Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Between Certainty and Skepticism

“At the most obvious level it [the method of Descartes] has created a prejudice in favor of doubt over faith. The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd. Both faith and doubt are necessary elements of this adventure. One does not learn anything except by believing something, and – conversely – if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as i have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith an not visa-versa.”

Leslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 24

As I was driving my two daughters to school this morning, I was asking them about our theme for Tuesdays at the chapel:  an event or a book that has changed your life.

I was most interested in which they would choose.  When my 16 year old looked at my 11 year old and said, “You really haven’t had much of a chance to have your life changed at age 11!”

Which, of course, is a statement about her particular life, rather than the age.  Because we all know many young people who have had their lives radically changed by the age of 11…for good and ill.

But, choosing one event of book that has changed your life is like being told that you must select one of your children (we have four:  2 boys and 2 girls) to be your favorite!

But, I will attempt to clear a bit of space for one event that had impact beyond what I might have expected.


As I sat in my Senior Seminar for History finishing assignments with a sense of obligation and routine to fulfill a graduation requirement the professor revealed the final paper for assessment.  We were to read Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman and answer this question:  “Is this good history?”

This work was neither a primary source, nor a detached attempt at recounting historical events from an objective distance.  It was not so much written as it was illustrated by the son, a cartoonist, of a Holocaust survivor.  How do you determine the historicity of a first-hand account?  How do you dismiss one person’s experience of tragedy and suffering? 

I had been taught that good history was distant, objective, primary-source driven, with language analysis and synthesis.  Recounting the events, the action, the moves, places, times and motives to as close to 0 degree of variances as possible was what good history was about.


After an idea takes some currency in popular language, it can have a diminishing return on effective use.  Currently, I would say that the question opened to the door to post-modern thinking, or questioning might be more accurate.  I do not use the term “post-modern” as an all-encompassing term that may have lost some weight, but as a specific move from the pursuit of certainty to doubting it’s attainability.

I found myself pushed toward two polarities of thinking:

1.     Certainty – Historicity was about removing the unknown.
2.     Skepticism – Historicity was about questioning who gets to write history

This tension forced faith into action.


I had practiced faith most of my life without every calling it “faith”, or at least not in a religious sense.

I imagined all of life lived in polarity between certainty and skepticism, but it was human relationships that seemed to thrive, breath and have the most life when lived in faith.

I could not imagine living all of life seeking certainty with people.  Nor, could I imagine the experience of happiness or joy living with chronic skepticism of all people.

Faith was already something very real in my mode of operation on a daily basis.

Faith became a way of life that I named and embraced.

Faith is alive at a place like MIT as well.  We do not get far in our learning without some faith…moving forward without certainty, not paralyzed by chronic skepticism.  We do not go far in our community or our care to solve problems without living in some sense of faith with people.  I do not know anyone who lives with full embrace of certainty or in the way of complete skepticism.  We cannot live there together.

Even MIT is a place of faith.

Do Not Worry
 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Reading: The Gospel of Matthew 6:19-34
 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Timothy Hawkins, Sojourn Collegiate Ministry