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MEETING 2011/ Waters: Doubt – not as enemy, but as the grain of sand around which the pearl of faith may be constructed?

As things began to emerge at the Meeting of Rimini, it became clear that the issue was certainty of a subtly different kind than we had been accustomed to thinking about

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We can speak words, write them, hear them, look at them, sometime for many years, and yet not know what they signify, what their possibilities are. Such a word, we have to concede in the wake of the 32nd edition of the Rimini Meeting, is “certainty”.

We went there certain of what certainty was: to know something absolutely, to be without doubt, to have examined the matter fully. We came away with a different definition: certainty as being to do with the confidence with which we approach things, the steadiness of the step upon the path, the resoluteness with which we apply a method of pursuing the truth, being certain, always, that there is something great to discover.

Coming from Ireland, where many long-standing “certainties” – of the old kind – have been disintegrating before our eyes for three years or so, I expected to find the Meeting overshadowed by some tentativeness arising from Italy’s more recent experience of a period of economic turbulence not unlike ours. But I have been surprised. In Rimini, in harmony with the challenge of the Meeting’s uncompromising title, I encountered a recognition that a crisis is underway, but no sense of fatalism, no acceptance that what is happening is definitive for human aspiration or hoping. Life, is a process tangentially related to economic prospects, not married to them, and it continues.

We saw thousands of people turn out for all kinds of encounters: to hear philosophers and scientists speak about the nature of certainty. Many people went along to peer at the exhibits depicting the extraordinary life of Blessed John Henry Newman, a man whose whole life was an adventure in search of the truth. Many of us visited the exhibition on the atom, to learn more about the ruminations that led generations of physicists to gaze into the very fabric of matter. We were invited to engage with journalists in discussion of the future of the printed word, to attend some of the innumerable events marking 150 years of Italian unity, and so forth.

Gradually, it became more clear that our certainty about certainty has been misplaced, that we need to begin thinking about certainty in a new way. We live in an age when the desire for certainty – at the material, political and scientific levels – seems to exist in inverse parallel to its availability. The more we pursue it, the more things seem to unravel, perhaps because we are increasingly concerned with conquering rather than truly knowing. Instead of risking more to know more, we reduce the terms and scaled down the framework of potential understanding so as to make it appear that we have come to know almost everything.

Thus, present uncertainties seem to accompany an almost overwhelming desire that all matters be settled once and for all. And the more intense becomes our preoccupation with pinning everything down, the more the uncertainty grows. It as though, in certain ways, we fear uncertainty because is shames us. On the other hand, our societies also fear and mistrust certainties of a different kind, the “religious” kind. And perhaps this, too, is understandable, because religion, too, has been infected by the same tendency to arrive at the final destination and stay there, regardless of new facts or witness.