As I grow older I find it is more than a matter of my hair and beard whitening or my knees stiffening. In the forty-second year of my life I feel my certitude about many things shrinking.
The words of Michael Fishbane, in Sacred Attunement, lulled me into a meditation of this certitude-slippage. I’ve not read enough to be sure I even know what Fishbane is talking about, but my middle-aged mind resonated with his opening words:
This work is an attempt to “do” theology in a dark and disorienting time–a time sunk in the mire of modernity. Naivete is out of the question. The mirror of the world reflects back to us our willful epistemologies, our suspicion of values, and the rank perversity of the human heart. Like Kafka we prowl around the debris of old Sinais, in a wasteland of thought. The tablets of despair are strewn everywhere.
I am certainly experiencing something like this while my beard grows hoary. Are you?
No, please don’t write me emails and letters asking if I am having a faith struggle. I don’t think that is it. I think my faith enlarges as my certitude contracts. Should the devil, God forbid, drag me now to his terrible lair to torment and confuse me, I would have a greater chance than before of defeating him.
No, I don’t think my positiveness of conviction in so many areas is reducing because faith is failing me faster than my stiffening knees. I think instead I am more open than ever to paradigm changes, to confessing ignorance, to the willful resistance to answers too easily obtained.
And I do not believe it is just me. I believe people collectively go through periods of thought as well. We influence one another and the culture that pervades all things links us, even those of us who resist it.
It seems to me the world is middle-aged, not yet venerable and able to wisely and with dignity stand against peril and doubt. But rather, the world is immature in a middle-aged sort of way while leaving behind naivete, as Fishbane said, as out of the question. I hope I am not reading my own middle-age “crisis” into my view of the world, but I don’t think this is an exercise in narcissism. I believe middle-age crisis may be a good definition of our post-modern existence. We will only achieve venerable status, perhaps, when Messiah comes.
I think I see now why I went through such a period of illusory confidence in finished answers and unquestioning reason. I think it was not more faith, but less faith that led me to be closed to options, to close off discussion, and negotiate a unilateral treaty with truth.
But my mind is opened if only because the longer I experience God the larger he grows in my perception and the thicker grows the cloud of unknowing. I am not disturbed because I know that a cloud atop Mt. Sinai grows more opaque the nearer I draw to it. My openness to uncertainty is not a sign of withdrawal, but of coming home.
I suspect the world is drawing nearer, by distance if not by relation, to God. The middle-aged world may soon be in a crisis which makes all before seem like the worries of youth. Even as I think such dread thoughts as arthritis and knee-surgery, the world faces upheavals in late middle-age that take away all the breath of adolescent imperviousness.
“Where shall wisdom be found?” asks Job (28:12).
“Man does not know the way to it,” he replies to his own question, “it is hid from the eyes of all living” (28:13, 21).
He was not troubled beyond perseverance by his lack of certitude. “Behold, the fear of Adonai, that is wisdom” (28:28).