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  • Learning to See the Wisdom of Uncertainty
  • Yi Shen Ma

I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on Duane's analysis of my struggle to give an account of my religious self. In this brief reflection, I focus on how my interaction with Duane and his interpretation of my spiritual journey has changed the way I relate to my existential struggles and raise some ethical and practical questions for further consideration.

One of the most valuable things I learned from conversing with Duane and reading his paper is the vocabulary to explicitly name and identify the sources of my existential and emotional suffering. Simply being able to talk about my lived experience in an intelligible way is already to do much to alleviate my distress.

Duane's words resonated with me when he suggests that my "religious-spiritual intelligence seems to have lagged behind other domains" as an adolescent (3). Looking back, I see that being torn between traditions while going through the challenges of migration added to the existential pressure to be "storied by others" to fit my "experiences into a dominant narrative" (6). Thus, my "involuntary silence" and self-colonization compromised my agency and led to the impression that I was less spiritually competent compared with people who seemed to know who they are and their place in the community.

I felt less spiritually competent because I did not seem to fit in anywhere easily. I have always seen my inability to give a coherent account of my religious self as a social and emotional liability. So, I sought refuge in an apparently fixed and socially prestigious religious identity and attempted to erase all traces of dissonance and discomfort, even when it alienated me from my family and cultural inheritance.

Since my conversations with Duane four months ago, I learned to relate to my "unbounded" identity as a source of wisdom rather than a liability. Reading his analysis of the Buddhist emptiness and the Christian doctrine of divine incomprehensibility catalyzed a shift in my self-understanding.

As a theologian, I intellectually understand the provisional and limited nature of religious identity. But my spiritual biography seems to suggest that existentially, I am inclined to adopt fixed and reified religious identities, even after repeated failures. The contribution of Duane's interpretation is that it connected the abstract ideas of emptiness and divine comprehensibility with my lived experience. It did so by reframing my apparent weakness and failures—my inability to articulate my religious identity—as a source of strength and wisdom. It prompted me to see [End Page 163] that my failure to give an account of my religious identity is rooted in an implicit and unconscious awareness of the limited and partial nature of religious forms of knowing.

This subtle shift positioned me to notice the unique ways that my ontological uncertainty could be a resource for community building and spiritual care. As a pastor and professor, I realized that I naturally empathized with students and other young adults at church who struggle with their experiences of migration and ambivalent relationships with their inherited religious traditions. I also began to notice that sharing my experiences and insecurities often edified those who were struggling with similar existential questions. In other words, I was starting to see that my existential uncertainty "could be construed as a particular form of wisdom" (12).

What I saw as a liability has become an avenue of intimacy and community. Being less attached to a "permanent, consistent, and definable self" enabled me to have more vulnerable and authentic conversations with my wife and children about my faith. Partly, this is because I no longer treat conversations about religion and spirituality as an attempt to define myself and others, but as a journey toward greater understanding and spiritual renewal.

As I write this, I can confidently say that I have made some progress in coming to terms with my inability to articulate my religious identity. This perceived inability has morphed into a profound capacity for unbounded growth and transformation. Duane and other scholars of spiritual fluidity made this change in my self-understanding possible, and it underscores the importance of their work for people like me...


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pp. 163-165
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