A Little Theology In the Midst of / About Times of Uncertainty
Juan Pablo Espinosa Arce.These are times in which the meaning of I don’t know has taken on a new depth. We are in a time of uncertainty. In the midst of this uncertainty, we have lived, thought and wondered about the future. What’s going to happen next? When will the pandemic end? Will there be a vaccine? When? Will we ever return to what we know as (and this needs to be between large bold quotation marks) “normality”? To offer one single example: annual calendars. We all had one hundred things planned for this year. In a matter of a couple of days, all of these commitments were cancelled or had to become virtual encounters. Darío Sztajnszrajber, an Argentine philosopher, speaks of learning to tear down our infinite number of assumptions. The period we are living through has reminded us that history and life have an end point. This world is not infinite. We are finite, and our lives share finitude and finality. The essence of our humanity is characterised by the unknown (I don’t know) and governed by uncertainty. The fateful myths about progress so common in the modern era with their excess of reason (J. Gevaert), and which hoped to find an answer to everything, seem to be falling like a house of cards. Uncertainty and not knowing are good, and we need to become used to them because they are part of our very nature, although we weren’t perhaps aware of it and neither did we want to acknowledge it. The backdrop against which we form our projections and dreams had become centred (and perhaps still is) on success, precise knowledge, and certainty. It is from this point, from the perspective of quarantine in the global South, that I would like to reflect upon a little theology in the midst of / about times of uncertainty. I say “little”, because I don’t claim to have the answers to all the questions, and nor will l I try at any time to present this as a finished work. It is just a little attempt to discuss some ideas that have arisen during the pandemic. It is “theological” because it aims to look at reality through the lens of the intelligence of faith, from the point of view of believing in the God of surprises (Gerard Hughes). “In the midst of / about times of uncertainty”, gives it a geographical, spiritual and psychological setting. This is accompanied by three very simple themes for reflection, mere watercolour creations that I have been able to reflect upon during these days of quarantine.
This “not knowing” indicates a void, an open space which we desire to fill, give answers to, or find a way out from. In these current times, we have found ourselves with a wish list of essentials that need to be fulfilled: a desire to be able to go out again, to meet with those we know, to return to our classrooms, to visit our sick, to be able to give a dignified funeral to our deceased, to leave the hospital in which we are hooked up to machines that help us with our breathing. We desire places, moments, people. We wish for that which we do not have. Desire is the companion of uncertainty, given that we don’t even realise when we have the very thing we desired. Controlling events around us and our time is something that we cannot provide a specific or set answer to. Today our response is: “I don’t know”. Perhaps using the metaphor of a compass will help us think about that first moment of desire. A compass shows the way and requires the lost person or the searcher to continually move until they find due north, which will then allow them to find their way and no longer be lost. We are constantly seeking this same north, the answers to the void, the lockdown, health, work…
But it is more than this. Theology should also be experienced and reflected upon (and be understood) in terms of uncertainty. The desire for God, the need to understand the mysterious reality of the sacred and to try and understand reality from a theological perspective are at the foundation of this desire. The English theologian David Pailin in a thought-provoking work entitled The anthropological character of theology has a chapter dedicated to “tentativeness in theological understanding”. In it, he points out that during the seventies, a tendency arose in which theological prudence was the main element which marked out the development of the discipline. The authors, says Pailin, preferred (as should we) to speak of “fragments”, “images”, “navigational charts” and to “candidly confess our perplexities”. Theology in the midst of and on the subject of uncertainty should always exercise prudence at the moment of wanting to understand and explain the sacred, the Mystery that is God. I always liked the expression used by Adolphe Gesché in his dogmatic theological collection Dieu pour penser, when he says that in speaking about God, we can only babble. Babbling indicates the lack of coherency found in the words of little children. It is an attempt to be able to say something, but one which always “falls short” in the expressions we use. Thus arises the question: why can we not claim to be able to capture something of this Mystery? Pailin states: because the ultimate object is Mystery, in other words, the “unknown”, the mystery which “is” but exists in a relationship characterised by distance-absence, and because God (Mystery) causes tension and unrest (desire) in the human being. Our words remain (or should remain) inadequate. Faith is not information; it is a transformation into uncertainty.
This “tension” is striking because it is directly linked with desire. Here I recall the work of Byung-Chul Han when he distinguishes pornography from what we understand of Eros. Pornography is the opposite of uncertainty, given that it is viewed in a direct line of sight which goes from the observer to what is being observed. There is no mediator, there are no fantasies, there is no uncertainty. In contrast, says Han, Eros is the space in which the human being, through this tension and distance, is able to use their imagination and wonder what something will be like, or who might be behind the veil of unknowing. That is the grace of uncertainty and how uncertainty can represent grace. God has no set place. God inhabits the unknown place, the Eros, and not what we could describe as pornographic reality. God generates uncertainty and the human being, who lives in uncertainty, seeks (or desires) to make a connection with Him and answer their questions arising from this need to know God. For this reason, and in the words of Pailin: “Theologians who do not admit the tentativeness of their understanding comically presume to freeze the creating Creator. They treat God as dead”.
Another element which Pailin outlines in his argument has to do with avoiding giving quick answers to questions on the meaning of reality. As human beings, believers, theologians, we should as individuals recognise the changing reality of the present moment. We wish to recognise God, we desire to be able to meet with those we know again, family and friends. We desire to return to our familiar “normality” (in quotation marks, of course). On this second point, I am led to reflect upon the marvellous text of Exodus 3:13-14, the vocation of Moses and the revelation of the divine name of Yahweh. Maybe this account can help us think about the meaning of recognition, and the link it has with uncertainty. It states: “Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Ex 3,13-14).
The revelation of the divine name is, in effect, a concealment of that same name. The identity of God, that is, God’s permanent presence in the past, present and future of creation cannot be reduced to one single name. This is very relevant to our understanding of reality, both linguistic and otherwise, since in relation to language, the creatures or things we name become somehow “reduced” or limited by that single linguistic category. For example: saying this IS a vase, means that the vase is not a watch, for example. The fact that God revealed Himself as “I am who am” (I was that which I am and that which I will be), indicates that our words to describe Him remain tentative. We should also ask ourselves: does there always have to be an answer to everything or does “I don’t know” possess its own theological and human value?
Recognising this can also be connected to so-called “apophatic theology” or negative theology. At times of greatest uncertainty, we can also recognise signs of great mercy. In these days of profound unknowing about what will happen in the future, signs of humanity, of compassion and mutual help have spontaneously emerged, free from banners or political, religious or economic persuasions. In Chile, where I am writing from, the most vulnerable sectors of cities organised what are known as “grassroots movements”, in other words, offering the free gift of food for anyone that is hungry. In our homes, we saw examples of helping others, as well as the morality of caring for others, accompanying them, listening to them and meeting them. This can be a way of living out the meaning of uncertainty and recognising that times of uncertainty have meaning. The little spark of meaning can show itself in the darkest void. By taking a step back and recognising the true scope of reality, we can rediscover the different forms of humanisation, which this time of uncertainty has allowed to develop, by gifting us with a space where true humanity can flourish.
At times of great disturbance we seek peace and rest. I think the evening can be a metaphor for recognising this same desire to calm the worries which trouble us. Evening is the intersection between day and night, it is a halfway point, it is the time when home offers welcome at the end of a long day’s journey. It was in the evening when the events of Emmaus occurred (Cf. Lk 24:29). The table is made ready, blessings are said, the events of the day are discussed. As Mario Benedetti said in his composition Choosing my landscape: “Oh if I could choose my landscape, I would choose, would steal this street, this recently darkened street in which I am cruelly revived and of which I know with strict nostalgia the numbers and the names of its seventy trees”.
The trees, the streets, the faces, life in the evening time takes on a new tone, always magical, seductive, theological. John of the Cross said that in the evening of our life we will be judged on love. What colours do our evenings take on? What shadows and shapes can be made out in this twilight for us? What spiritual connections wait in this evening’s embrace of uncertainty concerning our future? We are looking out for the approaching night, which has already arrived for so many, through meaninglessness, death, illness, unemployment, distance, stress. We are looking out for the night, but we also desire to look ahead to the approaching light of dawn. We see evening approaching, and in it we recognise the faces and stories of so many of our evenings. We see evening approaching, and yet our hearts resound with hope that the day which follows this night will be better for each one of us.