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CERTAINTY

One of the taunts hurled at traditionalists by the “left” is that they deal in certainties. It’s not a new taunt. When I was in pre-theological college some forty seven years ago, one of the tasks of the staff was to undermine the “certainties” of those from both Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic backgrounds, although strangely not the certainties of theological liberals.

Now there’s nothing wrong in getting people to think. In fact it is an essential process in studying any discipline, sacred or secular. In the process there’s the hope that the disciple will learn or re-learn the tools of scholarship, among which is the critical faculty and the ability to examine sources one against or with another.

So how may anyone be sure of anything? For a Christian, what we call faith and what we call obedience play a pivotal role. Neither faculty is particularly popular in modern Western culture. Faith looks a great deal like gullibility and the idea of obedience triggers pictures of that sort of servility which has enabled dictators and even popularly elected politicians to drag populations into savage wars and economic and political deprivation. As Sir Isaiah Berlin warned, democratic majoritarianism can be as repressive as dictatorship. Blind faith and obedience has led and still does lead people who profess a religion to engage in horrifying acts of cruelty and repression. Such behavior on the part of religious people seems more horrifying than that of those who follow dictators or violent revolutionaries; although in both cases it might be valid to assess the culpabilities and obsessions of the followers rather than solely the brand label they advertise. .

If we all decided to approach life in general and what we used to call “disciplines” with unwavering cynicism and nonconformity nothing much, from cooking to nuclear science would produce anything new. A deliberate attempt to undermine and reject the knowledge that we have inherited undermines even the most radical thought and process. It leaves the individual in a self-centered and self-validating void even if he or she surrounds themselves with an enormous crowd of supporters. Being certain that there are no certainties is a form of certainty.

These thoughts came to mind today, the Feast of Hilary of Poitiers as I read the collect. It includes this striking prayer: “Keep us steadfast in that true faith which we professed at our baptism.” There it is: faith and obedience. In context, Hilary’s caring and gentle defiant opposition to the Emperor’s espousal of Arianism points to the fact that our church has its certainties and gently and caringly invites our obedience. It does so, in the Sacrament of Baptism in the Prayer Book rite, by inviting all including those to be baptized or their proxies to affirm the ancient Apostles’ Creed – a table of context to biblical and ecclesial “certainties” – and other points of Christian doctrine and discipline. In the Episcopal Church these are in some manner fleshed out in the Catechism which is legally part of our church’s doctrinal formularies or statements.

By “certainties” it is not meant that they constitute something akin to a scientific “theory” for no one may know the mind of God. Rather they are reliable signposts pointing towards God and away from notions that obscure and therefore harm. No Christian dogma or doctrine is an exhaustive statement. Our Orthodox, with a big ‘O’, friends remind us of that. Rather they point us into the mystery beyond our understanding. If we were capable of understanding God in Trinity, we would be on the ‘intellectual’ level with God in Trinity.

It is one thing to approach reverently and with the full use of the reasoning faculties God gives us this incompleteness, our “knowing in part” as we gaze at puzzling reflections in a mirror, and quite another to line up that which we have promised to believe in with other disciplines and areas of knowledge and pick and choose our authority to make religious decisions and draw religious conclusions which overthrow that which the church teaches.. Indeed when we so do, it seems that we are often prepared to place our faith in and obedience to the source we have decided to be “certain” than we do to the mystery of believing. We do so either because our new “authority”, note the word, is modern, or because its conclusions validate and justify our own and liberate us from aspects of our faith we find intolerant, bigoted or unloving. (Some of the people who trumpet some aspect or other of doctrine, discipline and worship may well be intolerant, bigoted and unloving. Other may be tolerant, open to all and extraordinarily loving.)

Yet what we have done, rightly or wrongly is place our faith in and our obedience to a “certainty”. It then boils down to a debate about whether there is an inherent authority in those things the church has deemed to be “necessary unto salvation” those things to which we gave our faith and obedience in our baptisms, or not. If the words of the Baptismal Covenant, the words of the Catechism, the Creeds, the Bible read to us, by us and for us at every liturgy are merely what our Puritan ancestors called a “dumb show”, then perhaps we should be done with this mummery and join the Unitarians. Certainly we shouldn’t be suggesting that those who take their promises seriously should go away and leave TEC to the rest!

Now it may be, and probably is true, that fundamentalist and Roman Catholic converts to Anglicanism don’t understand what we mean by faith and obedience. They have divorced a controlling spouse only to continue the fight with their new one! In the process they have made spouse number 2 –many of us – begin to believe either that we really have the same personality as spouse 1, hidden under a layer of patience and tolerance, in need to reform ourselves, or that spouse 1 really had a good insight into the character of their mate! Anglicanism needs to be taken at face value, warts and all, and not in the context of or in reaction to other expressions of Christianity. To do so needs more than a cursory and contemporary study. Unfortunately for so many of us we can dismiss the past and its people easily under a number of headings. Then there’s only “now”, only what I think, and those who think like me, as I pick and choose, with the best of intentions ways and means of facing the terrible things which need changing while striving to have an optimistic and sin-free analysis of people and culture.

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