The Sin of the Certain: Introduction

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Well it may be the rain and gloom of late November or the dull ache of a low attendance Sunday following Thanksgiving (expected but never welcomed) or it might be stumbling across yet another well-written though less well-reasoned argument against the “Christian” religion; quite likely it is all of these and a few more factors combining to put me into the contemplative funk that requires written expression. And now that I am here I know that just possibly I will discover a relief not born of resolving any issue, but because I have engaged in the exchange of ideas without fear but with the humble confidence that openly confesses both faith and logic.

I am not rock-solid certain of much. That which I claim to know and choose to believe is limited to a few axioms, what one of my good friends would describe as “rudder guidance” for my life. The top three ideas are these: (1) God exists and though I may struggle to understand him I did not invent him. (2) God loves the world and God loves me. (3) God will make a way no matter what wilderness I am passing through.

Everyone must operate by faith, to one degree or another. It is part of being human. But we are also created (there I go with another faith proposition), we are made by God to probe, to seek, to explore, to learn, to grow, to question. We are made to engage our world, our history, our future, our very existence with vigor and an expectation of discovery. And that fact alone is enough to cause us to wonder.

Elie Weisel once recalled a childhood story that illustrates the beauty of our created nature. When he was a boy returning from school his mother would ask him daily: “Did you have a good question today?” I like that because his mother got something right concerning our humanity. We are always learning, never stuck, never frozen in our convictions to such a degree that there is nothing left to explore.

The reality, however, is that there are those around us whose faith propositions have solidified into certitude. For them there is, about God, no question anymore. And that is why I began this blog in the first place; it is for the rest of us who desire for logic, reason, and faith to co-exist. Nevertheless those who have their minds made up fire off their certainties like shells from howitzers aimed at those hunkered down in the trenches; those of us who can still question and seek to know and understand God. When I use the term “seeking” it is a direct reference to the admonition of Jesus who said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.”

“There is no God,” and “God is ____ and wants you to do ____,” are both statements of certitude. The Atheist and the Fundamentalist actually have something in common. They have both taken faith propositions and made them unalterable, unquestionable fact. No further exploration is possible or desirable. Now the fact that those of such certain ideas believe diametrically opposed things and are motivated by the notion that if only everyone else would agree with them then the world would be a better place means they think similarly. You see, they know, they are certain, and for them there are no more questions. In their eyes you must be stupid or immoral or both to openly wonder.

That there are those like these, and in increasing numbers it seems, should compel us to ask why. Why now are we being stressed as perhaps never before by polarizing voices claiming to be absolutely certain? I think the answer lies in the vast changes that have altered the course of human history. To note an illustration think how the invention of the printing press changed humanity. Prior to the mass production of the written word most people could only receive their religious information through sermons, morality plays, or even stained glass windows that told the stories of the Bible. Guttenberg changed that. As literacy rose with the availability of books and pamphlets, the world dramatically changed. The Protestant Reformation is but one example of when an invention prompted vast cultural advance.

Now we have a new and even bigger change upon us. The personal computer and the internet have created a huge explosion in communication. Much of it is good and helpful, but some has been dangerous and destructive. Bad ideas, twisted facts, and downright lies move with impunity down the information highway. This is not the only reason, but it is perhaps the most important reason why we are being shaken in every institution, including religion.

It is a natural response in times like these for people of religion to retreat into fundamentalist propositions that cannot be questioned or even altered. Those who attempt to question, to rethink, to reformulate, to re-discover will inevitably be branded as heretics capitulating to “modernity.”

Another response is like fighting fire with fire. It says, “I’m certain that your certainty is wrong.” “You say you believe in God and know exactly what he is like, what he thinks, and what he demands in every case and I respond with my certainty that there is no God.” This illustrates the irony. There is a direct correlation between the rise of religious fundamentalism and the rise of aggressive atheism. Remember that atheism is the conviction that there is no God. Agnosticism, on the other hand, is the doubt that there is no God, but the agnostic does not take the absolute, certain stance of the atheist. I say that because the agnostic is welcome in the trenches with us. As long as there is a seeking after truth and a humility that acknowledges the place of faith and wonder, then I feel we share some common ground.

The entries that will follow this introduction will be designed to try to make some sense of the intractable arguments of the Certain. I will argue for a reasonable faith, but also a growing one that can engage the reality of the changing world with fresh hope from an ancient faith. That faith was never stuck in the mud, but brave and bold as it ventured forward to know God better and to seek his Kingdom. It was always changing and still is. I believe God remains the same, but we are still developing. Life in the trenches is the in between where we can question and grow and embrace faith in new ways. The first chapter will address the way the concept of inerrancy has and is making this whole discussion far more difficult than it should be.

 

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