Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Danger of Certainty

Christian writer Annie Lamott wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certainty. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he hates all the same people you do.”

In a world where so much is uncertain many people long for clarity and certainty, and religious faith can indeed provide that certainty in significant ways—the certainty that we are loved, the certainty that our lives have value and meaning, the certainty that nothing of ultimate importance can ever be taken from us, even by death.

But Annie is talking about a different and far more dangerous form of certainty—the certainty that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong. That kind of certainty inevitably leads to intolerance, and a faith that preaches hatred or intolerance is no longer faith. Healthy faith fosters attitudes of respect, appreciation and cooperation between persons of other faiths, even while we “agree to disagree” about specific truth-claims. A friend of mine, the former pastor of a fairly conservative Evangelical church, enjoyed a close friendship with his Muslim neighbor. Some of his colleagues challenged him for sharing a friendship with a non-Christian. He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Well, clearly one of us is wrong about Jesus.” They maintained their friendship for years, learning from one another and discovering how many values they held in common. Wisely, the left it to God to sort out which one of them was “right” and which was “wrong.”

Rigid, intolerant expressions of faith are almost always rooted in a narrow, literal interpretation of that faith’s sacred scriptures. I want to be careful here: not everyone who reads scripture literally is narrow-minded or intolerant. I am speaking of a “my way or the highway” interpretation that turns sacred scripture into a weapon employed to attack persons who read those same writings differently or who center their life in a different set of writings. If humility is indeed one of the greatest virtues, it seems to me that religious people should be sufficiently humble to admit that we cannot always be certain we are interpreting our sacred scriptures correctly. If we are to err, we should err on the side of the universal teachings of religious faith: kindness, compassion, justice, mercy and love. As Martin Luther once observed, “Even Satan can quote scripture to his own purposes.”

So be wary of anyone who claims to have no doubts that his or her interpretation of faith is absolutely correct. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Canadian pastor who was challenged to summarize the entire message of the Bible in a single sentence. He thought for a moment then offered this: “I am God and you are not!” Because we are not God – not even close – we are limited in our wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Which means that we should be slow to judge others, or to claim exclusive ownership of the truth.

No comments: