Living Beyond Certainty

digital artwork of a baby floating in clouds and clear water, titled "A Child Looks Ahead" by Mark R. Turner
“A Child Looks Ahead” by Mark R. Turner, photo 1981, digital collage and painting 2019

I have caught myself blocking the thought that I could possibly be wrong. The possibility of the unknown, or lack of certainty makes me nervous, even afraid. Wrapped up in that fear is the fear of being tortured forever by the consequences of making a mistake. (Preachers used to shout at me about burning in hell.) So, I tend to design an absolutely rational, air tight path ahead, or worse, consider stopping and just building my personal fortress right here and now. How many people have in this way stopped living because their basis for certainty was threatened or taken?

But on what do we base such certainty? Material resources? Knowledge? Long, hard work? Someone else’s brilliant presentation? Our own authority and self-confidence? Our talent and gifting? The views and systems of our culture? Our ideology, political loyalties, or religious doctrine? We could list endlessly what people throughout history have promoted as the basis of certainty.

In my country a creed of certainty is being promoted that we can progress to something called “greatness” on the basis of money, annihilating others, building walls and enforcing exclusive hierarchy. Uhm … I think we have already established that these are untrustworthy foundations.

Many mistake this kind of certainty as faith. What makes faith different? The word “contriteness” comes to mind, to accept that we do not know, we cannot explain, we cannot prove, and yet to keep moving through, living forward, even if we must come out of our personal fortress.

Not Just Believing

Faith is not only believing but living out the trust that the ground will still be there for the next step. Faith is not necessarily being “right” or “correct,” but trusting that, though our best attempts are limited, though we are flawed, and though the field into which we send our actions is limited and flawed, Goodness will come of our action. This attitude does not claim to “know it all,” but creates a kind of action done with openness, offered with humility and looking for others’ offerings to fill the gaps of our unknowing.

Notice that the assumption here is an underlying posture of contributing our best, small as it may be. Faith engenders out-giving, radiating the good we have, believing it will multiply. This is a view of abundance rather than scarcity, of generosity rather than hoarding. My culture pictures the child as one of bare-faced openness and as the person grows older they take on the image of distrust, defense, protectiveness, gradually closing off in old age. An adult who is open, generous and trusting is often considered retarded, some lower level of evolution, what used to be called “the peasants.”

The Unknown Good

But what if another’s actions are wrong, causing our well-intentioned offering to be rejected or ineffectual? The limitations and flaws of our circumstances can directly oppose what little faith we have, making us fear we will die without ever seeing any good we have accomplished. Faith instructs us that nothing can block the good seed that is freely cast, regardless if some seed is lost. Faith represents the good, receptive soil which we often do not know about; the unknown good reception that bears fruit unknown to the one who cast the seed. This faith is of more than product, acclaim, recognition, rise in position, or increased honor.

This faith helps us recognize we are each a particle of a whole; it believes the whole is good and because it is, each particle can be and do good. I am not referring to a whole that can be completely described. Faith impresses us that this whole is bigger than the known, that it is not within our explanations, verbiage or designs, but rather contains them as particles. We need not feel lost like a speck in a vast sea; this faith engenders optimism and joy in the abundant treasure we are given to explore, always discovering more Goodness.

Unlayering Ourselves

At birth this kind of faith is an assumption. How do we recall it from beneath all the interactions and circumstances layered onto us over the years? First, we decide to remember. We give ourselves the opportunity to remember the difference between faith and all the learned layers of world view, ambitions, and skills for presenting persona.

Being quiet on a regular basis gradually allows us to wake up. Being quiet is not sleeping but waiting attentively for the Love of God from beyond the layers put upon us. When I say “regular basis” I mean habitually, and such a habit needs help to form over time. There are many ways to establish this contemplative discipline and I have found it as important as eating and drinking. My early morning hours of scripture, prayer, contemplation and writing are indispensable.

In time the discipline begins to show in the way we do life. The contemplative life becomes the basis of our word and deed in the material world. We can grow in our ability to recognize divine guidance. We can develop a familiarity with basing our work-a-day life on our spiritual life. I see Jesus’ life as this unity of material and spiritual; not two modes but total integration. This is where agreement between people will come from, the state in which variety of opinions, insights and capacities, the safe, nurturing and loving community, will be realized.

It seems like a naive vision. Is that bad? I feel like we should be talking about it anyway.

2 Responses

  1. Judith Dupree

    Well spoken, brother! I know some of those feelings you describe so “intimately” and truthfully and yes, reluctantly. It’s all a part of the baggage we lay at the foot of the Cross, isn’t it! And not just once, oh no! It’s not that simple, breaking patterns we’ve lived with for years. You hit a nerve here, and that’s a good thing. May the Kingdom come upon you and by your participation and yearning for His Way for this world, through you, friend.

    • markart

      Thank you, Judith — We gradually awaken to who we are made to be. All in God’s patient process. All in due course.