The pleasures of not knowing
(Image by Marija Zaric, via Unsplash)

Scene 1: Nora and I volunteered to help out a few years back at the funeral service for the son of a town acquaintance. We didn’t know them well, had never met the son, but it’s what you do when your neighbors need you.

We were partway through the setup. Nora decided to go up to the sanctuary to hear some of the service while I finished laying out comfort food down in the community room. She told me later about what she’d heard upstairs. About how all of these hard-working people with remarkably difficult lives got to hear again that heaven awaited. That there was a guaranteed destination at which you would be identifiably your own self, but with all of your imperfections washed away, surrounded by all the very best versions of all the people you knew here. She talked about what a comfort that image would provide.

Scene 2: When I was a kid, I was raised within the American Lutheran Church, the sort of mildly-lefty, social responsibility church that emphasized feeding the poor, comforting the lonely, caring for those you don’t especially like. We heard a lot about “seventy times seven,” about the parable of Mary and Martha, about the Beatitudes. One of the most important moral lessons I ever learned was Luther’s assertion that it is equally a sin to give offense and to take offense. My very first realistic career aspiration was that I wanted to be a Lutheran pastor, to bring those comforts and generosity of spirit to others.

Then for junior high school, my parents sent me across town to a Lutheran K-8 school, but different Lutherans, those of the Missouri Synod, what I think of as the Lutheran Church’s Southern Baptist Outreach Wing. Generosity was gone, community was gone, and it was all about one’s own salvation, or lack thereof. It was the most remarkably self-centered theology I could imagine, drawn not only from the same Bible as the ALC churches, but from the same Martin Luther commentary on the Bible. Wildly different destinations from the same origin.

When that school ended after 8th grade, a new school, Muskegon Catholic Central. Now the Bible had extra books, and five more sacraments, and Purgatory, and saints and bingo and the veneration of Mary, and the priest got all the wine at communion. And after a couple of years of that, I informally converted to anthropology, fascinated by the vast variety of stories people tell themselves to make it through a difficult world.

But when I became an academic and a college teacher, I realized that I had fulfilled that first pastoral career, in a secular form. I got to read difficult, important texts, and think carefully about their meaning. I got to write, and do public speaking. I got to listen to people in emotional or material crisis, to encourage those who had lost courage for themselves.

And after The Adjunct Underclass came out, dozens of people reached out to me with their own stories of academic shame and failure, and I wrote back to them or talked to them. All of them. And one day, after a long call that Nora had heard one side of, faintly, from downstairs, she said “it sounds like you’re doing academic chaplaincy.”

Same job, different title.

Scene 3: Bumper stickers, at their best, are aphorisms with adhesive on the back. About forty years ago, I saw one that I hold close. Radical Agnostic—I Don’t Know, and Neither Do You.

Scene 4: I was working at the Town’s transfer station a couple of months ago, helping people unload their trash and recycling and running the compactors over and over from 6am to noon. Probably saw a couple of hundred people.

One of them was relatively new to town, had moved here to be with his son and grandkids. His son was in the church-incubation business, traveling into heathen regions like Vermont and trying to establish good Bible-based churches. Whatever that means. Snake handling is Bible-based, too, if you want it to be.

Anyway, he wanted to know whether I was part of a church community, and whether I’d be interested in coming to service. And I said, no, I’d grown up in the faith but had left it behind. And he was crestfallen, a little, but pushed further anyway for a few more minutes.

That’s a remarkably uncomfortable place to be. I understand that he’s doing me a favor, that he wants to save me from the flames. I get that, and in fact, I appreciate it. But I have no parallel interest in changing his thinking. If he’s comforted, then he’s comforted; I have no reason to want that to be gone from his life, to challenge his certainty. So we come into the conversation with asymmetric goals. He wants me to be like him: I want him to be like him, too, and to leave me out of it.

Nora and I have often talked about the traits of people that we find most enjoyable to be with, and foremost among them is curiosity. We love to spend time with people who see the world and ask questions, who want to understand someone else’s reasoning, who grow from the interchange and gradually become different people because of their interactions.

One of the great joys of academic life is that we’re paid to not know things. To live right on the very outer edges of what’s understood, and to step off the edge into the unknown. And it strikes me that curiosity and faith may be asymmetric and possibly incommensurate impulses. One is about the joy of not knowing, and the other is about the need for certainty. One is open, the other closed. When someone else’s faith tells me how to live, then we’ve entered into a form of colonialism in which one foreign power has dominion over everyone’s options.

I was reading a couple of days ago about why religious freedom, and religious neutrality, were so important to the attendees of the Constitutional Convention. And one of the core reasons is that they were still defending their own little state turf. They’d gotten to be rich and powerful men by having dominion over one or another of the Royal land grants, New Jersey or New York or New Hampshire, and the whole idea of States in the United States came because they weren’t about to cede that power. But each of the states at the time had pretty different religious communities at their core. Lots of them were Anglican, because duh. Maryland was Anglican, too, but they were more tolerant of the Catholics than the others. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut were Congregational; Pennsylvania was Quaker. And the writers of the constitution recognized pretty quickly that if they wanted there to be a United in the United States, they had to get past those denominational certainties pretty firmly.

The alternative is Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when every trash bin or parked car might be your death. The alternative is the Sunni and the Shia, the Hutu and the Tutsi. There are hundreds and hundreds of Christian denominations in America, all of which would claim to be “Bible-based,” all of which look askance (or aghast) at the practices of the others.

In every theocracy, it’s not only the heretics who have to watch their backs. It’s the insufficiently or incorrectly devout. If the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod ran the nation’s government, the American Lutheran Church would immediately become an oppressed religious minority.

I hope that we can be brave enough to embrace uncertainty, and the curiosity that accompanies it. To admit that we just don’t know, but that we still try. To stand on principles like generosity and comfort and mercy and welcome, even as we know that we can’t even get those exactly right in every circumstance for all people. The alternative will be unthinkably cruel to all but those handful who have embraced the one true way.

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