Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Faith and Certainty

Katie at Cognitively Dissonant provided a link to this article by David Mills on the difference between liberals and conservatives in the Church.

Right away, the Liberal-Conservative/them-us mindset, glossing over a continuum to turn it into a dichotomy raised my hackles. So, it came as no surprise that Mr. Mills used John Spong as the poster boy for liberals on his way saying why conservatives needed to get them out of the Church.

Now I'm no friend of Bishop Spong, but I recognized myself in the worldview Mills was aiming at, so I thought I might weigh in on the matter.

Mills writes:

Liberals ... believe that truth evolves and grows and changes, or at least that our understanding of truth evolves so radically that earlier certainties may be replaced by new and contradictory truths.


If they are right, those who cannot or will not ... risk the loss of all certainty ... who want to hold to the plain meaning of the ancient texts, and who rely on the Church’s tradition to tell them what it says, cannot be allowed to define the Church’s doctrine and discipline.
At this point, I think he's already missed his mark. While he has made a valiant effort at understanding "the liberal worldview" and even attempts to account for a range of liberal positions, I think his own worldview has blinded him to something essential.

Speaking now just for myself, I do not believe that truth "evolves and grows and changes." I would say that "our understanding of truth evolves" but I would not say that the consequence is that we must therefore replace old certainties with new ones.

In fact, I would claim that this whole "certainty" business is the root of the problem. I am not asking conservatives to "risk the loss of all certainty." I am telling them that like it or not, there is no certainty -- never was and never will be. Hence, faith.

I am convinced that faith has more in common with doubt than it does with certainty. I trust in the promise of God. I rely upon it. I stake my life on it. But I can never treat it as a dogmatic fact. I don't sit in that seat. We have the treasure of the Gospel in clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:6-7).

What might surprise Mr. Mills is that it is precisely because of this uncertainty that I lean as heavily as I do on the traditions of the Church and on the Scriptures. I do not hold either to be inerrant or infallible, but I fully recognize my dependence upon them, and I recognize that whenever I question them (which I must) it is at great hazard.

When the disciples saw the risen Lord, they worshipped and doubted (Matthew 28:17). This is the nature of the life of faith. If we were on this path alone we would be doomed to certain failure. Thanks be to God that we are not.

Episcopal priest John Sewell raises the point that the word "heresy" comes from a word meaning "to choose". He suggests that the problem with ancient heresy was not simply that the heretics were wrong, but rather that they insisted on reaching for dogmatic certainty where they should have been content with mystery.

"The heresy," Sewell says, "is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable."

If we must draw an us-them division within the Church, I would draw it between those who are willing to live with uncertainty, and those (both liberal and conservative) who are not. But I'd prefer not to draw the division.

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