The High Price of Certainty

WASHINGTON - JUNE 5:  The U.S. Capitol is shown June 5, 2003 in Washington, DC. Both houses of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Se
WASHINGTON - JUNE 5: The U.S. Capitol is shown June 5, 2003 in Washington, DC. Both houses of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives meet in the Capitol. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

Did the surge work in Iraq? Would the world have been a better place if Al Gore had been able to claim the presidency? As human beings, we like nothing better than certainty. Yes, the surge worked. Yes, the world would be a better place had Al Gore been president. We are always looking for the right answer: Did we marry the perfect mate? How can I avoid this illness? Is America the greatest country? Is there life after death?

We want our leaders to be sure of themselves, decisive, commanding, clear. Religious fundamentalism -- the scourge of our time -- is built on this inborn human need for consistency and certainty. It's not just a matter of piety: In the name of "certainty" even loving your neighbor and protecting the stranger (Leviticus 19:34) take a back seat to certainty and the need to hold life as it is at bay. Life is dangerous, changeable and often seems chaotic and arbitrary. For some, a gun seems to bring a sense of being able to control all of this, along with ones' own fate. But of course, it doesn't -- or does -- but only to a tiny degree.

How do we reconcile this need for certainty -- which does have many positive aspects -- with the truth of the world as it is? Well, first of all by seeing how uncertainty, that despised country cousin, makes real sanity possible.

Here are two points to consider:

1. Real Uncertainty is Tied to Compassion

Have you ever noticed that people who are really certain have little room for other opinions? We have to be careful here: I'm not talking about not having a strong and considered belief, or an opinion embraced after real struggle to find the truth. I'm talking about the certainty borne of fear that earnestly hopes to cut away nuance and difference to find the single way, the unalterable truth. Would Chuck Hagel responding, "You know Senator McCain, I'm not sure. The surge had some positive aspects and some negative ones. Not every thing is totally clear and one-sided," have satisfied the senator from Arizona?

Of course, this problem with certainty is much deeper than a Senate confirmation hearing. The propensity to think this way leads inexorably to the certainty that we must attack Iraq in 2003. It leads to institutionalized arrogance, whether it is in politics or religion. It leads to a sclerosis of the political heart, divisions that are impossible to bridge (see: U.S. House of Representatives). It leads to the smooth and unthinking imposition of our will upon the will of others who hold a different point of view.

2. The God of the Unknowable or How I Learned to Live with My Arrogance and Make it a Virtue

For me, God (or Buddha-Nature or the Real Self, or Reality, et. al.) is not only about what I know to be true or believe to be true, but also about what I do not know and cannot know. This is not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it's rather joyful: I get to relax in the truth that I cannot know everything, while simultaneously knowing I have to make decisions and take actions. It's as paradoxical as life itself.

This relationship with the unknowable allows me to seek out differences of opinion with people rather than avoid them. It allows me to subdue my pride of ownership in my ideas and treat them reverently but lightly. Who knows: I might find some new information! I might change my mind! I might end up agreeing with you! This opens up the world to something new, which is, as we know from history, the nature of the world.

We need a rise of thoughtfulness in our country. We need to temper our own impulses with thinking and considering. We need a little impulse control. We need to start considering that certainty, in the way I'm defining it, is a sort of sin, which is to say, really a form of arrogance, albeit one born of our own fear. And if we can resist the need for the type of certainty that is born of fear, we can arrive at our beliefs -- and believe in our beliefs -- in a way in which does not embody arrogance or disdain for others, but rather maintains a true feeling for the personhood of others, a kindness-in-action, even in the midst of strong and passionate feelings.

There will always be Republicans and Democrats of one stripe or another. Difference is not the problem. Ignoring difference is. I'm certain of that.