The [biblical] uncertainty principle
I read your last column. I still don’t know what you do,” my grandma shares with me at the midpoint of my year of community organizing with The Project F-M. It seemed that my assorted attempts to describe my vocation had engendered more confusion than clarity for my grandma and, probably, for a fair percentage of other people I know.
After listening to one more account of my daily work, she moves on to a new question. “So, you’ll be done with this job in a few months. What will you do then?” To that question, I can respond quickly and clearly: “I have no idea.”
The conversation continues, framed by my grandma’s further inquiries and my indefinite responses about what might be next for me. And, just as we’re arriving at the end of our time together, she concludes, “I don’t know how you can live that way, with all that uncertainty, but I’m glad it’s you and not me.”
While I can’t predict what this year-long project will inspire or offer any preview of the next chapter of my life, I can and do share with her that my year thus far has caused me to wonder what life might have been like for Jesus’ 12 disciples. How would it have been to follow him from place to place, from one perplexing encounter to the next, while not always understanding his mystifying parables or his choice to court death with his constant transgression of Jewish law and its practices and structures? Within a context that correlated righteousness with a circumspect observance of the law, I wonder if it unsettled the disciples to hear Jesus maligned as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34).
What the disciples didn’t know didn’t stop them from following Jesus.
They stayed with him as he challenged common wisdom and sense about what it meant to be a child of God, a good neighbor, a true disciple: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).
And they followed him along an unknown course to an unknown destination. Jesus tells them, “‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it” (Luke 9:44). The disciples did not understand Jesus’ prophesy but, still, they followed him to Jerusalem, into Gethsemane, on to Golgotha.
A good leader reduces uncertainty, clearly conveys a vision and mission, and is able to effectively deliver those following through a crisis or challenge. Jesus, on the other hand, makes startling decrees, unsettles the religious establishment, and is executed as a criminal. What could have compelled the disciples to choose to keep following this antiheroic failure?
I’m not a scientist, but do have a certain fascination with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which posits, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. I wonder if this principle, as observed in our physical reality, could also offer insight into how and why the disciples would choose to contend with so much uncertainty to follow Jesus. I wonder if the more intimately they knew Jesus, the less certain they expected or needed to be about everything else. The disciples talked and walked, lived and ate with Jesus — every day, for three years. They had this up-close-and-incredibly-personal relationship with Jesus, with God. It must have been this profound relationship, this knowing that passes beyond understanding that compelled them to follow Jesus despite not always grasping his teaching, despite his upsetting of the traditions that had sustained their community through generations, despite the threat of death — his and, eventually, theirs.
What they didn’t know didn’t stop them from following Jesus. They knew him. They were certain about him. They had faith … in him.
As my grandma and I talk about the disciples’ faithfulness despite uncertainty, and the mystery of revelation throughout scripture, she smiles. At 91 years, my grandma might prefer a degree of certainty in her day-to-day life, but she knows the Bible and understands that the chaos of change might signal that the Spirit’s at work. And she knows Jesus. That’s all the certainty she really needs.
Karis Thompson began working as a community organizer with The Project F-M, a vision + venture to cultivate a 21st century faith community in the Fargo-Moorhead context, in September 2009. She shares stories and questions of the evolving faith community connected through The Project F-M.