Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Tie That Binds

At the beginning of the 2008 film Doubt (an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's play by the same name), a priest challenges his congregation with an unorthodox sermon about the nature of the ties that bind us together. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks his flock: "What do you do when you're not sure? " The setting is a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964, and Father Flynn's sermon recalls the national tragedy that his congregants experienced the year before in the assasination of President Kennedy. "Think of that," he says, "your bond with your fellow being was your despair. It was a public experience, it was awful, but we were in it together." Crises of faith constitute the darkest of hours for the human spirit, Father Flynn speculates, and the hopelessness of that darkness is infinitely compounded when the crisis is borne alone. We tend to think that there is an isomorphism between our strength as individuals and our strength as a community, that we are bound together most solidly when we are the surest of our own identity and the identity of the collective to which we belong, but Flynn suggests that there is also a special kind of solidarity among the lost. In fact, it may be when we are the most unsure about whether or not we are lost that we find ourselves most in need of others. In the experience of not knowing who we are, not knowing where we are, not knowing in which direction to steer our ships, Flynn finds a simple and subtle moral truth:

"Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty."

I plan to use this film in my Existentialism course this semester, if only because that is the course in which I have found students to have the most profound and palpable experience of real doubt, of being "lost." But, upon re-viewing the film the other day, it occurs to me that this would be an excellent film with which to begin most philosophy classes. A good philosophy course ought to challenge our certainty of our own certainty, I think, and that experience is a deeply unsettling one that many students shy away from. I cannot count the times I have heard a student say that he or she didn't ask a question or speak up in class because s/he didn't want to sound "stupid"... by which they mean, I think, that they didn't want to sound like they didn't know the answer. Nevermind that, most often, they are sitting in a room with a lot of other people feeling the same uncertainty. Perhaps the best salve for this dis-ease is a quite simple one, that is, the fundamental reassurance: you are not alone. None of us are certain, really.

Acknowledging that doubt-- the very common vulnerability to uncertainty-- can itself be a tie that binds is not only a prerequisite for good philosophical discussion, but also a basis for the kind of moral and political posture that I want to encourage in my students. What do you do when you're not sure? Hopefully, the answer to that question-- tentative and unsure as it may be-- begins with a recognition that doubt is a powerful and sustaining bond. The finitude of human experience and our knowledge of that experience is a universal weakness, a universal vulnerability, even if the acknowledgment of its commonness isn't.

If you haven't seen Doubt, I highly recommend it. Here's a short clip of Father Flynn's sermon that opens the film:

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