Quotation #1: Never Assume to Comprehend

“Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill, and increase good, but never assume to comprehend.” (John Adams)

Today, I begin a series of posts in which I reflect on the meaning of a favorite quote. I can’t think of a better place to begin than the one above, from John Adams. In many ways, it summarizes my deepest held beliefs and values.

It increasingly has been important for me to acknowledge the uncertainty of my beliefs. In some ways, psychological science suggests that mystery is an inseparable aspect of human experience. That is, no matter how we try, and no matter our confidence, there seem to be psychological barriers to comprehending reality. For example, perceptual mistakes, cognitive biases, and memory distortions pervade our attempts to understand. For an excellent introduction to some of this research, Dan Ariely’s TED talk is an excellent place to begin. Similarly, Christianity emphasizes the notion of “faith.” The stories of the Bible often portray followers as struggling to understand. Paul insightfully writes, in 1 Corrinthians 13:12, that “now we see through a glass dimly. . . now I know in part, but then I will know, even as I am fully known.”

Given all of this, I really appreciate John Adams’ suggestion that we “never assume to comprehend.” This strikes me as more honest and sincere. It is a suggestion that  promotes humility, openness, and curiosity. I have the sense that those who are certain about God may have “God in a box,” ultimately possessing beliefs that are too restricted. Perhaps the Creator of the Universe is too mysterious, too big, to understand. Any attempt to explain God in words seems to come up lacking.

At the same time, it is not necessary to let uncertainty slip into a kind of atheistic agnosticm. This is why “faith” is such an important idea. As John Ortberg once stated:

“If you wait until all doubt is removed before you ever make a commitment, you will never get married, never take a job, never have a child, never make a friend, never follow God. . . every human being lives by faith. . . There are times in life when a decision demands 100% commitment, even though you don’t have the luxury of 100% certainty.”

Thus, it is critical to reflect on how to live in the presence of uncertainty. John Adams seemed to understand that, though it may be impossible to intellectually grasp God, it is possible to have a certain posture toward God and creation. He says to “admire and adore the Author” and to “love and esteem” [His] work.” Furthermore, it is possible to live with conviction in action; as Adams stated, to “do all in your power to lessen ill, and increase good.”

To conclude, I provide another of John Adams’ quotes, which fits with the one that begins this post, but elaborates in a different way:

“The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know. . . Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.”


2 thoughts on “Quotation #1: Never Assume to Comprehend

  1. Jesse

    As a current student in a Master’s program to become a licensed pastoral counselor (mainly psychological therapy with some integrative theology), I am struggling to let my faith comfortably coincide with my uncertainty. The first John Adam’s quote, as well as your reflection, are extremely insightful and helpful. Thank you!

  2. bobritzema

    Perhaps uncertainty and faith are like poles of a dialectic that need be kept in tension. Too much uncertainty and we founder; too much faith and we become dogmatic and judgmental. Though I’m a Christian, I respect some forms of agnosticism, but not the most common form. What is most common, it seems to me, is an assertion that it is impossible to know whether or not God exists. It’s dogmatism masquerading as uncertainty.


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