I like certainty. When it comes to life’s detail, I don’t care for the open-ended. I prefer decisions made and plans settled. What’s more, I’m a sucker for those who speak with clarity and conviction. Why, then, do I react so strongly to a particular certainty in belief? Why do I resist those who claim a singular authority in religious faith or political ideology?
Late last year I sat with a small group of Christian leaders. Our task was to share the ‘values’ that undergird our ministry and the nature of our ‘authority’ in leadership. When my turn came, I said something about my values including room for conversation, difference and doubt. As for my authority, I thought it came from my ability to listen for the questions that life presents and to discern the truth amidst them. As I spoke, the man next to me shifted in his seat. Clearly he was agitated. Before I could finish, he blurted, “What a load of tosh!” The group flinched. Tosh? It was so long since I’d heard the word, I was more baffled by it than I was by the force of his voice. “What your people need from you, brother, is a man who knows what he believes.” He leaned forward. “All this talk about doubt and difference and discerning truth …. we have the truth. For God’s sake, preach it!”
All tosh aside, he had a point. The truth of God in Christ is not up for grabs, not for me anyway. There is a certainty in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” that sits beneath me in ministry. But this certainty is never one that precludes the possibility of questions left hanging or of truth discerned in unexpected places.
There is a brand of certainty alive today that renders everything black or white. It’s a certainty that repels doubt and, most tragically, refuses to listen. It’s as though all questions have simple answers and, once answered, cease to be questions. In my experience, though, there are questions of faith that never get answered, not completely. Besides, I’ve always thought questions worth having are worth keeping.
An unflinching certainty can be harsh, even ugly. At its worst it’s demonising, excluding, superior and humourless. I remember when living in the States reading the words of a retiring Baptist journalist who said this: “One of the most frightening things about the so-called new right and, for that matter, the new left is … the absolute humorlessness of their crusade. There is something scary about the crusader who is never for a moment aware of his shortcomings, the partiality of his insights, the finitudes of his being, the actual narrowness of his angle of vision.”
I feel the same. When there’s no place for the possibility of error, negotiation or compromise, what’s left is scary: I know and you don’t; I’m right and you’re wrong.
I must be what Patrick Henry labels an ironic Christian; one who has an “abiding suspicion of no-loose-ends answers.” I do have this instinctive sense, and a lifetime’s experience to back it up, that life is always more complex than straightforward, more nuanced than obvious, more fraught than simple. What’s more, there is something compelling about the virtues of gentleness and humility that speak with a certainty all their own.
“To be both ironic and Christian,” Henry says, “is to know, with a knowing deeper than doctrine, the simple, unnerving truth that the visage of faith is not the happy face but the masks of comedy and tragedy, alternating, unpredictably, between laughter and tears, sometimes crying and laughing at the same time, or even, on occasion, crying because it’s so funny and laughing because it hurts so much.”
Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World, Riverhead Books, 1999.