Dead Certain

One look frightens me above all others. I have spent probably too many hours watching horror movies late at night, and I’ve seen actors—talented and otherwise—projecting the look of fear. It is a temporary thrill, soon banished by a more mundane reality. The look that frightens me above all others, however, is that of certainty. Well I remember it planted, etched, chiseled on the face of a man who believed without question that his duty was to deprive me of a career. I have seen it on faces devoid of any human emotion, but with a surfeit of self-righteousness. I was reminded of this when my wife pointed me to an article in the New York Times blog entitled “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz,” by Simon Critchley. In this piece Critchley recounts watching Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” as a child. He focuses on the episode wherein Bronowski describes the danger of certainty, which often eclipses wonder when science alone is understood to be the basis of knowledge. And we have gone forty years further down that road.

Bronowski, in the clip provided by Critchley, describes how unwavering certainty led to the holocaust. It is a moving and poignant scene; indeed, the only one I remember from the episode as I watched it along with my classmates in the required humanities module at Grove City College. Bronowski, who had relatives murdered at Auschwitz, walks into the pond where their ashes were flushed, a man in a suit and good shoes, oblivious to the rational, and reaches down to touch whatever remains of the millions who died there. The scene has stayed in my head for over thirty years.

As an undergraduate I was certain. I knew the unflinching truths taught by my rock-solid faith. After four years as a religion major I had become more circumspect. Seminary found me still pretty well convinced, although much more temperately so. The doctorate, which required more intensive work than all the previous years combined, convinced me of how little I knew. I went to Nashotah House full of questions, and my goal was to bring my students, many of them very certain, to that human point of unknowing. We need to live with a question mark before we can be truly human. Curiosity is one of the more endearing traits people possess. Certainty disallows curiosity—questioning becomes the devil’s tool and honesty is the farthest thing from God that one might attain. In this era of easy certainty I often see a look on the faces of those in power that frightens me. I need to be reminded, along with Bronowski, that when shoes become more of a concern than human beings, we’ve already gone too far.


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