Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Comfort of Certainty

"Only once, as far as I remember, in all my lifetime have I experienced the pleasure of praise--not for what it might bring but in itself.  That pleasure was beatific; and the praise that conferred it was meant for blame.  It was that a critic said of me that I did not seem to be absolutely sure of my conclusions."
--Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers 1.10. (1897)

I often turn to Peirce not just for technical philosophical matters but also for insights like this one.  What sort of people am I interested in surrounding myself with?  It is most comfortable to surround myself with people who share my views and who espouse them with the air of certainty.  But as Peirce reminds us in "The Fixation of Belief," the great danger there is that in so doing I cut myself off from seeing my own errors and from improving my thinking. 

As with so many things worth remembering, it is hard to keep this in mind.  We need not just people who think differently from the way we think but also communities that will help us return to those words and ideas that sharpen us and provoke us to thought.  This is the challenge of theology and of philosophy, and of liturgies, both sacred and secular - to remind us of what we ought to remember while at the same time challenging us to resist the comfort of resting in what seems sure.  As Augustine writes, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee, O Lord."  Until then, until our hearts find rest in the absolute, we should be wary of certainty, which is so often the enemy of learning.

Bugbee and the Tillage of the Soul

In the opening entry of The Inward Morning, Henry Bugbee writes

“I have yet to discover how to say what moves me to the endless search and research, the reflective turning over in my mind of experience.  The turning over is all so much tilling….All this tilling can be but a burying deeper of what ought to be coming out.  The moments in which something reliable has seemed to come of it all have impressed me as sudden.  Insight is earned, to be sure, but it is not steered, and it must find its own articulate form.  If it is to become more than sporadic and utterly ephemeral, one must pay attention to it, it must be worked out.”  
(Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1999), pp.33-34.

This is as much about philosophy as about mysticism; but it is a philosophic attention to mysticism.  The difficulty is not discovering what moves me to search; that is already known, albeit in a way that is not easily said.  The difficulty is in learning how to say it.  “God” and “the soul” and “eternity” all present themselves as shorthand for this motive.  It is enough to say them, sometimes, but they are placeholders.  They must not be said in vain.  We do not possess God; we seek God.  God is, as Eriugena intimated (in his description of what it means to create), both that which we seek and that which impels our seeking.  God’s creativity and origin-ality are complex, even if God is simple.