Living Into The Big Unknown

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Jack Miles contemplates how “science keeps revealing how much we don’t, perhaps can’t, know” – and considers how that connects to religious pluralism. He argues that our ignorance can inform the way we understand faith:

However we cope with our ignorance, we cannot, by definition, call the coping knowledge. What do we call it? Let’s not give it a name, not even the name religion; the dilemma precedes religion and irreligion alike. But if we can concede that religion is among the ways that humankind has coped with the permanence and imponderability of human ignorance, then we may discover at least a new freedom to conduct comparisons. If we grant that we must all somehow go beyond our knowledge in order to come to enough closure to get on with the living of our lives, then how do religious modes of doing just that compare with irreligious modes? Since the challenge is practical rather than theoretical, the comparison should be of practices and outcomes rather than of theories and premises—yet the hope must be for a reasonable way of coping with the impossibility of our ever living a perfectly rational life.

Religion seems to to assume one aspect when considered as a special claim to knowledge and quite another aspect when considered as a ritualized confession of ignorance. One may certainly be struck by the peculiar way in which ostensibly authoritative pronouncements made in the course of religious revelation always seem to arrive coupled to the disconcerting proviso that ordinary human knowing could not have reached what is about to be conveyed: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9). So much, it would seem, for empirical confirmation. But rather than construe such language as vicarious boasting, one may take it, counterintuitively, as Isaiah’s way of reckoning with the limitations of his own mind. To this day, most expressions of religious commitment can be understood as utterances in either of those registers. The boastful construction is smug, loud, insufferable, and can sometimes seem omnipresent. The confessional construction is reticent and thus easily overlooked, yet its appeal shouldn’t be underestimated. The world harbors many a muffled believer and many a shy practitioner, reluctant to undergo cross-examination about a confession of inadequacy that defies ready articulation.

(Photo of “a huge supernova remnant crossing over the constellations of Taurus and Auriga” by Adam Evans)