A new year has begun and, as ever, we are confronted by concerns and worries that permeate our very existence. We cannot deny we live in turbulent times- financial problems, the ever-present threat of a terrorist attack, wars in Afghanistan and Syria, the possibility of Israel bombing Iran, Egypt on the brink of civil war, North Korea going on the rampage, the growth of militant Islam, the possibility of mass strikes at home, increasing poverty and homelessness. It's not surprising that we convince ourselves that our age alone is the great age of uncertainty.
Yet, if we think back to an era not long gone, we can see a period when nothing was certain. Would they in the 1930s get a job? Would they in the early 40s be invaded by Hitler and have their lives changed for ever? Would they in the dark years of the Cold War suffer a nuclear attack from the Russians? They came through their uncertainties and taught us, surely, that we must try to do the same.
This sounds good coming from me, a retired bloke with no massive student loan or a mortgage to pay off or the prospect of being laid off by my factory or my local council in the future. Uncertainty in these and other areas is anything but conducive to a feeling of security, and my heart goes out to those who are threatened by an uncertainty that could wreck their lives.
And yet uncertainty in matters of belief is something completely different.
I think it is a good thing if we regularly re-examine our beliefs (I certainly have since my Baptist days) and never feel quite sure that we have got everything in the religious and spiritual sphere quite sorted. The day we feel we have reached the ultimate truth and that everyone who thinks differently from us is mistaken must, surely, represent a recipe for disaster.
Have you ever met someone who is absolutely sure about everything? He (and it's usually a he), is quite certain he has the right answers to all of life's problems, never accepts an opposing view, in fact rarely lets anyone else get a word in edgeways in conversation and to the end of his days remains supremely self-confident. I'm sure you must have met such people at some time in your life. I certainly have- I usually call them politicians or headmasters, although I realise that is grossly unfair to some members of those professions!
I would like to mention someone who was quite the opposite of these self-confident creatures. This person is a character in a favourite 'novella' of mine: a German story by Thomas Mann called 'Tonio Kroeger',.
Strange name isn't it, Tonio Kroeger, the eponymous hero of the story? His name in fact sums him up, as he is a strange mixture himself. He gets his surname, of course, from his father, an important big North German businessman, but the name Tonio comes from his artistic mother who originates from Italy. She is a fun-loving, artistic type who plays the piano and mandolin and dotes on her son. His father, on the other hand, is a straight-laced, rather cold man who constantly castigates Tonio for bringing home bad school reports and for not being serious enough about his studies. Tonio loves his mother but realises she is too easy-going and feels, deep down, that his father is right in his views. That is not enough, however, to make him change his ways. Tonio would rather spend his time writing poetry and playing the violin than get too involved in his school work. He is a sensitive soul who is quite different from his classmates with whom he has little contact.
He has a somewhat tortured childhood, being attracted to what he calls 'the normal, the blue-eyed', and yet is unable to get close to them as he has nothing in common with them. He falls in love with a girl who is thoroughly normal, who loves dancing and the usual adolescent pursuits, who wants nothing to do with him, and his one friend from school, Hans Hansen (note the typical North German name,) is more interested in books on sport than in fine literature. The only girl interested in him is a girl, who, like him, is clumsy at dancing. and is constantly falling over in the dance class they attend, and Tonio has no interest in her whatsoever. It's a sad story of a miserable childhood, and, as you might have already observed, it is a story laced with irony, which is typical of Thomas Mann.
Tonio is clearly a budding man of letters and, as time goes on, finds it increasingly difficult to adjust to everyday society, so much later, perhaps in his thirties, he decides he no longer belongs to ordinary society and determines to lead the life of a Bohemian to see if he can find a place amongst such people. In the meantime his father has died and his mother has married again; this time to a musician with an Italian name whom she followed back to her native Italy. Tonio, however, now quite famous as a writer and a would-be Bohemian, finds no satisfaction in his new life. He finds his fellow artists dissolute and repulsive, and the only satisfaction he can find in life is in work itself. He realises he does not really belong anywhere and so, after a long discussion about his feelings with a female Russian friend, who thinks Tonio is not a true artist but an ordinary citizen who has lost his way in life, Tonio decides to return to his roots and try and find his way back into normal society. He is desperate to belong somewhere and as he says so pathetically:
'I stand between two worlds, belong to neither and consequently finds life a bit difficult'
I'll cut the story short, but after several later misadventures, Tonio, still uncertain of his place in society, eventually decides that, if he is different from most people, so be it. He realises there is no point in bemoaning his fate and the best he can do is to become reconciled to his situation and make the most of life. And so he attains some sort of closure to his problem and manages to achieve some equanimity.
A strange but moving story, but perhaps you are wondering about its relevance ? Well, I don't know about you, but I see myself in many ways as a poor replica of Tonio. I have constantly been torn between two extremes throughout my life. I don't know about yours, but my life has been awash with contradictions and uncertainties!
And now I find myself a member of the Unitarian Church, where uncertainties abound. Was I right to reject the certainties of my Baptist upbringing, when I was told at the age of 17 when I was totally immersed, that my sins were washed away for ever and I could look forward to eternal salvation? I think I was, because I believe that uncertainties are the very essence of life. We do not know, any of us, when we are going to die, when disaster will strike, when perhaps problems will mount up and seem insurmountable, and yet we live with these uncertainties, don't become neurotic about them Certainties can lead to complacency, smugness even, and to be uncertain of what will happen in our lives gives our lives a certain excitement, a certain frisson which is perhaps lacking in the lives of those who seem much more comfortably placed than us.
It is the same with regard to the uncertainty of beliefs. What did that Spanish philosopher and writer, Miguel de Unamuno write:
Life is doubt. And faith without doubt is nothing but death.
And then there is that wonderful quote from Abelard that we all know:
By doubting we are led to enquire; by enquiry we perceive the truth.
Whether we shall ever reach 'The Truth' is in itself doubtful but, as that jolly slogan used for sporting competitions puts it: 'It's not the winning that's important, but the taking part.'
Liberal theology sees as much truth in the search for the destination as in the destination itself, which is why it attracts those who are never satisfied with easy answers and who are plagued by uncertainty-that's us!
For whether we consider ourselves Liberal Christians or not, our Unitarian faith is a liberal theology and the hallmarks of a liberal theology are openness, humility and a lack of dogmatism. As Tony Windross, a liberal Anglican vicar, writes in his 'Thoughtful Guide to Faith':
'Liberals are able to live with questions.....Their world is not black and white but innumerable shades of grey. Living in the midst of Mystery, liberals never think they can do anything more than scratch the surface of things...... The liberal position is the no-man's land between entrenched religious conservatism and secular humanism, and this is about as uncomfortable a place as it is possible to be.
Windross says there can be no certainty-liberal theology accepts the need for theology to be allowed to develop and does not hanker after the past. Scientific progress occurs as the result of the identification of error, as new thinking shows ways in which earlier thinking was wrong or at least limited in scope. And now I quote Windross again:
'Religious people sometimes say this shows the superiority of theology, in that scientists always seem to be changing their minds, theologians rarely do Another way of looking a this, however, is to say theology is a closed system and that theologians wear blinkers.
And so I feel we have no need to have any hang-ups over uncertainty. As long as we are constantly searching for the truth, are prepared to change our minds, are open to new ideas, then we can rest content. Like Tonio Kroeger we might find it difficult to find our place in the world but the answer is to struggle on, surely.
There's a quote from Gotthold Lessing, a leader in the Enlightenment movement in Germany in the 18th century. He wrote in 1778:
`The true value of a man is not determined by his possession , supposed or real, of the Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get at the truth. It is not possession of the truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent and proud` .(Just look at many of the regular attendees at many of the Christian churches in our country, and you'll see what Lessing means).
Lessing then goes on to say this:
`If God were to hold all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hold only the steady and diligent drive for truth, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand.`
I don't know if I would have the courage to go that far, but that surely is the Unitarian ideal: Never be certain of anything, be happy to live with your uncertainty, constantly adjust your thinking and end your days with the satisfaction that you have at least done your best to make some sense of your life and of your God.
I shall finish with a prayer by Thomas Merton who was a Roman Catholic mystic. It was sent to me by that retired Anglican minister whom I got to know in my village of Alveley The Rev Bill Price is a lovely man, as I have said before He is a truly liberal Christian, a missionary of the finest sort. He has helped to set up an orphanage in Nepal, frequently travels out there, in spite of poor health, to see how it is progressing. Bill is in his eighties now and has moved away from the village to be nearer his family and we regularly correspond. Often religious matters crop up in our correspondence, and Bill gives me insight into his profound wisdom on all things spiritual. Anyway, this is what he sent me:
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you, does in fact please you, and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire, and I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I trust you always, though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.