After writing the post earlier this week about fundamentalism and intellectual humility, I picked up David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything to read another chapter before bed. And, as frequently happens when reading or talking to David, I found a fleshed-out expression of a thought that had been swirling around in my head for a while. This excerpt is under the heading “Imagined Infallibility,” on pages 148-149.
But this call to be merely human – to know that we don’t know much, even as we deeply suspect and fervently believe all kinds of things – isn’t good enough for many of us. I’ll confess that, in my attempts to get taken seriously and feel sufficiently affirmed (I know, it’s a black hole), it very often feels less than satisfying. We’re prone to speak beyond what we know, to overdo it, as if what we have to say and decree is more than interpretation, more than just humans trying to make sense of things. We want to come off as successful and informed. Despite the biblical injunction against oaths and excess verbiage, we lay it on thick. We’re part of the put-on.
We fall into this because the language we know and are immersed in is often the language of the con game. We try to draw people in. We exaggerate. We deny our anxiety, even to ourselves, and we attribute inappropriate weight to the images and stories and ideas we concoct to give sense and meaning to life. We even drag talk of “God’s will” into it. To keep the chaos at bay – a chaos we sense will have its way with us if all we’re doing is interpreting – we develop what Ernst Becker calls “imagined infallibility.” We attribute an absolute infallibility and inerrancy to our interpretations to immunize ourselves against the madness, as a way of vying for immortality and keeping above the fray. Others, we might say, deal in opinions and interpretations, but we have convictions and gut feelings and strong intuitions. We get the job done. We know when we’re right, and we’re right. No doubt. No fear.
But the pretense of certainty comes at a cost. If we think our certainty is what drives success and, in the end, the very (so-called) faith that saves us, our honest confusion will become a source of shame and a sign of weakness. Yet we keep our doubts hidden. This is precisely where the biblical witness urges what I’m tempted to call a mandatory agnosticism. This is where we’re summoned to know that we don’t know. This is where we’re called to confess.
While we’re often rewarded in life for playing at absolute confidence, the pretense and the mind games are corrosive to the possibility of community, friendship, and redeeming love. Imagine letting go of the psychic burden of certainty. Imagine backing down from our imagined infallibility and assuming the mantle of a mere human. Imagine the poetic/prophetic way of relating that would be possible. We might become capable of questioning ourselves out loud. We might let a little air in. In the most life-giving sense, we might get a little religion.