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Faith and Values: The Virtue of Uncertainty

A number of years ago, when our children were young, we won a free whitewater rapids rafting trip through a raffle run by the school that they were attending.

Not being a great fan of water, since my swimming skills are poor, I reluctantly agreed to cash in on our prize. Standing on shore at the Delaware River, the participants were instructed what to do if their dingy hits a rock. As I listened intently, the thought of capsizing simply terrified me. But not wanting to alarm any of our children, I kept my fears to myself. Our guide added parenthetically when she was done with her instruction that a photographer would be posted somewhere along the course and we would be able to obtain photos afterwards.

Sure enough, 15 minutes into our adventure, we hit a rock, the rubber craft leaped into the air, and our youngest child was thrown overboard. Despite my fear of water, I leaped into the rapids and “saved” her.

I was cast (or more accurately cast myself) as the “hero” of this adventure. Then we returned safely to shore. As we entered the wooden structure to return our life preservers we found posted on the wall the photos taken by the photographer.

Hanging there on the wall in full color was a photo taken at the exact moment that we capsized. As clear as it could be, the photo showed me falling overboard and pulling our child into the water with me. Instead of “saving” our child from the rapids, I, in fact, was the one who pulled them in. How could that be? I was certain that I had “saved” her!

The mind is wont to play tricks on us. Not being able to tolerate the thought of pulling our child into the water, my mind “reframed” it. This was not done intentionally, but subconsciously. I love this story, even though it does not paint me in the most positive light. The story illustrates a fundamental truth about the human condition. Human certainty stems from the unbearable weight of being wrong. When we are wrong we are not perfect, and imperfection is hard to tolerate in oneself.

A number of years ago, a teacher of mine in seminary defined “religious pluralism” as a value that can only begin with uncertainty. Only if we are willing to admit to the possibility of not being right in our faith can we make room for the possibility of the rightness of other faiths. Uncertainty is the opposite of arrogance. It allows for the possibility of being wrong or, at least, not completely right. When we do that, we can openly engage others of different faiths in inter-religious dialogue.

Diana Eck, a professor of Religion at Harvard University, defines religious exclusivism as the certainty that our understanding of reality, our experience of God, “is the one and only truth, excluding all others.”

Religious inclusivism recognizes the plurality of religious traditions, that there are many faiths, “but our way of seeing things is the culmination of the others, superior to the others, or at least wide enough to include the others under our universal canopy and in our own terms.” Inclusivism has its own form of certainty, while allowing for a plurality of beliefs.

For the religious pluralist, “Truth is not the exclusive or inclusive possession of any one tradition or community. It does not mean giving up those commitments to the give-and-take of mutual discovery, understanding, and, indeed, transformation.”

Only religious pluralism rests on a form of uncertainty. It is an uncertainty that recognizes that God is far too great to be captured entirely by any one faith community. As one Jewish philosopher put it almost 600 years ago, “were I to know God, I would be God.”

The older I get, the more I value uncertainty.

Moshe Re’em is rabbi at Temple Beth El of Allentown. www.bethelallentown.org; rabbi@bethelallentown.org

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