'I gotta stand up for faith hope love/
but while I’m gettin over certainty/
stop helping God cross the road
like a little old lady'
This song came on while I was riding my bike one fine Fall day. I had just read the interview with Pope Francis, and was thinking about some comments he made about certainty. It seemed to me that the Pope and Bono were coming from a similar place.
Francis spoke of a “mystical dimension of discernment” which “never defines its edges and does not complete the thought.” He said “the Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.”
Later in the interview, he insisted that the certainty of the believer does not consist of an “empirical eureka.” There will always be an area of uncertainty:
My entire adult life has involved “getting over certainty,” from one perspective; while from another, growing in it.
From a clueless adolescence, I went into a rigorous college humanities program which was like awakening from the dead into an exhilarating magical world of intelligence and wonder. From there, I went to the seminary and studied theology, with similar gusto. So for pretty much all of the nineties, I was in full blown intellectual mode. This was good, but also had the consequence of what Flannery O’Connor once described: the unintentional smugness that comes from too much theory and too little experience.
Little by little, reality beat some humility into me. Once ordained, I was surprised to learn that no one really cared about my theology. They wanted to know I would be there when they needed me, that I cared, that God loved them. Looking back, I can even say that, for all my intellectual growth, I still needed to learn that God loved me.
As I get older, the number of things I am certain about is shrinking considerably. But the things I remain certain about... grow more and more certain.
Pope Benedict famously warned against the “dictatorship of relativism.” Some wonder how to square this with Francis’ comments. I think it’s apples and oranges. First of all, we should all re-read “Introduction to Christianity,” where the young Fr Ratzinger wrote about doubt as the privileged space of encounter between the believer and unbeliever. (As pope, he would say he stands by the book, calling it one of his proudest accomplishments).
Benedict’s condemnations of relativism involved the categorical denials of the ability to know truth, and the consequences thereof. Sort of the classic, “if right does not make right, them might makes right.” You can read all about this in “Fides et Ratio” by Pope John Paul II, and again in Benedict’s Regensburg lecture.
Francis is coming at it from a different angle. He is the pastor, not the academic. Things are much greyer on the ground, where Francis spent most of his priesthood. The line between faith and doubt there is blurrier, and it’s the land most people inhabit, including Christians.
Relativism is a problem, one whose scope and influence Ratzinger/Benedict was far more positioned to see than I. And yes, a lack of certainty is having a crippling effect today, particularly on younger people who are often paralyzed by indecision amid the countless options in front of them. And yes, a dimmed and reduced view of reason has had serious and far-reaching problems at the theoretical level which trickle down in many toxic ways.
But in my world, the problem is not too little certainty, but too much.
The shrill invective that is too often our civil - and theological - discourse thrives amid a certainty surplus and humility deficit. At the everyday pastoral level, pettiness and hardness of heart do more harm than relativism. A closed, arrogant, blind, or unteachable stance is far more common in the world I live and minister in, and causes more pain, and blocks the Kingdom more insidiously, than relativism.
On a personal note, the little humility that life has brought me has made me more teachable, open, gentle and kind - not too mention more happy - than the often harsh theological certainty that characterized my seminary years and early years of ministry. It has certainly made me a better pastor.
There’s an Ani DiFranco song, “Hour Follows Hour,” where she sings,
Don’t fool yourself into thinking things are simple...
We can only hold so much, is what I figure
We try and keep our eye on the big picture/
picture keeps getting bigger
Make no mistake. Francis is not saying there is no picture, or that we don’t have eyes. Clearly, when it comes to Jesus Christ, Francis is not a man with a conviction problem. How is he so certain yet so open?
The key is in his line, “we must be humble.” Humble means teachable. It means accepting ambiguity and respecting mystery. It means remaining in permanent beta mode, hungry and open to reality and to the other. It means cultivating a growth mindset, a continual state of becoming. It means allowing undefined edges, open-ended thinking, incomplete thought. Why? Because the picture is big. Reality is big, people are big, God is big. “We can only hold so much, is what I figure.”
The grey space between faith and doubt is mystery-zone, where God is partly revealed yet always, also, partly concealed. It’s familiar, common ground for most of humanity. It’s the land of artists and poets. It’s also our mission field.
If we are not comfortable here, we must learn to be, since it is the place where we must go to encounter the other and win hearts. It is where we have the encounters that matter most, where we inspire trust to the extent that we know its terrain and language. It is the place where smugness is abandoned and humility is embraced. Ironically, for all that, it is the place where real certainty begins to be found and shared.
God is not a little old lady, and needs no help crossing the street. God is Mystery, the always-More. God is revealed...yet, somehow, for all that, also concealed.
Getting over certainty does not mean becoming a relativist, but becoming humble. Truth is not a possession, nor even an aspiration. Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, who can only be progressively known through the humble act of following. Such following means keeping the edges blurred, the thinking open-ended, the thought incomplete. There’s always more.
If we wish to grow our pastoral intelligence, than getting over certainty - through humility, not relativism - is a must.
Perhaps most fascinating is the unique twist Francis puts on certainty at the end of the discussion:
I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of the person has become a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else - God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.
If these words make your heart burn for the lost as much as they do mine, then you understand the urgency of the proposal. THIS is the certainty we need.
- Which spaces of uncertainty might you benefit from stepping into and exploring more?