Future historians will be able to capture the spirit of our time by recognizing our gradual loss of certainty. Even in the present we can see that both our intellectual and popular cultures manifest the disintegration of traditional categories of thought, assumptions, behavior, and belief. All of this disintegration has left us with the specter of relativism and the feeling that we have lost our bearings.
We find the awareness of this anxiety about certitude in films, literature, philosophy and religion. We even find it in more accessible places such as magazines like The New Republic, Time, and Newsweek. Andrew Sullivan has often commented on the “religious vacuum” he sees in America. He even advocated a “conservatism of doubt” in our “time of religious certainty.” A conservatism of doubt, he argued, would promote religious humility, civil discourse, and a restraint on governmental power.All of this disintegration has left us with the specter of relativism and the feeling that we have lost our bearings. Charles Krauthammer wrote an essay, “In Defense of Certainty” and responded to Sullivan by asking, “Why this panic about certainty and the people who display it?” He answered his own question by concluding, “It is weariness with the responsibilities and the nightmares that come with clarity—and the demands that moral certainty make on us as individuals and as a nation.” He recalled the “moral clarity” that the nation experienced in the aftermath of 9/11 and urged us to return to this state of mind. Even George Will commented on the current question of certitude. He argued, “The greatest threat to civility—and ultimately to civilization—is an excess of certitude. Will believed that, “America is currently awash in an unpleasant surplus of clanging, clashing certitudes” and concluded by saying, “It has been well said that the spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure you are right.” Through his documentaries and books, Errol Morris has warned us of the consequences of believing that all of reality is only perspectival, a belief that results in the phenomenon of simply denying that there is a reality at all. His work brilliantly exemplifies the current philosophical thinking that settles for internal coherence but “disdains the world.” Arguing for a correspondence idea of truth, Morris is determined to establish what we can know and say about the world, history, and, above all, reality. Morris directed the film, The Thin Blue Line, which overturned the conviction of an innocent man who had been sentenced to death. Reflecting on this film he wrote, “There are endless obstacles and impediments to finding the truth. You might never find it; it’s an elusive goal. But here’s something to remember. The world is out there—like an undiscovered continent. And it is our job to go out and discover it.”
Certainty in Ages Past
These various expressions of the need for, and questions about, certainty are the signs of our time. Consequently, we see among many thinkers a search for some unshakeable certitude in ethics, philosophy, and religion. When traditional beliefs no longer fulfill our desire for certitude, we become intensely aware that we need a new certitude or, perhaps, a return to older forms of certainty.
Our situation is by no means unique. Like the early modern era, consisting of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, we live in a time of transition. As theologians such as Jacques Ellul and David Bentley Hart have said, we live at the end of an age. We live at the end of Christendom, just as early Christianity emerged at the end of paganism. At the present we cannot currently see the stable answers, assumptions, and beliefs that we expect a new age to provide. Moreover, like all times of transition, our quest for certainty is often an anxious one that is characterized by both creativity and rigidity, by both desire and danger. While human beings need certitude, they often become painfully aware that claims for the certainty of truth, including the truth of religion, can become extremely perilous. While human beings need certitude, they often find that it is fraught with danger and often results in either a superficial claim that suits one’s own needs or in a gulf of ambiguity and doubt. If the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have taught us anything, they have shown us the complexity and peril involved in the demand for certainty.
While human beings need certitude, they often become painfully aware that claims for the certainty of truth, including the truth of religion, can become extremely perilous.
Because we live in a time of transition, we can find depictions of the early modern are familiar and recognizable in our own time. William Bouwsma described the sixteenth century in the following words:
When man still clung to the old culture, he seemed to have become, in spite of himself, a trespasser against the order of the universe, a violator of its sacred limits, the reluctant inhabitant of precisely those dangerous borderlands—literally no man’s land—he had been conditioned to avoid. But his predicament was even worse if this experience had taught him to doubt the very existence of boundaries. He then seemed thrown, disoriented, back into the void from which it was the task of culture to rescue him. And this, I suggest, is the immediate explanation for the extraordinary anxiety of this period. It was the inevitable response to the growing inability of an inherited culture to invest experience with meaning.William Bouwsma, A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 172.
The Indian Summer of Certainty
Years ago, the historian Arthur Ferguson wrote a book with the title, The Indian Summer of English Chivalry. This may seem an odd subject by means of which we can reflect on our own age. Nonetheless, the phenomenon that Ferguson examined will once again sound familiar. In this book Ferguson also studied the nature of a culture that was clearly at the end of an age. Ferguson examined the nature of such a culture by asking about the return to the dictates of chivalry. Why was there such an intense and strict reaffirmation of the chivalric code in the fifteenth century when the economic, social, and political foundations of chivalry were crumbling or already dead? He describes this phenomenon in terms of what Midwesterners call an “Indian Summer,” a time when the weather becomes extremely hot just as autumn and winter are about to begin. This is a time when, just before autumn, flowers bloom most vividly and the heat of the summer seems unending. These are also times when old values and beliefs are disintegrating and the need for stability and certainty become most urgent. Ferguson showed that the result of such a culture was the attempt to revive the virtues of a supposedly golden past, a time when the world and society seemed more solid and consistent and when values were upheld that secured one’s convictions and beliefs. Ferguson described the fifteenth century example of this atmosphere in terms of its intensity and ultimate falsity:
Like all Indian Summers, [chivalry] was an illusion bearing little relationship to the actual procession of the seasons. An illusion is, to be sure, an historical reality, and an illusion at all widely nourished can become an historical force of more than incidental importance. There is no gainsaying the sincerity with which many people in that day looked to a reaffirmed chivalry for a badly needed guide to personal conduct and an inspiration in public life. Yet to an increasing degree these men were seeking reassurance in a stereotype . . . There existed no other scheme of values, no other source of inspiration, no other “example” than that of chivalry . . . Despite occasional gusts blowing in from the preceding era, the Indian Summer of English chivalry was over . . . [The chivalric code] was really a nostalgic, truly romantic, at times even a frivolous attempt to re-create the spirit of an irretrievable past.”Arthur Ferguson, The Indian Summer of English Chivalry (Duke University Press, 1960), 222.
In times such as these, when a culture feels rudderless, we find searches for stability, authority, and certainty. We too may be looking to the past for answers to political upheaval, violence, ethical values, economic security, and religion.If we look to the past with a more honest eye, we may see that claims to certainty are found, lost, and often perilous. This has happened before and will do so again. If we look to the past with a more honest eye, we may see that claims to certainty are found, lost, and often perilous. This has happened before and will do so again.
For example, the sixteenth century was a time of rampant religious controversies. Claims to the certitude of truth pervaded all forms of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. While very profound and creative theology was written, nonetheless, the whole era felt to many people like a crisis. It was a time of passionate religious polemics. Christianity was, for the great majority, the intellectual and social force that structured society, the home, the law, economic relations, and political order. The breaking up of Christendom demonstrated both that for many people the past beliefs were no longer satisfactory and that the religious change which was taking place caused apprehension and uneasiness. When traditional boundaries and beliefs broke down, religious turmoil resulted. This turmoil was expressed both in violence and in a theological vocabulary that expressed the anxiety of the time. Try to imagine and multiply the voices of combatant theologians such as Martin Luther, Thomas More, John Calvin, the Anabaptists, Zwinglians, mystics, and radicals of all kinds and you will hear a cacophony of disputes about infant baptism, the Eucharist, interior revelations, and opposing interpretations of Scripture. To return to Bouwsma’s insight, this was a time when an inherited culture no longer invested experience with meaning.
If we look to the sixteenth century again, we will see that claims to certitude often ended in bloodshed. This is evident from events that encompassed everything from heresy, the St. Bartholomew’s massacre, the Wars of Religion, to the Thirty Years War. The St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, which began when the King ordered the killing of Huguenot leaders, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. In the Wars of Religion, over 30 million people died from disease, famine, and violence. In The Thirty Years War, nearly 80 million people died from famine, plague, and violence. The early modern and violent crisis did concern political power but it is necessary to understand that it also revolved around religious belief. This religious belief stemmed from the conviction that religious truth was a knowable, unified, and objective whole that excluded all fragments of falsehood. This meant that some people possessed the truth and others did not. Since heresy was treason against God and a contagion that could spread and endanger the community, the heretic must either be killed or sent into exile. This need for the exclusion of other religious faiths characterized both Catholics and Protestants. (Moreover, this had always been the case with Jews and Muslims.) The ideal of purity of religious truth required a purging that would ensure uniformity of religion. This uniformity was based on the exclusive claim to truth. The historian Nicholas Terpstra captured the convictions of this age by describing the martyrs as those who believed in “the heroic refusal to compromise.”
Terpstra has also shown that the early modern period was the first great phenomenon of religious refugees:
Religious communities had always to face the Other, but through the early modern period the sheer number, variety, and difference of Others in Europe and around the globe multiplied . . . In this particular historical context, the early modern Other was not only different, but distinctly dangerous and threatening.Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 306.
During the early modern period, it was religious truth that was worth both the dying and the killing for. We now live in the late modern period and are undergoing our own disorientation and uncertainty and looking for ways to find certitude again.Today the theologian is like someone who steps up to the microphone but cannot stop clearing his throat. Is it possible to provide any theological meaning that is more than a fragile and partial answer? Is it even permissible to ask for such a certainty? Today what is worth the dying and killing for is different than in the early modern era. Perhaps we may kill and die for the nation, freedom, democracy, and security. Are we looking for a past when Christianity seemed true and secure? Are we quick to blame the “Other,” such as presence of Jews, Muslims, and refugees for the upheavals in political and cultural change that cause us the anxiety of uncertainty? Feeling totally unmoored, we attribute everything causing uncertainty and anxiety either to an enemy or to relativism that makes many people even more uneasy.
The old sources that promised a certain, secure, and confident future are gone. They include the promises once held by science, technology, and religion. Many theologians are struggling with the task of making Christian theology answer the anxieties of our age. We can see the difficulty about theology in the endless obsession with methodology and the need to defend the legitimacy of writing theology at all. As one friend of mine expressed it, today the theologian is like someone who steps up to the microphone but cannot stop clearing his throat. Is it possible to provide any theological meaning that is more than a fragile and partial answer? Is it even permissible to ask for such a certainty? All eras that have craved certitude have to address certain questions: what kind of certainty and to whom was it to be granted? During the birth of Protestantism, the Reformers argued for the certainty of salvation and the certainty of scriptural interpretation. They believed that this certitude was granted to the saved by the Holy Spirit. That is hardly an answer for our time. We must ask what kind of certainty theology can grant and why we are struggling so hard to provide the answers we crave. Returning to the work of Errol Morris, we have to remember that today we are questioning whether there is even anything objective or real.
Certainty, Humility, and Hope
Perhaps we could take a much more humble approach to human knowledge, including knowledge about science, truth, theology, and certainty itself. Let us return to the sixteenth century for advice. In his Essays, Montaigne warned his readers that human being should not pretend to stand on “stilts” and claim an unchanging transcendent truth. He called for an epistemological humility that could steer one through difficult times.Moreover, history should remind us that when we desire complete certainty, we should tread carefully. From Montaigne we can learn what I call an “ethic of incompleteness” whereby one lives ethically and even religiously without assertions about absolute certainty of truth. This becomes clear when we live with the awareness that throughout history, beliefs about science, religion, the cosmos, customs, and laws have constantly changed over time and that what is here today may be gone a century from now. We can see this today in the current study of religion. A century ago Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis was considered authoritative. Today we find only a few scholars who are trying to revive and defend such a theory. At one time a text, including Scripture, had a discernable meaning but developments in linguistics, literary and historical criticism have thrown this idea into doubt. This movement from certainty to uncertainty is nothing new. We might listen to Montaigne who wrote:
If nature enfolds within the bounds of her ordinary progress the beliefs judgments and opinions of men, as well as other things; if they have their revolution, their season, their birth, and death, like cabbages; if heaven moves and rolls them at its will, what magisterial and permanent authority are we attributing to them? . . . If we see one art flourishing or one belief, now another, through some celestial influence; a certain age producing a certain kind of nature and giving to the human race such and such a bent; the minds of men the minds of men lusty, now lean, like our fields; what becomes of all those fine prerogatives on which we flatter ourselves? Since a wise man may be mistaken and a hundred men , and many nations, yes, and human nature according to us is mistaken for many centuries about this or that, what assurance have we that sometimes it stops being mistaken, and that in this century it is not making a mistake?Montaigne, “The Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958). The translation is slightly revised.
This acceptance of uncertainty does not render us passive or hopeless. Moreover this acceptance does not deny the existence of truth, although it questions our access to that truth. Uncertainty does not mean we no longer strive for knowledge or virtue. Moreover, it does not mean that we revel in a sea of relativism or deception that threatens all of reality to fade away. As Errol Morris says, the world is out there and it is our duty to go out and discover it. Rather, the acceptance of uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt simply means that we have to recognize that we are only human beings with no right to finality and claims to have the complete, unchanging truth. This acceptance of our finite nature and our questioning of certitude means only that we recognize that our very real attempts at truth will be partial and unfinished. Moreover, history should remind us that when we desire complete certainty, we should tread carefully.