Uncertainty and the Work of Research

Uncertainty and the Work of Research August 29, 2016


The subtitle of this post may well be: “Learning to Embrace (Academic) Uncertainty” or “The Possibility of Being Wrong.” You will find very little–if anything–in this post on the nature of liturgical theology or the content of my dissertation. Instead, this is a short reflection a lesson I have learned from the work I have been attempting over the last year.

knew that I wanted to pursue a PhD in liturgical theology after reading two things: the works of Alexander Schmemann and a two-part essay in Worship against which I reacted very negatively. Fr. Schmemann cast a liturgical vision which I found winsome and captivating. The two-part essay caused me to cry out with words of frustration and the pounding of body parts into my desk and wall. Perhaps I am being dramatic…perhaps…but this is important background information. I utterly disagreed with the claims of this essay and have allowed it to chart the course of my work.

I set my attention on a dissertation proposal with the end goal being that I would demolish the ideas of this essay. I believed–and still do–that the author got it completely wrong and that I would therefore be the defender of academic truth. My dissertation proposal, first writing assignment, and many other academic offerings have focused almost exclusively on the theologian with whom I disagreed.

Thankfully, over the course of two weeks, I had two realizations. First, I made the decision to attempt a new assignment: I would seek to capture the critiques, opinions, and convictions of this unnamed (because it doesn’t matter for this post) theologian–especially when this individual was highly negative of Schmemann–in a document without qualification, rebuttal, or reply. Whereas my first assignment vehemently disagreed with him–my second would seek to outline and understand, to let him speak for himself without interpretation.

Second, and of greater significance, I began asking one all-important question: “What if I’m wrong?” 

This single question has entirely changed my mentality and approach to research. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m wrong about Schmemann or this other theologian? When I set my course for a PhD on this issue, I had already decided both the question at hand and the answer. Without conducting a significant amount of research, I decided to proclaim Schmemann (and therefore myself) as “right” and the other as “wrong.”

Here’s the deal: any one at any time can do “research” in order to prove a hypothesis in a desirable fashion. In Scripture we might call this proof texting. In research this would require omitting some of the possible data, manipulating findings, or tweaking hypotheses and analyses in order to make the data say what we want it to say. I genuinely still believe that my hypothesis on this subject is right…but I’m also keenly aware that I may be wrong. If I’m not open to being wrong, if I’m not genuinely seeking all data and sources for evidence then I have no business claiming my “research” as anything other than opinion. I am open–even if begrudgingly so–to the possibility that my research will yield results completely different to those I envisioned over a year ago.

I’ll move from preaching to meddling and ask this: how often do we make the same assumptions of certainty with regard to Scripture or life in general? How often do we proclaim absolute truth (not Absolute Truth) when we’ve only examined a portion of the material?

We would all do well to embrace uncertainty and to develop a hypothesis of generosity (cf Brené Brown) in all that we undertake. I know that my research over the last few months has changed drastically and definitely for the better. The decision to hold things a little more loosely, to live without the fear of being wrong or the need to be right about everything, has the potential to revolutionize relationships–both academic and personal.

That being said, mention the two-part essay from Worship to me and I’m bound to get red in the face. I’ll argue about Schmemann, liturgical theology, and agency in worship until the cows come home–but I will now do so with one subtle change: I know that I might be wrong. And that’s ok.

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