Saturday, September 15, 2012

Certainty and Its Dangers

How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? (Proverbs 1.22)


What makes certainty dangerous is that we seek—and find—it in all the wrong places. Wherever we encounter a patch of gray, our hard-wired survival instinct immediately compels us to transpose it into black-and-white. We formulate an opinion and block out any possibilities there might be another answer, or many answers, to help us decipher what we’re looking at. We crave certainty, because certainty makes complexity simple and simplicity aids decisiveness. And after we distill complex challenges and situations down to a chosen response, we underscore our certainty by claiming it’s “the right thing.” Put that way, craving the reliability and comfort of certainty sounds foolish. Laughing at other possibilities seems reckless and unwise. And in Proverbs 1.20-33 (Sunday’s Old Testament reading), we’re explicitly told such stratagems are indeed foolish, reckless, and unwise. 

In my own life, the tension between craving certainty and living with uncertainty has been most strongly felt in my faith. I come from a tradition that prides itself on iron-clad certainty based on a literal reading of sacred texts and a definitive theology that orders everything in life, from the workings of the cosmos down to minute moral dilemmas. When the need to find community among accepting, supportive believers drew me to the Reformed tradition, I experienced genuine culture shock. I’d never heard ministers and theologians confess they didn’t have all the answers. I wasn’t accustomed to people questioning the validity of Iron Age concepts and customs. Where I came from, one didn’t complicate matters by asking questions. You accepted everything the Bible says as written (based on your reading of it) and you called that “the truth”. Such an approach raises a really big question, however, and introduces an elephant to the room that one must choose to ignore.

When we rely on certainty that reduces everything to black-and-white, we remove faith from the equation entirely and settle for human religion. It’s taken me years to detect the inherent contradiction in professions like, “I know without a shadow of a doubt.” Removing doubt’s shadows—or refusing to acknowledge them—erases any need for faith’s light, a dangerous proposition by any measure, as it diminishes the Holy Spirit’s power to speak to us in new and relevant ways through God’s Word. We must be unwavering in what we believe, but we must never confuse faith for certainty. That’s when we find ourselves reflected in Proverbs 1.22: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

A Cautionary Tale

Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 8.27-38) spins a cautionary tale about certainty’s pitfalls. Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi, a Roman outpost not far from Galilee. Everywhere they look they see temples and altars erected to pagan deities, and the sight of such religious diversity may be what prompts Jesus to raise a question out of the blue: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples rattle off a list of names they’ve heard associated with Jesus: John the Baptist, Elijah, and other famous prophets. Then Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” All of them, save one, don’t know what to say. Only Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” (v30) In Matthew’s version, his certainty is rewarded. Jesus ordains Peter as the founder of His Church. But we see something very different in Mark. There is no praise for Peter’s certainty. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about Him. And in short order, we see why this is.

Jesus explains what being the Messiah will entail—and it’s nothing like the picture Jewish teachers have conjured up based on literal reading of the Prophets. There is no divinely ordered coronation in Jesus’s version, no overthrow of oppressive regimes, no end to violence and political strife. In fact, what Jesus describes is the exact opposite of what the disciples expect. Verse 31 says, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This rocks Peter’s world. His black-and-white certainty is suddenly blanketed in shades of gray. He pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Him! Jesus turns and looks at His followers, as if to say, “Watch this,” and blasts Peter in return. “Get behind me, Satan!” He hisses. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (v33) In a mere three verses, certainty downgrades Peter from a divinely inspired confessor of Christ to a foolish simpleton. He scoffs at the idea of Jesus’s death at the hands of the very people who, according to his understanding of Scripture, should hail Him as the Messiah. He rejects the knowledge Jesus lays before him, that death is not the end of the story. Christ’s power will be revealed in bodily resurrection—a concept so alien to Peter that he finds it intolerable.

Nothing’s as Simple as We’d Like

After this decidedly uncomfortable exchange, Jesus calls the crowd around Him and issues a startling edict: “If you want to become My followers, you must deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow Me.” The context is plain. Self-denial in pursuit of discipleship begins by letting certainty go and following Christ by faith. It’s simply not essential that we know the workings of our faith without a doubt. Indeed, from Peter’s example, we learn that certainty is faith’s enemy. It can only entertain possibilities that agree with its limited understanding. It wants to simplify everything so that every detail in life is predictable and clear-cut. And that’s not how God works in the world or our lives. Peter is right to proclaim Jesus as Christ. Where he goes wrong is to confuse faith for certainty, to embrace a set of human expectations of how things should be at the expense of trusting God’s supreme knowledge of how things are.

We can’t know everything for certain and we won’t. All we need to know is that nothing’s as simple as we’d like it to be. What seems laughably absurd to us is serious business to God. And, as Proverbs says, we hate knowing that, because it jettisons us into gray patches that resist black-and-white reasoning. Not having answers is the cross that we, as followers of Christ, must bear. But thanks be to God for all of life’s gray areas and the myriad questions we can’t definitively resolve. Without them, we’d have no need for faith and the wisdom to accept what we can’t possibly understand or explain.

Without questions and doubts, faith cannot exist.