The Danger of Certitude

There was a time, not long ago in the scope of history, when it was considered laudable – honorable even – to entertain the idea you might be mistaken. 

It was in the immediate aftermath of World War II – the scent of the gas chambers still in the air, the graves of soldiers dotting the landscape of Europe freshly dug, the bombed-out villages still smoldering, the mushroom cloud over Japan’s evaporated cities still vivid. 

After these horrors, for period of time, something emerged among enough people to make a difference – humility. While that post-war period was hardly a golden age, there was a resisitance of sorts to anything that smacked of totalitarianism. Hitler was the embodiment of that philosophy that some called totalism. It was a way of thinking that painted everything in the hues of in or out, black or white, with me or against me, good or evil. No room for conversation or debate or dissent, no space for nuance, no time for reflection. You had to be, in more modern parlance, “all in.”

In the post-war humility there was space for a national coming to terms with Jim Crow, for the creation of bipartisan consensus on a host of initiatives that improved the nation. 

I worry that we are flirting with totalism again. Maybe it never really goes away, but, like the devil tempting Jesus, “departs until a more opportune time.” 

I’m troubled by the certitude I see in others. I’m troubled by the certitude I see in myself. I worry we are too quick these days to huddle with the like-minded and subscribe to totalisms of the right and left that leave little room for nuance, conversation, or the possibility of change. I’m troubled because we’ve seen in history what totalism does, what certitude wroughts. Down this path is violence. Down this path is annihilation of the “other.”

David Brooks recently wrote, “We live in a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats.” 

I’m writing this as I try to absorb the talk of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. I’m reflecting on these things as I watch a car rush headlong into a crowd of counter protestors at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, killing one person and injuring nineteen. And immediately the same voices start shouting, blaming, condemning; looking everywhere but within for the cause. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a little humility. Those of us who take the name Christian say that we are saved by grace, that not one of us is perfect or even good. We are all of us broken. 

Grace. Not certitude. This is the path that leads to life. May God grant me the grace to walk it. 

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One thought on “The Danger of Certitude

  1. “the same voices start shouting, blaming, condemning; looking everywhere but within for the cause.” This is so true. Certitude is a cause of Many of our problems. We need openness, acceptance, even love when we feel hate and blame.

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