Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Tyranny of Absolute Certainty

The Tyranny of Absolute Certainly

What we see and understand in and about life so often fails to correspond with what others see and understand. For those for whom unanimity of understanding is essential to emotional security and mental comfort, this universal fact is a source of considerable frustration and anxiety.

In the opening chapter of his classic book, The Immense Journey, anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley offers an insightful caveat concerning his view of reality which he gives in the remainder of his book. He says: "On the world island we are all castaways, so that what is seen by one may often be dark, obscure (or hidden) to another". (Eiseley, Loren. The Immense Journey. Vintage Books, 1959. 14)

There are so many things which conspire to keep us from seeing things alike. Our views are conditioned by our experiences, our ignorance (or education), our prejudices, and our deep (and often unconscious) personal needs.

How futile it is for us to expect others to share our perceptions of reality with uniform exactitude. We may learn from each other, but we will never be alike. Those who nurture serious expectations of uniformity are doomed to disappointment; and those who are obsessed by expectations of uniformity are the budding tyrants of our time who would extinguish the human mind, which is the primary light by which God has traditionally rescued us from darkness and ignorance, chaos and fear.

We are never in greater danger of error than when we are absolutely certain that we are absolutely right. The most destructive and inhumane times in history have been those in which some person or group of persons have been so absolutely sure they were absolutely right that they used the power at their disposal to impose their views of reality on all who were under their domain. Some of the most unpleasant people I have ever met have been people who were absolutely sure they were absolutely right, and whose mission in life was to impose their views on everyone else by whatever means necessary.

To be a little uncertain, or at least only moderately sure, is to be human - and humane. The encouraging word for today is that you do not have to be absolutely sure in order to be right.

It is quite possible to have strong convictions and still be open to those with countervailing strong convictions. Our understanding of reality changes as we grow older, and hopefully, wiser. My children ask me questions to which I sometimes have to reply: "You should have asked me that question thirty years ago when I knew the answer!" I suspect that all of you who are over thirty-nine have had same or similar experiences.

The people with whom Jesus had his most serious problems were those who had no doubt whatsoever that they were absolutely right. In order to prove their point and eliminate any doubt about how wrong he was, they killed him.

Think about that the next time you are absolutely sure that you are absolutely right.