Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The difference between insights and answers--or extreme agnosticism

Solstice commented on my post On (re)becoming a Christian: "I'm not sure I follow what you mean by the difference between an insight and an answer they seem synonymous to me." I was referring to how participating in the liturgy at church and pondering symbols in the stories of Jesus helps create a mental space where insights, but not answers, can emerge. I also say on my About page: "I don't claim to have any answers, but perhaps the things I write may help to spark some insights." So let me explain the difference.

I think "insight" implies something like, "Yes, that seems right," such as, "This thought that popped into my mind while kneeling at the communion rail appears to be a sensible course of action," or "I can see some connections between this narrative and such-and-such area of my life that I want to improve." I should mention that I interpret pretty much all religious stories, whether they have a basis in history or not, as mythology, by which I mean high praise. I take the definition of myth given by Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, Jean Shinoda Bolen and others: A myth is something that never happened, but yet is always happening. It may have begun as "just" a story, but it endured because it tells us something profoundly true about the human condition. Myths from all sorts of traditions have been a huge source of insight for me about myself and my life. (More about how to read a myth another day.)

To me, "answer" implies certainty, an assumption that cannot be questioned, a course that must be stayed. I am extremely uncomfortable with the level of certainty that the word "answer"  implies. Whatever I think I may know about God or about the course of my life or how I should interact in my relationships is always subject to change. I make guesses that I perceive as well-founded through a combination of reasoning and intuition but I. Do. Not. Know.

When it comes to God, "Yes, I think so." Regarding Christianity, "It's yielding positive emotional and spiritual results for me." But answers and certainty are something that I will never claim, not for myself, and certainly not for anyone else. I do not know, and I do not trust anyone who says they do know. I think that's a self-deception, and a very dangerous one.

Though, of course, I could be wrong.  ;-)


  1. When you made a distinction between "insight" and "answer" I assumed you were highlighting the difference between "internal inspiration" and "external inspiration." Like, insights are the result of internal mental connections as opposed to answers supplied by an external force or being.

    1. Well, yes, I think that's another way of articulating what I was trying to say. Any "inspiration" I get is the result of assimilating conscious and subconscious mental and emotional resources that I already have, not from something outside of me. It's like I already have dry pine needles and chopped wood but it's all strewn about randomly, and religious practice is my way of arranging them into kindling to be ready for a spark.