Hope in an Unpredictable World: The Power of Uncertainty

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Engaging the New Year. Read other perspectives here.

As someone who spends a significant amount of my time and energy thinking about religion and working in Christian faith-based spaces, the annual New Year's custom of reflecting on the past and making predictions about the future is closely intertwined with my (ongoing) faith journey. Even though I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, the major Christian themes of transformation, resurrection, healing, and forgiveness form the foundation for my outlook on the year ahead. After contemplation about my religious beliefs and lived experience, I am meeting 2016 with equal parts hope and uncertainty.

Hope may seem obvious for someone from a Christian background. The Gospel miracles — bringing forth life from death, healing from illness and wine from water — can feel overdone. Still, growing up with those stories at the core of my faith imbued me with a strong sense of hopefulness in any and all circumstances.

Some examples: Congress refuses to pass comprehensive immigration reform that protects family unity, but they could have a change of heart. Climate change is imminent and the global community isn't doing enough to stop it, but we might still be able to work together and figure this out. Leonardo DiCaprio still hasn't won an Oscar? There's nothing that is too big for God. Hope, for Christian believers, is kind of an immediate go-to.

Feeling uncertainty, on the other hand, might be less popular for people of faith to admit. But I worry that if we don't experience uncertainty, then we will lack the necessary motivation to take bold action in the world. In the New Testament, Christians are told "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). Whether you belong to a faith tradition or you are secular, we are called to make an effort to live out our beliefs or live as good people during our time on earth.

Uncertainty about the world and about what the future holds has the potential to override our apathy and complacence. Because I feel uncertain about the prevalence of unjust discrimination in my society, I am spurred to action in my community. Another Catholic laywoman, in the 1930s, was uncertain about a future of economic disparity and a tendency to choose violence in the United States. That woman, Dorothy Day, co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement and spent the rest of her life in service to people struggling with poverty and homelessness and advocating for nonviolence.

People every day are making conscious, bold, revolutionary decisions to create change in their own lives and in the wider world because they're uncertain of the alternative. Uncertainty can even overcome resignation, because if you allow for uncertainty there is always a possibility, no matter how small, that things will change course. You can't be 100 percent sure about anything and a healthy dose of uncertainty keeps you engaged and invested in what's happening around you and in the world.

Without conscious engagement of the things that make us feel worried, scared, or outraged, we risk having an unhealthy and inaccurate perspective on the world and on God. We must cultivate encounter with and concern for our neighbors and our world. This should not inhibit faith, but instead foster its growth, as we recognize through this experience that ultimately most things are outside our control. With a balance of hope and uncertainty, we can channel our faith or our energy into positive action in the world.

I don't know what 2016 will bring and I'm not foolish enough to put any predictions into writing about the U.S. presidential election, the Syrian civil war, or the next Star Wars movie. Will we move toward a more enlightened, more just, and more peaceful world? I think so.

Events happened last year that I never thought could happen in 2015 if you'd asked me five years ago. The Black Lives Matter movement grew as a social and political force in the United States, same-sex marriage was made legal in all fifty states, and a historic climate change agreement was reached. At the same time, it's impossible to forget that our world experienced an enormous refugee crisis, acts of terror and mass shootings, and extreme weather and natural disasters during the same twelve months.

Will there be tragedies in 2016? As this piece is published, there already have been. Families, some with young children, have been torn apart in raids conducted by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. A two-year-old refugee drowned off the coast of Greece, trying to reach the EU with his family. No doubt more suffering and injustice will take place in the coming weeks and months.

Knowing this, I live in uncertainty, but not in dread. For every worry, there is a hopeful thought. Maybe this is the year we reject Islamophobia in our communities, find new ways to work with our unhoused brothers and sisters, or raise the federal minimum wage to a living wage. It could happen. I am hopeful. I will live this year with uncertainty but with faith. Maybe it's the same thing.