When I was much younger and even more foolish than I am today, I had trouble saying three simple words: “I don’t know.” Instead, I had a view about everything. And I was right about everything, of course. I was certain of it.
As the years have gone by, I find that I’m certain of fewer and fewer things. I find that there are a few root-level “first things” that I’m sure of, but there aren’t many things outside of those few principles that I can say I know with certainty.
The list of things I proclaim as “truth” shrinks all the time. I have more questions and fewer answers, partly because I’ve seen myself be wrong so many times and partly because I see that the world is far more complex than I realized even a few years ago.
So the idea of asserting so many opinions as absolute fact seems strange to me now. It feels jarring. I wonder if the certainty I expressed about so many things when I was younger was as annoying to others then as it is to me when I see it in others today.
I find that both science and Christian faith offer insights and truths to me about certain things, but scientists go wrong when they go beyond what they reasonably can know to assert things that they don’t know — and Christians go wrong when they claim certainty about things beyond what they’ve experienced as truth.
Why do people assert things as fact when they’re not in the position to know those things? I think it’s because they’re afraid of uncertainty. They don’t mean to “fill in the blanks” when they don’t know things, but they do, because they’re terrified of not knowing. Singer-songwriter Pat Terry addressed this tendency in a song called “Nothing I Say.” He wrote:
I believe there’s more to life than certainty
There’s insecurity and things we don’t admit to
And I am not afraid of all this frailty
Cause it’s what’s keeping me
In search of something more
Still, people try to be certain. What’s even worse is that they feel the need to maintain the position they’ve taken, even after it’s clear that they were wrong. People say they want to remain consistent with what they’ve said before. They’re afraid of being accused of being wishy-washy. And they’re afraid that people won’t understand if they change their minds and reject what they had embraced before.
Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed this issue is a widely misunderstood passage of his essay on “Self-Reliance”:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Emerson isn’t saying that you should randomly change your mind for no reason. He’s not saying it’s a good thing to intentionally be inconsistent. What he’s saying is quite simple. He’s saying to live with your understanding of truth (and state your understanding of truth) every day, even if it’s different from what your understanding was yesterday. Don’t be afraid of speaking what you honestly understand the truth to be. And if you decide tomorrow that you were wrong, don’t be afraid to change your mind and say so.
Will people misunderstand you if you do that? Will they claim you’re inconsistent? Yes on both counts. But, as Emerson points out, pretty much everybody who’s ever brought truth to human beings has been misunderstood, so you’re in good company if people misunderstand you.
In some ways, I miss the certainty that I felt when I was younger. I miss the feeling that I had everything figured out. But I’ve had to change a number of things I’ve believed along the way. I’ve changed positions on intellectual matters and political matters and theological matters. I’ve had to completely reinterpret some things at times about my own history and psychology. I’ve had to do it enough that I now know that I’m wrong about some of what I believe today. I just don’t know which parts I’m wrong about. I only know that I’m ready to change them when I discover where I’m wrong.
In his early 20th century play, “The Admirable Crichton,” J.M. Barrie wrote, “I’m not young enough to know everything.” It was just a joke in a play, but there’s a lot of truth there. I once knew everything. I’m now just aware of how easy it is to be wrong about almost everything.