Where I spray-paint my thoughts…




A Facebook friend shared this on her wall the other day, and I find in looking around the web that it’s a favourite quote by that crusty old atheist Bertrand Russell (although it’s possible that the more accurate form of the quote is: “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Same concept, anyway).

I’ve thought a lot about faith and doubt, certainty and uncertainty, lately. Mostly because of the crisis in Gaza, and the way my Facebook feed is flooded with posts by people who seem to know exactly who is to blame and exactly what they’re doing wrong. Judging by social media, about half my friends are convinced that the state of Israel is the evil empire harrassing innocent Palestinian civilians, while the other half is convinced that Hamas are murdering terrorists who will wipe Israel off the map given a chance.

And I just think, it’s awful. It’s so awful. I’m moved by the images of suffering in Gaza, and I hate even thinking about the whole Israel/Palestine situation — as I tell my students when we take a day or two to briefly glance at the topic in our overview of 20th century history, this is going to be the most depressing day of the whole course, because it’s an intractable problem that produces lots of violence and has no easy solutions.

But what I can’t get over is how sure people are, and how hard it is for me to grasp that kind of certainty. Is Israel doing terrible things in the occupied territories and violating the human rights of the Palenstinian people? Without doubt, it is. Would Hamas terrorists try to destroy Israel if the harsh Israeli rule was lifted? Almost certainly, yes. Are there legitimate claims and grievances on both sides? Yes. Has great evil been done by people on both sides? Absolutely.

And then I think (because I can’t think about Gaza too long and keep going on with my everyday life), I’m just this way about everything. I find it so hard to be sure of anything, and I can’t understand why people around me seem to find it so easy to take sides. Even something like abortion — my pro-life and my pro-choice friends are both so effortlessly certain that they’re right and I can’t even imagine having that kind of certainty about an issue where it seems so clear to me that both sides are absolutely right, and completely incompatible.

I’ve written in the past about doubt and the role that it plays in my spiritual life, how I’ve tried to become comfortable with not having all the answers and not knowing everything. Yet as I get older I feel less and less certain about everything — not just my faith but all these hot-topic issues that other people find it so easy to take sides on. I’d like to take solace in that Bertrand Russell quote and believe that I’m unsure of things because I’m so wise, but the fact is, many of the people I know who are absolutely certain about something are not fools. They’re pretty smart people, often much smarter and better-informed than I am. The problem is, equally smart people come down on the opposite side of the same question, leaving me no better off than before.

So I don’t think I’m wise exactly … I just think maybe there are certain types of brains that are more shaped for seeing all sides of an issue, and I have one of those, and it makes it hard to choose a definite side. And there are positive aspects to this, like empathy and, hopefully, being willing to listen and learn, as well as negative sides, like being wishy-washy and unsure sometimes.

I feel like this uncertainty is deepening with age — that as I approach age 50 I may be losing the ability to see in black and white at all, and viewing the world as an ever-shifting palette in infinite shades of grey.

Approaching 50 … shades of grey …

Fifty Shades of Grey is a terrible, terrible book and it will be a terrible movie. I utterly loathe this horrific waste of paper and pixels, and denounce it as a Christian, as a feminist, and, most importantly as a writer and a lover of literature.

What a relief! Apparently there are still a few things I can be certain about!!


2 thoughts on “Certainty

  1. I think W.B. Yeats said it first, and better: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I suppose there is a shade of difference in meaning, though: Russell is making a generalization (one you call into question in the course of this post), implying that it is always foolish to claim certainty, while the situation Yeats describes is a symptom of an apocalyptic age. We can observe that wise, moderate people seem to lack the passionate intensity that characterizes less thoughtful people – but we can also see this as a problem with real repercussions.

  2. I can identify with your thoughts, Trudy, and also those of Bea. I spent the first 50 years of my life as an Adventist who never doubted the rightness and certainty of what I’d been taught, and then went through a mid-life faith crisis that taught me about shades of gray. I have to say, I definitely prefer the latter over the former.

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