Lesson 14: Uncertainty

Breathe DeeplyAs some of you know, Stephen Hawking in 2000 spoke of the 21st century promising to be an age of uncertainty. He was speaking about the possibility of discovering a unified theory that would go beyond what we consider the basic laws of science such as gravity, the laws that govern matter and provide meaning in normal situations. I think, and have to emphasize that “I think,” he was talking about moving into territory beyond that which can measured by cause and effect. A unified theory would enable us to understand how light is both a wave and a particle depending on how we measure it. In a sense, we would be working on the border between chaos and order. Things would be so complex that we would be constantly moving in uncertainty, making new decisions each day based entirely on how past decisions worked out. Traditional categories such as right and wrong, true and false, would be irrelevant.

I am not sure that there is really any direct connection, but his words often pop into my head during this pandemic. In the complexity of this period, judgments such as right and wrong, true and false, seem irrelevant. Both sides in our deep societal division read the same facts in totally contradictory ways. Both accuse the other of denying scientific facts. Both feel they are the victims of misunderstanding and persecution. Both believe the opposition is ignorant and cannot recognize truth when it stares them in the face.

In last week’s lesson, I questioned the wisdom of trying to have a creative conversation under these conditions. My argument was that anything you said would be used by the other side who is only interested in getting its way. After receiving responses from participants, I realize I was belittling those who do not think as I do. I am now more inclined to think the root of our divisions is complexity rather than pure selfishness.

Our problem coping with the COVID-19 virus is not so much accepting or denying facts but interpreting what they mean. Scientific experts change their minds on the basis of the latest findings just like everyone else. Assumptions from the past no longer serve us as conditions rapidly change.

In the midst of this pandemic, the uncertainty of living in our complex society also becomes more troubling. We are forced to confront systemic racism and poverty. Traditional values have limited efficacy in our multicultural global village.

The best advice I have heard on how to proceed under these conditions came from one of the young students in our high school reading group. During his valedictory address at graduation, he spoke of his grandmother being told to take a deep breath before she was placed on a ventilator. He observed she then entered into a time of extreme uncertainty. He said they were in a similar situation when graduating during the pandemic. They had to take a deep breath and dive into a very uncertain world.

Taking a deep breath does not mean returning to the past but learning from the past while remaining open to the future. It does not mean abandoning your interpretation of the facts and your values but continually testing them against reality. It certainly does not mean agreeing with those who oppose your views but engaging in creative conversation when and if it is available.

Taking a deep breath primarily means having trust in humanity, the world, and God. It means having enough faith to participate in real life and keep discussion open over critical issues. Acknowledging Jesus refused to give black and white answers, we should not expect the church to provide them either. Taking a deep breath means trusting the church and Jesus will be there as we continually repent, continually rethink what it takes to create order out of chaos.

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