Exaggerated Certainity

I keep bumping into people who want to off-load their certainties on to me. Although it seems a habit of religious people, it is there in many facets of life. It is the expectation that you will join others in understanding and interpreting the world from inside of their stereotypes. Religious people root their certainties in their understanding of God and then use that understanding to justify why they can be certain about so many aspects of faith, order and morality. In the face of such certainty it often feels that to have a faith, but to disagree or question such certainties is to be cast as ‘wishy-washy’, liberal or lacking in faith.

Yet can the possibilities of God be packaged in such constructs? Can the God who inhabits all the complexity of humanity and the outrageous imaginative dynamics of cosmology be contained within a certainty constrained by the limitations of human experience and understanding?

During the Lambeth Conference I was able to come close to a number of Bishops who professed certainties. One of the benefits of spending an extended amount of time with them was to discover that their certainties were not nearly as clear-cut as they initially appeared. Belief is held within context and is cradled by many factors – some personal, others cultural or political, whilst others are the pragmatics of belonging to a particular grouping within the church. As I came to understand their certainties I realised that there were exaggerated by the factors of personality, affinity, culture, mission, context and history.

Exaggerated certainty can become a public expression of faith, which suggests that such certainties are far more robust than they really are. Yet upon such exaggerated certainties so much conflict and division have been founded. Today I came across a memorial near Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire erected to the p1000651memory of protestants who had been burnt to death in the sixteenth century (and for two of them their children were compelled to light the faggots). They had been executed for wanting religious liberty and the right to read the scriptures. They had become victims of exaggerated certainty, with politics and power providing the exaggeration which enabled such actions in the name of God.

Whilst we can be certain of the love of God, certain of the forgiveness which flows from that love and also certain that the God we meet in Jesus is outraged about injustice. We have to be wary of the kind of certainty which is used to justify division and conflict in the name of a God who blesses the peacemakers – certainty of this kind may well be an exaggeration which takes us away from the God who invites us to have faith enough to explore the possibilities of his love.

4 Responses to Exaggerated Certainity

  1. David Swannack says:

    How true!!! We live in a world where bigotism and arrogance mask themselves as religious certainty. And yet it has to be said that the world is desperate for some ‘solid ground’ in a world of shifting sand! Talk to most of Gordon Brown’s ‘hard working families’ about certainty and they will snatch our hands off for some security. What an opportunity that we must not miss as Church! However, Bishop Tom Butler’s comments on Radio 4 on Tuesday echoed the same thoughts:”I’m disturbed by those who have terrible doubts about religion but I’m even more disturbed by those who have terrible certainties.” We must base our message on absolute truths that will rescue people: His character, love, forgiveness and redemption.Many of us from a more conservative tradition would do well to remember the words of Kierkegaard: “We are saved by our faith, but it is our questions that save our faith”.

  2. Brian Baker says:

    Thank you for this excellent essay. The religious and political divisivness in the U.S is tragic. David Swannack’s comment reminded me of Fredrick Buechner writing that, “Doubt is the ants-in-the-pants of faith.”

    Brian Baker, Dean, Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento, CA

  3. […] can read it all HERE.  The first comment is also […]

  4. John Habgood once asked whether our contemporary lust for certainty wasn’t a sin…

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