Big Buffalo Bills fan here. I follow other sports but the Bills are the only team I stay current with every day.
There have been a couple of occasions over the years when someone who didn’t follow football described the sport as ‘a bunch of overweight men falling on top of each other’. It was said somewhat in jest, and to some degree I guess it’s true. But it was obvious the person had no idea of the complexity of what happens on a football field.
To a disinterested observer most sports look silly. A cricket match looks terribly disjointed to me (I’m not even sure it’s called a ‘match’). I have often wondered how confusing baseball must seem to a first time observer with its odd shaped fields, invisible strike zones, play outside the lines, and spitting.
That is true of most things: simple in one sense but hiding layers of more. I can pick up a leaf, shrug my shoulders, and accurately describe it as a leaf without knowing anything about its complexity at a molecular level. Digging deep into biology, music, mechanics, time, technology, and most anything else can easily turn my cerebrum to spaghetti. (Wanna have fun? Read up on ‘quantum entanglement’ and sit with it for awhile.)
My point is, there is always more.
It’s a human thing, I guess – we grab an idea, a doctrine, a tradition, and clench it so tightly that we crush it into an atom of absolute certainty. Oddly, our certainty is open to a multitude of counter-certainties.
Certainty is okay in one sense, I suppose … ‘standing firm’ and all that. But to be certain should require more effort than some ‘feel-goods’ or believing it’s so. We mustn’t assume that our view is the universe’s final vantage point.
Consider the level of certainty in the mask/vaccine misinformation that takes centre stage these days. There is very little understanding from either side that the vaccine doesn’t provide 100% protection.¹ When it comes to abortion, socialism, immigration, gun control, and a host of other issues, there is rarely inquiring, nuanced discussion.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the world of religion. Charismatics and liturgists, academics and mystics, denominations and doctrines – all offer their own certainties.
But certainty is a form of legalism; rule-keeping without freedom.
The history of christianity is strewn with sincere people who held widely divergent views. The earliest christians spent a lot of energy disagreeing about what they could agree on. To this day there is no final certainty on atonement, our destination after death, future of the earth, biblical canon, miracles, inerrancy, the practice of church, and much more.
The problem is that the church is an institution and the purpose of an institution is to preserve itself. Remaining solid and confident is a great way to keep it all in place.
Unfortunately that is not the edgy, agile, sacrificial church Jesus proclaimed. It’s better to hold our certainties with open hands so we are available to receive new learning and experiences.
here’s where I talk about me
At some point in the early 80s I went though a prolonged period of spiritual searching. I had been raised in the christian faith but I couldn’t reconcile many of its beliefs, teachings, traditions with my brain or my experience. ‘Born again’ seemed beyond me. It was bad enough that the usual answers weren’t finding a home in me but to make matters worse, I was going to hell – that seemed certain. But I couldn’t do anything about it because it just didn’t jive with me.
On my way to work one night I was feeling particularly despondent. As the car made its final turn, my mind seemed to resolve and, as I glanced up at the sky, an unexpected prayer suddenly rushed out of my mouth.
“[God] I don’t know if the things I’ve been told are true or not – all I can do is try my best to follow you.” It was a messy prayer from a desperate heart. In my confused mind I was already condemned but I had no other option.
In the next weeks I would ‘find God’.² Something worthwhile came out of all my wrestling and I promised myself that never again would I let christian absolutes steal my faith.
A decade-and-a-half later I found myself in another chapter of life. I was sitting in a seminary classroom and the theology professor was passing back a recent paper I had written. It was a small assignment: a short opinion paper on any subject of our choosing, using the Bible as our primary resource.
Since it was based on our opinion, I decided to stick my neck out and write about something that had been bugging me for years … hell. Or to put it more succinctly, I questioned its existence and how a loving God could torture people forever. Perhaps it was because of my earlier experience or perhaps it was simply a logical conundrum.
In the end I received a good grade even though the professor couldn’t resist some red-ink comments, none of which were especially complementary … or compelling.
I don’t know
As I’ve said, religions are especially adept at providing simple answers to complex questions and expecting everyone to dutifully agree. Our beliefs have been pre-interpreted for us with absolute certainty by religious professionals. We’ve been told what the answers are and what the questions will be. In fact, you may have been taught that someone like me is a wishy-washy relativist.
The christian I am now has radically different beliefs than the one who prayed that prayer on the way to work many years ago. Since then I’ve continued questioning, wrestling, learning, pondering, praying. On the other hand I still have plenty of uncertainty and much exploring and changing to do. It’s just how I’m wired, I guess.
I’m even less certain who God is because, who can comprehend something incomprehensible? Yet that God feels awesome, closer, more trustworthy, and I still try to let the Spirit affect my becoming.
Certainty is a healthy stage of life but it is only a stage; doubt, exploration, and wonder are stages too. Whether it’s quantum physics, the Bible, or the leaf I mentioned earlier, there is always more for us to consider in God’s fullness.
If you’re dissatisfied, and don’t ‘fit in’ with the confident christians around you, that’s good. God created you to move beyond certainty, even if some christians don’t agree. What they don’t understand is that you are not trying to escape truth but are hungrily searching for it.
Don’t stop. Don’t lock yourself in. Don’t arrive. It is God’s Spirit that is prompting, nudging your restlessness. A stream is a lovely place to pause but there is much more worship and wonder in the endless rivers, lakes, and oceans it leads to.
I have always needed more than easy answers. I’m thinking you do too.³
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¹ Vaccines are 80-90% effective (not 100%) at protecting against serious illness or death. In other words, only 80% of the population is 80% protected from life-threatening Covid-19. This is why layers of protection are still recommended: vaccine + masks + distancing + ventilation, etc. The more people who participate in all the above measures the lower the danger for all of us.
² Or had God been there all along?
³ If you have a question you would like me to explore in this blog, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your name will be kept in strict confidence.