God, America, and Uncertainty

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses pleads with God

12 Moses said to the Lord, “Look, you’ve been telling me, ‘Lead these people forward.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. Yet you’ve assured me, ‘I know you by name and think highly of you.’ 13 Now if you do think highly of me, show me your ways so that I may know you and so that you may really approve of me. Remember too that this nation is your people.”

14 The Lord replied, “I’ll go myself, and I’ll help you.”

15 Moses replied, “If you won’t go yourself, don’t make us leave here. 16 Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and your people, unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on the earth.”

17 The Lord said to Moses, “I’ll do exactly what you’ve asked because you have my special approval, and I know you by name.”

18 Moses said, “Please show me your glorious presence.”

19 The Lord said, “I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord.’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate.20 But,” the Lord said, “you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live.” 21 The Lord said, “Here is a place near me where you will stand beside the rock. 22 As my glorious presence passes by, I’ll set you in a gap in the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by. 23 Then I’ll take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face won’t be visible.”

 

Thoughts on the passage:

There is a concept in physics called the Uncertainty Principle. Simply put, it states that when it comes to sub-atomic particles, attempts to measure one attribute create uncertainty when it comes to other attributes. Specifically, you cannot accurately measure both where a particle is AND where a particle is going. Any effort to create greater certainty of one of these properties increases the uncertainty of the other property.

If you are lost, don’t worry, you are in good company. Even Einstein struggled with this idea. He made several attempts to develop ways to measure both the location and momentum of these sub-atomic particles but every time it was found that all of his efforts to increase certainty in one direction only introduced more uncertainty in the other one.

Why does this matter to those of us who do not study quantum mechanics or string theory for a living? Certainty and knowledge are some of the building blocks of our understanding of the world. Whether we are conscious of it, we all take comfort in a great deal of certainties in the world from whether the sun will rise tomorrow, to how cars behave at high speeds, to a trust in the laws of our society. Introducing uncertainty into our worlds is usually not met with a positive reception.

While the Uncertainty Principle deals specifically with sub-atomic particles, the idea behind it, I think, has some resonance to other areas of our lives. Take for example the idea of what it is to be an American. How would you define what it means to be an American? Would you base it on principles and rights like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or would you think in terms of cultural activities like baseball and apple pie? Is being American just a matter of birth location and parentage, or is it something you do?

The more we try and define the concept of being American, the more uncertainty we introduce into the idea. Pinning down specific traits in one area creates greater uncertainty in others. For one thing, what it means to be an American is changing. At our founding, being an American woman meant you did not have the right to vote, something that thankful has changed. Being an African-American meant the possibility of enslavement and counting as three-fifths of a person. That too, thankfully has changed. Cultural values have changed, the national pastime in many ways has shifted from baseball to football and the role of religion has shifted in the national discourse. Ultimately, as Langston Hughes reminds us in his poem “I, Too,” understanding what it means to be American is a matter of perspective.

On weekends like this, where we celebrate our country and our heritage, we want to talk in terms of absolutes because they are comforting and familiar, but we are not always able to do it. Instead, we are left also embracing deep uncertainties about what it means to be an America and what it means to love America. We sing about the beauty of America, but each of us sees it in slightly different ways, and that is okay.

Another place we are not comfortable with uncertainty is God. Faith, however, is the very act of holding in tension a desire for absolute certainty and a reality of total uncertainty. We want our beliefs to be grounded in the absolute truth of God, and yet everything is ultimately uncertain. The more we try and define God, the more uncertainty we introduce.

Moses struggled with this same problem. He was leading the people of Egypt and they were asking for certainty and Moses was too. He wanted to know who God was and where God was leading them. They were leaving Egypt and going towards a yet undefined Promised Land. They were heading into greater and greater uncertainty and they needed something tangible and concrete to guide them.

Are we any different from them? The Church, in the broadest sense, is moving from a period of certainty to a period of great uncertainty. In the 1960’s we knew where the Church was and what it stood for. It was a pillar of our society and our culture and a gathering point for the community. In the last fifty years we have seen that erode and change. Now, we are struggling to figure out what it means to be the Church in the current culture. We have seen these same changes locally as we have watched our numbers decline and many of our traditions evolve. It would be much easier if we had some certainty in terms of where we are and where we are going as the people of God.

Unfortunately, God does not work that way. Like those sub-atomic particles, any effort to pin God down just results in more uncertainty. God tries to explain this to Moses. God acknowledges Moses’ need for certainty, but also makes it clear that no one, not even Moses is able to see the face of God. We can never have that absolute certainty we long for.  We can never fully know who God is or where God is leading us. We need to have faith.

To demonstrate the Uncertainty Principle, physicists show how photons shot in one direction all end up on target, but the more we try to know where those photons are in the middle, the more they deviate from the target in the end. In other words, if we don’t worry about where they are in the middle we will know where they end up.

The same is true for our country. What I love about our country is that we are in the process of becoming something greater. We were not the greatest country when we were founded but we are on the process of becoming something greater. I don’t know where we are right now either, but I believe we are moving towards something better, our country’s direction is aspirational, to build a more perfect union.

The same is true with our faith too. We have to trust in our end. God has made it clear where we are going. We are on a journey of uncertainty, from the darkness of our past in Egypt to the certainty of the Promised Land. What happens in the middle is the hard part, because this is where have to embrace the uncertainty and trust in our faith, trust in our God. Our church is on a journey too. We need to leave behind a way of being a church that is not working and move into a time of great uncertainty. We don’t know what will be next, but we have faith that God is leading us to something greater. Let us embrace the uncertainty and follow God.

Questions to Ponder:

When have you struggled with moving forward with something despite uncertainty about it?

How do you hold your faith in tension with a desire for certainty?

What can a church do to manage uncertainty as we seek to follow God?

Prayer:

God, like Moses, we long for certainty in our lives. We are ready to follow you, but we want to know who you are and where we are going. Our need for knowledge and certainty is insatiable. Help us to remember our faith in you is built on a trust that you are God and you are good. You are leading us towards a better place. We do not always know how we are going to get there, but we know that through it all you are with us.  Amen