Richard Rohr: 2 Kinds of People: Certitude and Understanding

There are commonly two kinds of human beings:

  1. there are people who want certitude and
  2. there are people who want understanding;

and these two often cannot understand one another.

Those who demand certitude out of life will insist on it even if it doesn’t fit the facts. Logic has nothing to do with it. Truth has nothing to do with it. “Don’t bother me with the truth—I’ve already come to my conclusion!” If you need certitude, you will surround yourself with your conclusions.

The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mind-set. I think Jesus (or the Father or Spirit) is actually dangerous if taken outside of the Trinity. Jesus held separate from the other members of the Trinity implies that faith is a static concept instead of a dynamic and flowing one.

.. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding; it seems to me it’s only this ongoing search for understanding that will create compassionate and wise people.

If you think you have a right to certitude, then show me where the Gospel ever promised or offered you that. If God wanted us to have evidence, rational proof, and perfect clarity, the incarnation of Jesus would have been delayed till the invention of audio recorders and video cameras.

.. Rational certitude is exactly what the Scriptures do not offer us. They offer us something much better and an entirely different way of knowing: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we must discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary for survival in an uncertain world. You only need enough clarity and ground to know how to live without certitude! Yes, we really are saved by faith. People who live in this way never stop growing, are not easily defeated, and frankly, are fun to live with.

You can tell mature and authentic faith by people’s ability to deal with darkness, failure, and non-validation of the ego—and by their quiet but confident joy! Infantile religion insists on certainty every step of the way and thus is not very happy.

Explaining it all to you: The persistence of Vox…

In fact, people nowadays have lots of information. Too much, even. No, your problem is the opposite. Your problem is that you cannotinterpret the information you have. You lack the guiding hand of expertise. You need a vox dei, a little Voice of God whispering in your ear, helping you along, telling you what it all means.

.. Klein rejects what he calls the “More Information Hypothesis,” the idea that a better-informed citizenry could have more productive political debates. In fact, because we see facts through partisan lenses, facts alone are useless. People are irresponsible with knowledge; facts just make them “better equipped to argue for their own side.”

.. Vox is therefore an exercise in the simultaneous having and eating of cake; it wishes to both make strong value-laden assertions and be trusted as neutral and dispassionate. This means that Vox inherently practices a crude and cruel form of rhetorical dishonesty: it treats matters of profound complexity as if they are able to be settled through mereexpertise. If anyone disagrees with what the wonks have concluded, they must be dumb, delusional, or both.

.. As Fredrik deBoer says in his critique of Vox, the “explainer” stance is insidious, because it disguises partisanship as objectivity, falsely assuming that there can be such a thing as a “view from nowhere.”

.. He shows how Vox used selective and highly unreliable empirical data in order to attack Bernie Sanders, while cultivating the illusion of rigor and neutrality. For example, by producing a calculator showing people how much each candidate’s policies would cost households in taxes, without disclosing how much these policies would save households elsewhere, Vox made it look as if Bernie Sanders was simply planning to drain families of all their money.

.. “The whole notion of ideology-free explanation of complex subjects is of course itself ideology-laden… The pretense of neutral explanation simply deepens the potential dangers of bias.”

.. It should be no surprise that the main thing these explainers love to explain is “policy,” the more complicated the better. Policy wonks love policies because they get to explain them. Everyone else hates complicated policies, because everyone else has to be subjected to them. The more inscrutable and byzantine the policy (and the more confusing and misery-inducing those policies are for ordinary people), the more jobs there are for wonks.

.. Whenever I meet a progressive wonk-type, I always make sure to ask them: “If you could wave a wand and fulfill your every political goal, what kind of world would you build?” The answers inevitably consist of more policy. “A nationwide jobs program,” “universal pre-K,” or “guaranteed annual income.” (And those answers are from the true dreamers and visionaries among the wonks. Frequently their utopias consist of things like “a 2% drop in the unemployment rate.”)

.. Focusing on “the weeds” is sly, because it carefully avoids having to discuss and defend your underlying moral assumptions. And by keeping the focus on “explanation” rather than “discussion,” one can avoid difficult questions that might force the interrogation of one’s preconceptions.

.. Vox’s factual unreliability is not merely a product of Klein’s sloppy oversight, however. It is in many ways inherent to the site’s model of content production, which depends entirely on having incredibly young writers assume a position of omniscient expertise.

.. James Fallows, in his deliciously scathing 1991 look at The Economist, suggested that the magazine’s intentionally anonymous bylines “conceal[ ] the extreme youth of much of the staff,” quoting Michael Lewis’ observation that “if American readers got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves.”

.. Yglesias is perhaps the man whose work is most synonymous with the “#SlatePitch,” the intentionally irritating, click-hungry denunciation of some perfectly innocuous truth or convention (hence “The Case Against Eating Lunch Outside“).

.. Immediately after the 2013 collapse of the Bangladesh garment factory that killed over 1,000 people, Yglesias took to Slate to explain why workplace safety regulations actually inhibited the operation of free markets. Yglesias explained that high-risk jobs have high compensation, and just like people might choose to be lumberjacks, they might choose to work in highly dangerous garment factories for a premium. Thus “it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.” The article was accompanied by a photograph of Bangladeshis loading dead bodies onto a truck.

The column was classic Yglesias, in managing to be both ignorant and appalling.

.. I once attended a public talk Yglesias gave on housing policy to promote on his (62-page) book The Rent Is Too Damn High. Yglesias was placed in conversation with Yale Law School professor Robert Ellickson, a bona fide expert on housing and zoning with approximately four decades of experience in the field.

.. But watching Ellickson flay Yglesias, I was most struck by the fact that Yglesias was completely unfazed. Far from being ashamed at his humiliating defeat, Yglesias did not even seem to acknowledge that he was even being defeated or humiliated. He didn’t attempt to defend himself. He just… kept talking, as if the numerous arguments that had been made proving him wrong simply didn’t exist.

.. This refusal to back down or admit fault is apparently characteristic of Yglesias generally.

.. When confronted, instead of apologizing, Yglesias doubled down, falsely accusing others of twisting his words. Yglesias is an enthusiastic practitioner of one of the most obnoxious tendencies in the human character: the belief that if people hate you, it must be because you’re right rather than because you’re an asshole.

.. Thus when people criticize you for taking the opportunity of a deadly factory disaster to explain why workplace safety standards are Actually Not As Good As You Think, your default reaction is not contrition or self-doubt but annoyance that people fail to recognize your rationality.

.. It is the same tendency that afflicts mansplainers generally: the refusal to entertain the possibility that it could be you who is wrong. “Explanation” implies certitude. For the explainer, information flows in a one-way channel, from the mouth of the explainer to the ear of the explained-to. Vox does not need to listen; Vox knows.

.. and of course it will survive. It will survive because we are all insecure and confused, and promises of explanation and certitude are appealing in a chaotic world. Ezra Klein is right that we do not know what to do with the barrages of information we encounter every day, and his let-me-explain-it-to-you business model is savvy.

.. But the more Vox persists, the less hope there is for American politics. The Vox model is premised on the idea that people shouldn’t think for themselves, that the important parts of political thought and decision-making should be outsourced to experts. Inevitably, these experts will produce solutions nobody likes, because the moment one is convinced that all opposition must be founded in ignorance, one will always be right no matter how many people are hurt or how many people complain. The point of politics is no longer to help us live together and understand one another. The point is policy, and our job is to listen to the explainers. After all, they have the facts. They’ve got them here in 5 charts. It’s everything you need to know.

Trust the River

We all want to manufacture an answer to take away our anxiety and settle the dust. To stay in God’s hands, to trust, means that we usually have to let go of our attachments to feelings–which are going to pass away anyway (which is the irony of it all). People of deep faith develop a high tolerance for ambiguity, and come to recognize that it is only the small self that needs certitude or perfect order all the time. The Godself is perfectly at home in the River of Mystery.