When Certainty Kills
Rich is on Twitter at @RichALittle and blogs regularly at www.richlittle.org
Last week a student left my office traumatized. He entered in a crisis in certainty and left in a crisis of uncertainty. A long held religious belief, one in which he was most certain, had been challenged and proved wanting. This was troubling to him for his dogmatic certainty in this particular belief gave him confidence to convert others to this certainty. This had now been challenged. He, like most of us, takes comfort from being certain in religious beliefs. However, if you’re like me, you may not be as certain now as you were in the past on many religious beliefs.
The early church stood on the certainty of certain beliefs; the incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, the atonement, among others, which bound their faith to other believers and to God. Over time and through the evolution of Christianity the list of certainties grew, incorporating traditions, culturally specific doctrines, and social norms that guided everything from Christian wages to Christian wars. However, what if we are placing certainty in all the wrong places? Is it possible that certainty itself has become God for many Christians? Our worship of certainty may be tantamount to idolatry. For if certainty grants confidence then confidence fuels conversion of others to that certainty. That progression, from certainty to confidence to conversion, the three dangerous “Cs,” has been the undoing of so many young and old Christians alike for centuries. After a crisis in certainty leaves their beliefs on the scrapheap of faith, like the young freshman, they throw up their hands in frustration over just what we are “converting” people to. And that’s the point of the gospel.
Jesus invested disproportionate amounts of time with people who doubted, people who lived in uncertainty, and people who claimed to know little. The certain ones were the ones whose beliefs were challenged by Jesus. Certainty on every detailed point of doctrine and life, often accompanied by smugness and arrogance, hardened their hearts and dulled their minds to the message of Jesus. However, the ones who found themselves in uncertainty, an adulterous woman thrown at Jesus’ feet, a scared father of a sick girl, a nervous Jewish leader who meets Jesus at night, become models of hope and promise. Francis Bacon so aptly said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
Today, two-thousand years after the church began, we find ourselves inheriting countless certainties through hundreds of denominations and thousands of traditions. Blindly inheriting certainties as certainties short-circuits God’s intention for us to grow into the actual certainties he intends for us to claim, clouding our spiritual minds with dogmatic positions on superfluous issues that render our faith mute and our certainties many. Blindly inheriting certainties also places us in a religious camp amidst a cultural war that relies on certainties for ammunition and conversions for combatants.
Consider a faith that begins with nothing, no certainties, and is matured exclusively through what is revealed in Jesus through scripture who peels away layers of distracting certainties to reveal a God who loves us and wants us to love each other. I have a feeling that if this is the first certainty we embrace, subsequent certainties will be tempered and measured against this, and the student in my office, and my own heart, may be less troubled when other matters of faith and doctrine are challenged or destroyed.
My own life and ministry echoes the words of John Wesley, the iconic minister and servant, who said “When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me.”
So, we join with Wesley and petition God to continually reveal Christ to us, maturing us to only necessary certainties needed to love God and love each other more fully and completely. Of this I am becoming more certain.