others. You have a large group of assumptions, assumptions I attempted to preempt, that you are imposing on me because of your preconceived notions. Why?

            And why the assumption about my religion? What leads you to assume that I am Christian? Either that or have made up my own religion? That is pretty bold of you, but perhaps you are correct that you have no free will and are merely a victim of circumstances that you have no say over. Perhaps. I don’t know for sure but I have faith, not certainty otherwise.

            I understand that you have a rather large bone to pick about religion and have decided that you should grind it on me. Unfortunately rather than attempting any dialogue about it, or coming to understand what I am saying, you are literally prejudging me. Whether that is what religion I am or your allusion to the idea of ignorance and knowledge.

            Don’t you see what you are doing?

          • kalqlate

            Hi, Sam. No Sam, I do not “have a rather large bone to pick about religion”; therefore, I have nothing to “grind” upon you. As our friend Susan will tell you, and as you might’ve picked up by now, I’m a stickler for details. 😀 I mean no offense. If you care not to discuss the issue further, I completely accept that. Understand, though, that this is in no way personal for me. I have no stake in the issue other than figuring things out. If my process seems harsh and imposing to you, I apologize, for it is not meant in that light.

            Reading back now what I wrote, from my perspective, I see a simple logic flowing from one point to the next. However, when I now imagine things from your perspective, despite whatever religion you may follow, I can see how you might take it as an affront to your sensibilities, but I assure you that my words are not intended as such. Again, if you’d rather not continue, I completely understand.

            You used the idea of doubt being part of faith as part of your reasoning in another of our chats. I am merely trying to understand where your definition comes from.

            You said: “And why the assumption about my religion? What leads you to assume that I am Christian? Either that or have made up my own religion?”

            OK, Sam. If you care to, please share… what is your religion? Help me to better understand the foundation of your insistence that doubt is a part of faith, and let me know what religion, reengineered or otherwise, that declares a god but finds uncertainty about the existence of that god part of having “faith”.

            Truly, I am only trying to understand. If you feel it is simply beyond my understanding, just say so, and we can drop the matter.

          • Sam

            Thank you for your response. I do not feel that what I am saying is being heard and, despite your protestations to the contrary, my position is being prejudged.

            Have a good one.

          • kalqlate

            That’s fine, Sam. You have a good one as well. 🙂

          • Just_PrimalSoup

            @sam also

            Just getting some time to catch up on Disqus. I see my name was mentioned so I feel I got an ‘in’ here. 🙂

            In an entry a little further down (or up…anyway, somewhere here) you, Sam, said: I understand that you have a rather large bone to pick about religion
            and have decided that you should grind it on me. Unfortunately rather
            than attempting any dialogue about it, or coming to understand what I am
            saying, you are literally prejudging me.

            No Sam; not true. I really enjoy reading your posts and I will keep following you, but I think (I know) you are misreading kalqlate (*David). He does not go around looking for trouble here in the blogs. But when an idea/subject strikes his fancy, he will pound away at it “until the cows come home,” and I love that…not the cows coming home, but his desire to get at the essence of an idea ;). Through experience, I’ve found that he argues his opinions passionately and in a civilized manner. We all should. Great conversation can be quite thrilling. Too often the blogosphere spirals down into the pit of name-calling. :/

            Also, I didn’t see any blatant assuming on his part myself. There was more like a lot of “hinting and implying” going on. And he was pretty careful to not go overboard with accusations, trying to have a conversation with what he had to work with. Hey, what’r ya gonna do? Unless we divulge our full-blown bios here, we do our best to communicate.

            Yes, definitions are crucial. Otherwise, someone talks about apples while the other is thinking oranges. In fact, I don’t think any meaningful conversation can happen if we are not on the same page with someone. Otherwise, you’re pretty much “talking to yourself.”

            (* Excuse my talking about you in the third person. 🙂

          • Sam

            I suppose we agree to disagree than.
            Thank you.

          • kalqlate

            Hi, Susan. Your ‘in’ is always implied, welcome, desired, and appreciated. You always bring interesting perspectives and insights whether pro-kalqlate or con-kalqlate. But of course, when you are pro-kalqlate, the discussion gods smile down upon you and grant you a greater day. 🙂

          • Just_PrimalSoup

            I appreciate that! So far, it’s hard to be con-kalqlate. What can I say…you are a most interesting individual . Have a great upcoming vacation adventure. I am heading to Vegas on Sunday for a few days, so BT will get a much deserved “Susan break.” 🙂

            Sent from my iPhone

          • kalqlate

            Niiiiice! I haven’t been to Vegas in such a loooong time, but I love it. When I was 17 and first beginning my IT career, I had the good fortune of working for a small company who would do a booth each year at the then major computer convention, Comdex. For about seven years, I traveled and spent a full week there on the company. I always looked forward to it. Haha… I was thinking that our brains are so amazing!… I have many clear recollections of those times… exciting atmosphere, fabulous shows, and GREAT, cheap meals.

            One incident that I recall very clearly was walking from the convention location with a much older co-worker and being approach by a pro–a quite beautiful and cheery one. My co-worker immediately got steaming mad and threatened her. Horrified, she said, “OK, OK! I’m not looking for trouble,” and quickly walked away. I felt so bad and embarrassed that I started to run after her so that I could apologize and maybe accept her services to make her feel better. 😀 Luckily, I wasn’t completely stupid at that age and didn’t follow through on that impulse. 😀

            Excellent, Susan. I hope you have an excellent time. If you see any shows, please give me a quick summary when you return. HAVE FUN!!!!

          • Just_PrimalSoup

            One last post and then I gotta get packin’…literally! Funny personal story :). Your brain was probably having a fight between being a gentleman and suppressing those youthful hormonal surges. Understandable. 😀

            When we lived in CA, my husband and I would drive over to Vegas maybe three times a year. Now my sister and I go once a year and meet up with our aunt and cousin flying in from the greater Long Beach area. Auntie is wheelchair bound, not in the greatest of health, and really getting up there in age. Each year, we know we are pretty much into “gravy time” when we have our visits. Always hoping for yet one more year. My husband says, she’ll probably outlive us all. Like they say, life can be, is, very tenuous.

            Yeah, Vegas has really changed over the years. Been there at least 50 times and there always seems to be something new to see. Highly recommend it. Thanks for sharing!

            P.S. Sorry to those who have little tolerance for chit-chat. Hey, there’s more to life than blog subjects! Try it sometimes and you might make new friend! 😉