50 Longing for certainty

One of the issues that Chris brings up in my conversations with him is the way that vulnerable people look to the church for certainties.  They have good reasons to hope to find certainty, because that is what the church in many situations seems to be offering them.  The lure of belonging to a church which purports to have these certainties is very seductive.  If someone, the church leader, has the ‘truth’, then I am safe.  There is the unspoken message that this same church leader will negotiate on my behalf all the difficult questions of life and allow me to feel protected and safe with God for all eternity.

The downside of all this certainty is that the individual, by handing over his thinking and his critical processes, has given away too much.  The situation of handing over this level of power is that you become vulnerable to being exploited in a number of ways – emotionally, financially or even sexually.  That people remain in this kind of toxic situation for any length of time is a possible indication of one of a number of things.  One is that their level of ‘need’ was acute when they joined the group.  They may have come out of a situation of domestic or personal chaos and the order and stability of the group was just what they needed.  More typical would be a deficit in their relationships, whether through isolation or breakup.  The religious group appears to fill that empty space and their experience of  well-being rises.

For a period of time all is well.  The individual with strong social needs achieves an equilibrium within the group together with a sense of meaning and direction.  Why would anyone want to disturb that apparent harmony?  The first reason for disturbing the harmony is the potential for abuse as I mentioned above.  I don’t want to develop that point here but rather talk about another aspect – the intellectual problems of this search for certainty.  It was Bishop Richard Holloway who said when talking about the meaning of faith, that its opposite is certainty.  He was saying that certainty is not a Christian value at all and that is not what he finds in the Scriptures.

There is a passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (ch. 11) where the author asks the question, ‘what is faith?’  He answers it with a brief definition,  ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for’. Then he goes on to give examples from the Old Testament of the heroes of faith and what they had done to express this facet of personality.  The typical exponent of Old Testament faith was of course Abraham.  The quality of his faith led him to leave the place where he lived and wander about, ‘not knowing where he went.’  This simple phrase ‘not knowing’ is perhaps indicative of why pilgrim Christians like myself do not deal in certainties.  Even though, as I indicated above, there are many people who long to have certainties because of their own personal needs, that does not make it right for leaders to promise them.  Superficially, the church that promises certainties is stronger and more attractive than one who offers the uncertainties of the search for truth.  But in pointing to that ‘unknowing’ journey there is no disempowerment, no control or any other of the infantilising aspects of many authoritarian churches who deal in certainties.

My ability to explain why I want to remain in the area of mystery and not knowing everything is, of course, no help to many of the people that Chris encounters.  Their need for reassurance in the midst of their vulnerabilities still remains acute.  To quote Bishop Holloway at them is not going to sort out any of their problems, even though I believe that he is completely right to make this contrast between certainty and faith.

The answer to this conundrum is, I think, to see that the level of wanting certainties is a stage in a process of growth.  It may sound condescending, but I think it would be right to see the demand for certainty as the demand of someone who lacks maturity both in faith and also in life.  All of us would deal gently with the young, immature or vulnerable.  We would also recognise that the stage they are at is not one where they should be left for any length of time.  Just as it is a failing on the part of a parent to try and stop a child growing up and leaving home, so it is also a failure to leave a Christian at the first stage of learning and discovery.  There is a fascinating passage, again in Hebrews (ch. 5), when the writer compares the sharing of milk with the sharing of solid food.  Milk is for the young while solid food is for those who are mature.  The Hebrews writer believes that his audience are still at the milk stage and not ready for solid food.

The conundrum which we have outlined over the contrast between faith and certainty may perhaps be resolved in this way.  Certainty may be appropriate for a short time with those who have started on the Christian path.  But as part of the path to a greater maturity, a Christian teacher should encourage his pupils to see, quite soon, that the dealing with the reality and mystery of God involves us letting go of the crude certainties that we were given as children.   The word ‘children’ might apply to anyone who is starting off to understand the Christian faith whether as actual children or as adults.  But what is appropriate to the child is not appropriate to the mature.  The mature Christian person should be able, like Abraham, to continue the journey of faith without knowing the exact route.  He or she will have many internal promptings of the spirit to help him decide that the path he is on is one that makes sense and will ultimately lead to deeper and deeper discovery of God and his will for their lives.

The Christian people that I admire in particular in history are the martyrs.  They were a group who were known for their faith.  This was expressed in them as a fearless openness to the reality of God and an enormous courage in the face of pain, loneliness and death.  Obviously there is a lot we do not know about their inner motivation, but the fearlessness of a St Perpetua faced with the horrors of the Roman arena is moving.  What she had and what we all should seek, was not a certainty or a truth statement but an encounter with a reality of God to which she responded with her openness, love and faith.



About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “50 Longing for certainty

  1. Thank you for this, Stephen. I do agree that the journey from certainty to doubt is a most important one if we are to develop into mature Christians, despite the fact that it is counter-intuitive. I wonder also whether it explains why the Church is dying? What I mean is that my generation of those over retirement age were taught to respect authority and not to challenge or question. The current generation is (consciously and correctly in my view) being taught to challenge and question everything and everywhere you look you see a disdain for authority and a contempt for ‘the establishment’. So maybe the route that has traditionally been from an acceptance of what we are taught into a gentle questioning and finally into robust challenging, is one that no longer works? I certainly have found that I have spent most of my retirement so far studying theology, and it has taught me one thing for sure – the more I learn, the less certain I am about anything. Curiously, I am very happy being in that place of uncertainty. I wonder what the others who follow this blog think about this subject?

  2. James. Thank you for this comment. You will have noticed that I did not in fact use the word ‘doubt’ though no doubt it is close to what I wanted to say. The word I was looking for is a word that encapsulates what the Biblical word ‘faith’ is all about. A fearlessness, an openness and a sense of adventure towards the real combined with a sense of constant questioning. The other point that is relevant to the post is that I can see that this kind of ‘faith’ arises more easily from a place of confidence and personal well-being than in the context of vulnerability and poverty of mind and spirit. In short being ‘liberal’ and having this kind of ‘faith’ makes more sense to the secure middle class than elsewhere. I don’t know the answer to this conundrum but state it just the same. You talk about the leisure to read theology. This is not an option for many of the people that I would love to reach with this blog. We may never in fact achieve this but writing these posts may help someone somewhere to engage with making the Christian message mean something without taking away the integrity and power of those being drawn into faith.

    The other question I have to ask is what the Church will look like when this revolution of questioning everything has worked its way through. Meanwhile this blog is identifying areas where quite the opposite is the case. There are still quite large swathes of church life where questioning and discussion does not happen. Obedience and conformity are still the pattern in many churches up and down the land. Do you agree with this?

  3. The way I see it is that, ‘certainty’, especially the kind of certainty that I was ‘Shepherded’ on, carried a demonstrative wave of authority with it.
    As far as I can make out Stephen is attempting to divorce this man made certainty from what has been called; ‘Revelation’? The trouble with this in the mind of abuse victims is that they immediately start to doubt the existence of God! Why?, because the theatre of repetitious church/fellowship activity has left them disempowered and in need of constant support or (that horrid word) ‘nurturing’. My concern for this blog is that the reality of Stephen’s ‘faith’ and experience of God may at times move dangerously close to Don Cupitt’s “Non Realist God”.
    Don Cupitt caused a lot of confusion with his 1980’s Tv series (I would say Show!) ” The sea of faith”. I would urge the supporters of this blog to think of a way to bring the liberating things that Stephen is attempting to communicate into non threatening language to abused evangelicals and others? This is a vexed and agonizing area to contemplate. When I was a card carrying evangelical I actually looked forward to death. Post that ‘Certainty’ I now have an extremely morbid fear of death that consumes me! I am only one among thousands experiencing these shadow boxing fears. God help us! Is there a way forward? PEACE, Chris Pitts

  4. Thank you both for your challenges. I agree with your concern about the word ‘doubt’ Stephen, because it tends to imply you don’t believe in anything, but I do like Tennyson’s quote that ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.’
    I am reluctant to answer your question, Stephen, about whether obedience and conformity are the pattern in many churches. Joining in a debate like this inevitably leads to generalisations, as you yourself have pointed out, but nonetheless I honestly haven’t seen enough churches to know how common this is. I have no doubt that it exists, but I also hope that the huge majority of churches in this country are rather more inclusive and rational? I would like to think that the minority makes noise out of proportion to its number?
    Chris is, I believe, properly challenging us over an important issue, ie how do we bring our ‘liberating message’ to the abused in evangelical churches. I have read everything Stephen has said with care, and nothing he has said alarms me, but I have read stuff coming from ‘Progressive Christianity’ which gets perilously close sometimes to sounding as if they have no faith in God or Christ, or anything. But it is true that once you start to challenge, where are the rocks to cling to? If this is what Chris means, Stephen, how do we answer him??
    Finally on one other point, I would not expect there to be more than a tiny minority who would ever want to study theology, and I know Stephen that people from the backgrounds that Chris talks about would find this absolutely impossible. But the challenge would seem to be how we who do study theology can connect with them. In the commercial world, I was always taught that you had to be able to summarise what you were ‘selling’ in a few short memorised sentences. Our world seems to be full of people whose sentence would probably be something like ‘Christians believe that when you die, if you’re a believer you go to heaven, but if you aren’t you’ll burn in eternal hellfire.’ If I’m right and this perception of Christianity is deep in the public conscience, how do we get it out, and what do we try to replace it with? And if we do replace it with something, are we then as guilty of ‘indoctrination’ as those who we are criticising on these pages? Help, please

  5. So many big questions! I do wonder how many people in this country would summarise Christianity as you suggest, how many would think also or instead in terms of the Christian Aid slogan “we believe in life before death”?

    “Where are the rocks to cling to” inevitably leads to the thought that Jesus Christ is the only Rock. Questioning who he is can be very painful and disturbing, if also necessary at times. If one loses sight of the Trinity and the Incarnation, however you want to understand that, I think you have to accept that you will be stumbling on alone and making it up as you go along. Maybe there’s no harm in spending some of your life like that – I have. It has left me with plenty of tolerance for living with not knowing the answers and accepting that other people live according to different world views, faiths and religions.

    One alternative might be the kind of combination of certainty and uncertainty suggested in Newman’s hymn “Lead, kindly Light… lead thou me on. Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.”

    Or again, maybe those who claim to love both Biblical truth and dogmatic certainty, should recognise the message Paul is trying to get across about seeing “through a glass darkly” and knowing “only in part”. I think it’s significant that he makes these strong statements in the context of his hymn to the primacy of Love.

  6. Thanks James , Thanks Haikusinenomine, Yes, If we can use scripture to reach these abused people then we are at least in with a chance.
    “We see through a glass darkly” is a really good example.


  7. A lot of people do want certainty. People think if we’ve been exploring Christianity for 2,000 years, we should have the “right answer” by now. Sometimes “I don’t know” is just not accepted as a good answer. I have a science degree, and I’m fine with it. It’s a sound academic position. And of course, less cerebrally, people want to feel safe. It doesn’t have to be just people with special needs. Quick sound bite? Very good point. Worth working on.

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