16 October 2008

Faith and certainty

Today I stopped by our beloved branch library and picked up a copy of Chris Hedges' I Don't Believe in Atheists. Most of my friends would probably classify Hedges as a liberal, which is not altogether unjustified, but how many liberals are this blunt about sin?
We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgment that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in our species. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human. These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.

We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril. Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed--though not equally flawed. Sin is the acceptance that there will never be a final victory over evil, that the struggle for morality is a battle that will always have to be fought. Studies in cognitive behavior illustrate the accuracy and wisdom of this Biblical concept. Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive. This understanding of innate human corruptibility and human limitations, whether explained by the theologian Augustine or the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been humankind's most potent check on utopian visions. It has forced human beings to accept their own myopia and irrationality, to acknowledge that no act, even one defined as moral or virtuous, is free from the taint of self-interest and corruption. We are bound by our animal natures.
After I got over my minor irritation over the corruption of the word "fundamentalist" (which among Christians once stood for a fairly precise theological position that did not necessarily involve the arrogance and narrow-mindedness the word now implies), I began thinking about Hedges' first implication, that belief or lack of belief in God has, by itself, negligible social impact.

I think I know what he means. He doesn't deny the impact of great religious prophets--he cites a string of Christian heroes, including Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. However, he would also assert that Christianity has no monopoly on such heroes, and in fact some great moral heroes had no overt religion at all. He doesn't (at least so far) provide a comparative census (how many heroes belong in the Christian camp, the Muslim camp, the atheist camp, etc.)--but his argument doesn't depend on statistics. He's saying that religious faith as the sole category of analysis isn't a predictor of whether a person is to be "feared," despite the charges of the "new atheists" (Dawkins, Hitchens & co.) that religious faith is a malevolent social force.

Instead, Hedges fears the sinful power of certainty in the social arena. And it's a legitimate fear. The inward certainty of a powerful intellectual or emotional conversion, presumably, is one thing. Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, among many others, both tell stories of having to come to grips with doubts before being able to move forward with courage; they reached a measure of certainty that empowered them for their public ministries. I had to make a decision to trust Jesus without reservation before I could overcome the principal block to faith, which was my deep and angry suspicion of all authority. However, that inward certainty may or may not lead to certainty of action--particularly of categorical and coercive action in the social arena.

Certainty is a slippery quality. In my experience, it comes and goes--and returns. More importantly, it is relational rather than operational: I can be certain that God wants the best for you and me, and that God will be with you and me as we work for that best, but I'm hardly ever certain about what concrete steps to take next. For that decision, I need a mix of intuition, prayer, plain secular fact-checking, the wisdom of others, and a willingness to risk being wrong.

Is this kind of "provisional" certainty debilitating for social action? Can great social movements be propelled by leaders who are modest and self-consciously fallible? I don't object to a leader who competently communicates a powerful vision and tries to persuade me to sign on. For me, the most basic red flag is how leaders see their opponents. Do they objectify those who don't agree, those who stand in the way, and even those they seek to convince? Do those leaders try to apply scary categories, emphasize how alien the "enemy" is?

The rest of us need to wrestle with certainty, too. "Fundamentalist" leaders, religious and atheist, will rise up despite eloquent authors' warnings, but maybe our message can empower ordinary people against falling for the charms of their certainty. My understanding of Christian Quaker evangelism is that we proclaim a different kind of certainty--not that we evangelists have the whole story, not that we can do the thinking for you, not that we have a great plan for your life summarized in this brief tract, but we are certain that you are made in God's image, and you already have the capacity to become aware of that image, that Light, in you. It is not an issue of whether our Light is better than someone else's. Instead, if we trust the Holy Spirit and the promises of God, our sole responsibilities are to invite you to turn to God for inner confirmation of God's already-existing constant and loving invitation, to tell you our community's resources and experience in accepting that invitation, and extending our community's hospitality as we together (jointly, humbly, imperfectly) try to work out together the awesome implications for ourselves, each other, and the world. Don't you think this kind of inward convincement might inoculate us against the claims of overconfident, presumptuous leaders?

Our resources as a community are not modest. They include the Bible (which is utterly trustworthy when we don't wield it with inappropriate certainty), our history of discipleship as a faith community, and the diverse gifts present among us today--especially when we use them with mutual forbearance and a respectful division of labor. Given all this, it's hard for me to understand why we Quakers sometimes seem so collectively timid. For example, I really thought that when Friends United Meeting formally joined the Christian Peacemaker Teams, we would significantly increase their enrollment, and it was sad to read this past week that CPT closed their Hebron program for lack of workers. [Note: It did reopen, and I served there in 2019.] We Friends need more certainty, less diffidence. But maybe it is a different kind of certainty, because too often I've seen evidence that we feel superior, less evidence that we expect God's promises to the world to be fulfilled through us.

Later in his book, Chris Hedges repeats some powerful historical arguments against Christian pacifism. However, his indictment of pacifists is almost the same indictment made by Quaker writer R.W. Tucker (see "What are we afraid of?"). The kind of pacifism that George Fox advocated did not depend on the kind of optimism Hedges condemns, but on a certainty that doesn't blink in the presence of sin--an awareness that we are peaceable soldiers in the Lamb's War under the captaincy of the Prince of Peace. This is a kind of certainty that can be deployed with humility and a crucial awareness that the war is not just outward, but inward. When we "get in the way" alongside Christian Peacemakers, when we refuse to pay war taxes, when we publicly resist objectifying those who are "different," when we rise up against unjust wars and counsel conscientious objectors, and when we evangelize with integrity, telling people the whole salvation message (not just its individual dimension) AND inviting them to experience the message in community, I think we can make "certainty" both modest and powerful.

(part two; part three)

Righteous links: The Obama corner .... Is Barack dull? ~~ Barack's 20-year-old good deed, in English and Norwegian. (Thanks to Kathy Torvik.) ~~ More on Barack Obama overseas: Readers of the Russian-language Washington ProFile bulletin voted 61-39% that Obama would be "better able to exercise a positive influence on relations between the USA and the countries of the former Soviet Union." And here's an unrighteous link: several Russia online media sources used this terrible Reuters photo of John McCain (first in gallery). Who at Reuters thought this was a usable photo??

Paul Krugman explains, in plain English, the work for which he received the Nobel prize in economics. ~~ Andrew Sullivan writes a candid and useful piece on "why I blog." I don't have the time or drive or freedom to post several times a day, as he does, but in my own modest once-a-week fashion, I scratch a lot of the same itches. ~~ Never in my memory have the USA media so UNDERreported a Canadian story: the country had a NATIONAL ELECTION THIS WEEK! ~~ Christian Peacemakers continue their important ministry in At-Tuwani. You can download a report at this site. I have mixed feelings about the format of this report (are bar charts really the most effective or credible way to deliver this data?) but have no doubts that the report deserves attention.

Considering the state of the world, I am still certain that I'm advancing the right kind of music in these entries--the supremely evocative form known as the blues. Especially today's clip. Alice Stuart sings, "I'm going to show you more money than Rockefeller's ever seen." Well, at least I'm not claiming certainty about that.


Anonymous said...


Yesterday my Buddhist neighbor Sally asked me if I believed in evil...she's on the fence I suppose...after reading this I'm tempted to pose the question What would happen if folks didn't believe in evil (sin)?

Your thoughts about certainty remind of an essay by Peter Berger, Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty (link below). He has some useful ideas about the impact of certainty on congregations, and 2 very useful phrases: "epistemological modesty" -- and my personal favorite, "uncertainty-wallahs."


Johan Maurer said...

Warm thanks to both of you for the kind words and the reference.