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The Ocean of Uncertainty

For those still interested, we’ll get back to the ongoing conversation between Mike Todd and myself shortly. Mike’s off at a speaking engagement in Toronto but has indicated that he plans to respond to my most recent post at some point.  This is a conversation we both feel is worth continuing.

In the meantime, I thought I would share a passage from Joseph Ratzinger that I came across recently (from Introduction to Christianity).  Here’s what he has to say about the nature of faith and doubt at this historical/cultural moment:

The believer can only perfect his faith on the ocean of nihilism, temptation and doubt; he has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith….

Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his  unbelief, about the real totality the world which he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole.  He can never be absolutely certain of the autonomy of what he has seen and interpreted as a whole; he remains threatened by the  question of whether the belief is not after all the reality which it claims to be.

Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation, and so a threat to his apparently permanently closed world.

Many of us, I suspect, resonate with what Ratzinger says here.  My own faith has always been worked out in the “ocean of uncertainty”  he refers to in the quote.  Among the questions this quote triggers for me are: How unique is the challenge of faith in our context (either for believers or for unbelievers)?  Is our “assignment” of figuring out what faith looks like in a sea of skepticism a recent phenomenon, or simply an inherent part of faith?  Is all this just a different way of describing the postmodern situation?  If the “ocean of uncertainty” is the “only possible site” of our faith today, how (if at all) does this change how faith is communicated or understood?

I’ve recently been re-reading the story of my great-grandparents’ journey from the Ukraine to Canada and all of the struggles and hardships they endured along the way.  One thing that stands out to me as I read their story is the unshakable conviction they have in what they believe.  The “ocean of uncertainty” referred to by Ratzinger is nowhere to be seen or, at the very least, is not articulated.  Was it easier to believe then than now?  Or does suffering force a kind of crystallizing of what matters and what one believes is really true about the world?

Just a few of the things leaping across the synapses of my brain on a Tuesday morning…

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    “He can never be absolutely certain of the autonomy of what he has seen and interpreted as a whole; he remains threatened by the question of whether the belief is not after all the reality which it claims to be.”

    Is Ratzinger absolutely certain about this? Seems like one of those self defeating propositions. I don’t think one need doubt their conclusions about reality unless there is some countervailing evidence. For example, I am not tortured by doubt over my beliefs about the force of gravity. There is an arbitrary possibility that the theory of gravity is wrong but it remains a possibility that is unsupported by evidence. Perhaps beliefs in the supernatural are different in some respect because there is such big disagreements on what counts as evidence and what the evidence means?

    March 3, 2009
  2. Gil #

    I think the ‘assignment’ is unique in different times and places and that Ratzinger has found a good metaphor to describe our current context. It seems to me that the ‘acids of modernity’ might have more to do with the current mood than postmodernism; I think that we are still coming terms to the heavy responsibilities that have been laid on the rational, autonomous individual seeking to make his/her way in a world that seems resistant to final conclusions.

    I don’t think the results of that period of our history can be undone, there is probably no way back to the ‘certainty’ of the premodern world (nor would many of us want to return to that world). So I think belief and unbelief will always look a bit different in the aftermath of the modern period.

    I like Peter Berger’s analysis in The Heretical Imperative. The idea that we are all forced into ‘going heretic,’ all forced to ‘choose for ourselves’ in a world of limitless options, is a good reminder of both the opportunity and burden of living where and when we do.

    C.S. Lewis’ words on the anxieties of faith have been helpful for me. He says, “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.”

    March 3, 2009
  3. jc, of course you’re right about the self-defeating nature of Ratzinger’s statements. Is he making truth claims about doubt? Well, yes. Can these be doubted. Of course. I’m not sure this necessarily impugns what he says—everything important we believe is a tautology of some kind anyway, isn’t it? 🙂

    I do think that when we wander into the realm of metaphysics and worldview questions there is a qualitative difference re: what counts as evidence and how the evidence is interpreted. In that sense, the gravity analogy is limited simply because of the scope of what the law of gravity is trying to define. I still think that with respect to the broadest possible categories (i.e., something like “belief in some kind of transcendent reality” vs. “belief that the system is closed”) Ratzinger is basically correct. We’re all swimming in the same waters.

    Gil, I also found Berger’s term to be a memorable one. We don’t choose our context, but it seems like we have to continually choose almost everything else! Thanks for the reminder that burdens come with opportunities that may not have come any other way. As is so often the case, Lewis’s words are wise ones. Do we lament and complain about our historical vantage point, or learn how to navigate the ocean of uncertainty as faithfully (and gratefully) as we can?

    March 3, 2009
  4. Ken #

    I think Ratzinger and Berger largely see our situation in the same way. Berger sees doubt as the result of living in a pluralistic society and that comes with freedom. He suggests that only someone who is free can truly say, “I believe.”

    It is interesting to contrast this view with that of Robert Bella in Habits of the Heart. Our situation looks different to him. It looks like individualism. That individualism comes from selfishness and from not living in community rather than from pluralism in his assessment. He desires a community with a memory rather than individuals with beliefs.

    If we move in Bella’s direction, we gain a sense of certainty at the expense of freedom.

    Personally, as beautiful as the community of memory idea sounds, I don’t really see that as an achievable goal in our era for the reasons of pluralism Berger explains. And, I desire freedom. At the same time, something Mircea Eliade wrote warns me of the terror that comes with freedom: Modern man will not be free until the last god dies. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan said something like: I would rather be free in hell than to serve in heaven. That is us in modernity. Milton saw it a long time ago.

    March 4, 2009
  5. So Gil your affliction on me is my share in the Passion of Christ? Makes me tolerate you a bit easier I guess… 🙂

    March 4, 2009
  6. Interesting comparison, Ken. As I see it, the individualism/selfishness Bella sees as the main factor in the loss of certainty is at least partially the result of the basic sociological reality of pluralism. Pluralism seems to encourage individualism because with so many options available it becomes increasingly tempting to define myself by what I choose. This continual process of individual self-definition via free choice can be a heavy burden, I think. It can have a paralyzing effect, for some, and lead to a passive acceptance of whatever faith/lack of faith seems to be the default position of the general public. Perhaps learning how to overcome this is also part of our “assignment” at this point in history.

    March 4, 2009
  7. Ken #

    Yes, and when the difficulty of the assignment does not frighten me, I find it quite fascinating to consider.

    March 4, 2009
  8. jc #

    How does a community have a memory? Memories are only properties of individuals. To ascribe this to a community seems a bit absurd to me. The most you could say is that these individuals have such and such a memory. Or maybe I am missing your point.

    March 4, 2009
  9. Ken #


    By community of memory Bella means a community with a common memory, a common narrative, a story that everyone tells in more or less the same way.

    March 5, 2009

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