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.