Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dogmatic Certainty

The following was a spoken message at West Hills Friends Church, given on November 10, 2013.

I’d like to open with a quote from the influential evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Mark Driscoll:

“There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left.  Some emergent types want to re-caste Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair who drank decaf and made pithy zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes.  In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand, and the commitment to make someone bleed.  That is a guy I can worship.  I cannot worship the hippie, diaper-wearing, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.  I fear some are becoming more cultural than Christian, and without a big Jesus who has authority and hates sins as revealed in the Bible, we will have less and less Christians, and more and more confused, spiritually self-righteous blogger critics of Christianity.”

This kind of statement is fairly representative of what I call dogmatic certainty.  I was raised in it.  Maybe you were too.  For the believer who has certainty, there is truth, and there are lies.  There are truth-holders, and there are those who are intentionally trying to squash the truth wherever it’s found.  Certainty allows a person to not only proclaim that something is true, it lets them bellow it with conviction, as if the truth of the statement is so obvious that any doubter must be unintelligent. The person of certainty generally doesn’t care about history, tradition, or scholarly research.  It is from the bowels of certainty, or perhaps to compensate for uncertainty, that fundamentalism emerged, and with it, the unfortunate doctrine of Biblical infallibility.  Biblical infallibilists believe that the entirety of the Bible is true and without contradiction or error.  Largely developed by evangelicals in the 1970s, infallibilists spend enormous amounts of time attempting to show that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, verse sequences like the following are completely in harmony with each other:

Proverbs 26:4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Proverbs 26:5: Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
1 Corinthians 14:33a: For God is not the author of confusion

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has this to say about the supposed lack of contradictions in the Bible:

“In Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.”  In Mark, he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Did he say both things? Could he mean both things? How can both be true at once? Or is it possible that one of the gospel writers got things switched around?”

I’ve yet to figure out the purpose of holding a certainty-based doctrine like Biblical inerrancy.  If God is both real and alive, is it worth abandoning one’s intellect to try to make 66 books written over a thousand years by mostly unknown authors line up perfectly?  Is that the point of Christianity?  Are we talking about a faith system or a simple algebraic equation?

Just as religious certainty squashes civil conversation and ruins relationships, so does non-religious certainty.  Consider this quote from atheist biologist Richard Dawkins.  Consider if you, as a theist, would feel comfortable discussing your beliefs with him:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, blood-thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously  malevolent bully.”

I looked up a few of those words.  Filicidal means someone who kills their own son or daughter. Pestilential means someone who tends to produce pestilence.

By stating his opinion with so much bile, Dawkins eliminates himself as a conversation partner, hurting the listener, and his own cause in the process.  Maybe atheism is true.  Plenty of smart people lean that direction.  But to exhibit so much certainty about a position that is at least a simple lack of belief, and at most an aggressive reliance on an unproven negative, is to place conviction above evidence, and superiority above a relationship.

Very recently an evangelical pastor staged a conference whose goal was to announce that members of the charismatic traditions of Christianity are going to hell because they violate the Bible’s oh-so-clear admonishing that speaking in tongues is the work of the devil, and blasphemes the holy spirit.  Ironically, it was Mark Driscoll, lover of the sword-swinging Jesus, who showed up to conference intending to pull the charismatics out of hell.

So if we shouldn’t display our beliefs with dogmatic certainty, what should we do? After all, for many people, their faith is their most cherished possession.  I’d ask you to consider the times in your life when someone has impacted your life by a display of their faith.  Did they persuade you with logic or reason?  Did they dismantle your doctrine detail by detail, and replace it with their own?  I’m guessing that’s not what happened.  For me personally, my opinions on theology haven’t changed in years.  What has changed is my attitude towards people of faith, and towards certainty.

When OneGeorgeFox hosted a lesbian Christian singer in Newberg last year, I went as a supporter of the effort to influence the school’s policies towards LGBT people. I went in spite of the group’s Christian motivation for wanting the policies changed.  After the show, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since graduating from Fox 10 years prior.  She asked how I’d been, and I explained that I hadn’t been back to campus since 2003, and that faith and I parted ways a long time ago.  My friend is a very faithful person.  She might be the most Jesus-centric person I know.  But her response to hearing of my atheism wasn’t to challenge my conclusion.  She simply said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

I didn’t know what to say.  At that time in my life, I wasn’t used to being treated like a person who is separate from my ideas.  What Kim communicated with those four simple words is that I matter more than my doctrine.  What she said was not a logical proof.  It wasn’t a Biblical retort or a defense of her Quaker beliefs.  She was putting her faith into action, omitting the text of her faith in favor of the love that inspires it.  And she didn’t know it, but she crushed the way I viewed religious people.

My view of religious people changed a little more the first time I visited West Hills six months later.  After the awkward hymns and sermon with science fiction references in it, Kathy Edge stood up and expressed a very real sense of doubt.  I don’t remember the details, but at that time, it was possible that aspects her faith system were useless and wrong.  She said it out loud, and she sat down.  No rosy platitudes about how everything happens for a reason.  And nobody rushed over to make sure her doubts weren’t really all that serious.  They were, and that was ok.  Because in this place, faith really is faith.  And with faith comes the possibility that we’re wrong.

By definition, faith goes beyond what we can prove.  By definition, faith is a hope that beyond all the miserable stuff that we can be certain about, there might be something better, and just maybe we’re better off hanging onto that hope than clinging to what little certainty we can justify.  Faith is tenuous.  It comes and it goes, and it does this without our permission.  I hope that those of you who have it can recognize how fortunate that makes you.

When we converse with others, let us speak with curiosity instead of certainty.  Let our actions demonstrate that we might be wrong, and we know it.  Let us put people before doctrine, and love before creeds.  Let us remember that people aren’t changed by challenges to their pyramid of things that are true.  People are changed by being shown, not told, that there’s a better way to be.  And finally, let us seek the truth together, confident that even if we never find it, the search will have made our lives more fulfilling.

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