If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long
All we know is the splash of words in passing
And the falling twigs of song.
Confusion defined my childhood in a world where we are expected to get on and be clear about what we want without stopping for two seconds to be baffled. I found refuge in the essentials of revolutionary politics, which allowed me to rant assuredly and confidently at friends. I took a more lasting and isolated refuge in Louis Macneice, beginning with the discovery of the poem ‘Snow’ which contained the simple and direct line no one in life had yet offered me; “World is crazier and more of it than we think”. Over time I have found this position, not the ranting one, to be an important foundation to the world of dialogue and social interaction. But it is the display of bold certainties, of what ever persuasion, that still dominates our discourse.
Imagine a high profile debate on television including some heavyweights primed for verbal combat via our top educational institutions. A Douglas Murray or Mehdi Hassan perhaps. Imagine at a moment in that debate one competitor requests some time to consider his answer. He tells us it’s all quite confusing and complex and he doesn’t feel ready to respond just yet. What would be the response? Would victory not be declared? I imagine Youtube clips uploaded and headed with words and phrases such as ‘owned’, or ‘destroyed’, and they would likely to go viral. The heroes of our side – of our beliefs and values – are so often the most certain, the most absolutely assured of their positions. Where we may secretly doubt our own convictions, we can take strength in the apparent doubtlessness of others.
Without denying the legitimacy of a visceral nature to convictions on political injustice, many contemporary debates are not cut and dry, and political and moral positioning can be a confusing and uncertain process. Yet sometimes the more confused we get the more ravenous we become for certainties. Ultimately, for me at least, and if I look back on my own life, a much greater comfort can be found in shared admissions of confusion, rather than a vaneer of clarity and conviction.
For this reason it was good to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently open up about his doubts – rather than the conviction – of his faith. Not least because it is conviction not doubt we’ve become accustomed to expect from our leaders. What was frustrating to see was the press reaction that treated this as some kind of shocking confession, suggestive of a weakness rather than strength. I’m not a Christian, but if I were I imagine I would certainly be one with doubts, and in being so take comfort from someone, however high profile, sharing and accepting – not relieving me of them. Religion can be a handy channel for collecting the mess of our world into a neat and certain whole, but it is one of a number of vehicles we can access to do so. It always seemed obvious to me that the spectrum running from complex doubters to the rigidly assured crosses and is not defined by belief systems – faith or otherwise. Political ideology, for example, can play a similar role. More recently elements of atheist thinking can be seen to have formed their own absolute certainties via a critical response to the absolute certainties of religious doctrine.
So our ability to confess and share our doubts is one that can transcend differing world views. It also feels essential if we want to hear and be heard. It can aid dialogue by removing the assumption of weakness placed on such a disposition – that we’re not going to somehow lose by revealing it. Heated arguments on the other hand might be defined as people bouncing off each others certainties.
I once had a deep dialogue conversation on world views with someone devoutly religious. At the end when we shook hands to say goodbye he held on while and let me know I’d said some deep and really interesting things, and he thanked me for what I’d said. In all honesty the truth, or lack of it, in the fundamentals of Abrahamic narratives is not an area in which I have much uncertainty – but that draws little wider clarity beyond. I could have focussed on my clear headed position that key elements of his religious beliefs made little sense to me – but what would that achieve? Rather than focus on the areas our certain differences, I chose to outline another perhaps more relevant difference – the comfort and greater happiness that I have found in life by allowing myself to not be sure, to be confused, to embrace uncertainty. By showing my position as one of and defined by uncertainty, he was able to grasp it, as it revealed my position without threatening his. At the same time it reveals a difference deeper than our theistic positions. One that might transcend a conversion on either side.
Honesty about our doubts, epitomised in a working agreement coined by a colleague of mine; “It’s ok to be confused”, can achieve two things in dialogue. First, because of our honesty about the doubts that surround our beliefs, it might actually strengthen them. Certainties can be seen as an artificial glue that holds together a sea of doubts -hence we reach this state before its time and before those doubts have been resolved. In this way absolute certainty can form a kind of denial, a suppression to serve as a false sense of assurance in a confusing and complex world. Secondly it can allow us to move more calmly and unashamedly into another key working agreement – “it’s ok to change your mind”. Not owned, not destroyed, just human.