What if I told you certainty was a prison, and we lock our beliefs and our selves and our lives inside of it? What if I told you our one chance for redemption is rotting away within the prison cell of our certainty? Would you rattle the bars and clamor for a jailbreak? Dr Kelly Flanagan
Certainty is awfully dysfunctional. Safe, yes. Secure, yes. But it can tear up a life—and a world—one dogmatic belief at a time. “Certainty is perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt”(Wiki).
Faith in contrast to certainty is a journey of experiences and unkowing. The notion that you can know 100% the will of God, is absolute arrogance. In fact that type of certainty will blind you like it blinded the apostle Paul. Faith and truth is not about right or wrong its about curiosity and humility.
“The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks. ” Stephen Batchelor
I have a love hate relationship with certainty. Growing up in a Christian fundamentalist cult, the best and worst of life was certainty. We had the truth. We were the chosen of God. We knew, lived and breathed the immutable and literal word of God, and from this grew our certainty.
Life was black and white, right and wrong, yes and no. It was very simple very safe but there was absolutely no grey. In fact it is the safest way to live because you simply follow the rules and you are guaranteed a life of acceptance and eternal rewards.
The problems begin when you cross the certainty of fundamentalism. For those who are not aware, fundamentalism refers to a religion that believes in the strict and literal interpretation of the scripture. Also scripture is used as a weapon to beat you into submission or terrify you into doing ‘the right thing’.
Shall I give you some examples?
This was a conversation with a fellow cult attendee about a mutual lifelong friend who had tried to leave the community because their new job meant they had to move to country Victoria. It was a 100 min drive each way to attend the weekend services so they had decided that they might ‘try’ and attend a local church. This was WRONG on so many levels as she was abouta to find out.
This was the message from her church community:
1: A tree cannot be uprooted, so if you leave the felowship, the end result will be that you will wither and die.
Scripture Weapon: Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, they shall grow like the cedar in Lebanon.
Interpretation: You are planted here. If you uproot yourself you will die. The courts of our God refer to us – THIS fellowship. Only the righteous flourish, if you uproot yourself then you are not righteous, you are following the devil.
Result: The person quit the job. Took a posittion with half the annual wage they deserved. But they did they right thing in the eyes of the fellowship and in the eyes of God, therefore they would recieve reward now, acceptance from the group, and eternal reward later for obedience to Gods word.
I had recently given birth to my third child. My husband and I were reeling from his cancer diagnosis. I was not feeling well. I had low mood, was fatigued and crying a lot. I was struggling and didn’t know what to do.
I made the huge decision of making an appointment to visit my GP without permission. This meant that I didn’t tell my husband I was going, nor did I consult with those who ‘had authority over me’.
My doctor told me that it was normal for me to be feeling like this considering the circumstances. That I was probably suffering from a bit of depression. He wrote a script for a low dose of antidepressent and asked me to come back in 4 weeks.
This is what happened.
I felt so guilty by the time I returned to pick up my daugher after the appointment, I automatically confessed to my cult mother the minute I walked in the door. I confessed that I had just been to see a GP about my inability to feel joy. This is what she said to me.
“What is God telling you about this event Lisa?”
Like a good cult girl I parroted Psalm 1:1-2
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night”.
Her response: You have been to recieve counsel from the ungodly instead of going to one of the elders or myself AND you did it in secret which proves how decieved you were. “For God will bring every deed into judgment and into the light, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil”. (Ecc 12:14)
I was obviously not able to fill the script or obtain the medical help that I needed. Instead as punishment and as an act of contrition, I was to meditate on the word of God day and night for a month and memorise scripture. I also had to confess to my husband and to our local leadership that I was disobedient so that they could give account for my life.
One last example – and I have hundreds.
After my husband died of Melanoman, I met a man who was not a member of the cult and who I eventually married. We have been married to now for 19 years. It was in those early years of navigating that new realtionship that my ‘certainty’ began to falter.
I was told that “I could never pursue a relationship with that man and to end it immediately”. I was 37 years old. I replied with “but the bible says that a widow is free to remarry as long as the man is “of the Lord”‘ (or provided he is a Christian). I replied with, he is a Chrisitan, he is a Baptist. However, because he did not attend our cult he was dismissed because he “was not of the Lord”. In other words, you are not a Christian unless you attend the cult. Obviously in pursuing this relationship and by disobeying the ‘messengers of God’, I was given an ultimatum. End the relationship or leave the fellowship. I chose to leave and was subsequently excommunicated. A story for another day. A very sad and horrific example of certainty.
You may think that these examples are extreme. Actually this was a very normal part of my life. The cult spoke into every area of my life and freely exercised control in every area of my life.
I did not know how to make any decision for myself. At 37 when I had left the cult I clearly remember having a panic attack when my eldest child asked to go on a school camp. His first high school camp. This was a new situation and I didnt know what to do. I went to pick up the phone to ask the elders for advice, but of course I had left. I had no access any more. I had to decide for myself.
You may think that this sounds insane and it is. But this was my normal. It was a very safe way to live in the fact that everything was clear cut. As long as you obeyed, your life was perfectly sweet.
My son went to the camp and was totally fine of course. Had I still been in the cult he would most likely have been forbidden to attend because he would have been unduely exposed to ungodly influences.
These are extreme examples and my experience would sit on the far right of the fundamentalist continuum. However, when I left the cult and began to attend a large penticostal mega church, the behaviour was similar but no where near as extreme. They held very conservative fundamentalist views and were pretty intolerant to anyone who did not fit into that belief system.
For example: I was told that gay people were free to attend our services but they would probably feel a lot more welcome if they went somewhere else. They would be welcomed but never affirmed and they would never be allowed in any leadership role. In other words, politically we have to say that we love them, but we will never accept them. This conversation was had with a very prominent leader.
Fundamentalisim can only rely on only itself for confirmation. (When you are convinced that you know God’s plan, what other confirmation do you need? What other voice will you even listen to?). When you have a Christian leader telling you that God told them this about you or that God has told them that you should do this or that to do, it is very hard to disagree. Now I would suggest that this is spiritual abuse. At the time I did not know any different. The arrogance of certainty dismisses any other view or idea because they are 100% right. How can you disagree with God? The arrogance of certainty leads to a religous dogma that is inflexible and innacurate. Ninety percent of the time the interpretation and context of the scriptures used are wrong anyway.
We must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As Dr. Bronowski eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.” Simon Critchley
It has been 20 years of unlearning for me and then more learning. I now fall fairly strongly on the liberal side of the religious spectrum; the side that is attracted to ambiguity and allergic to certainty. I find that with certainty comes arrogance and intolerance. Eckhart Tolle says that when you become comfortabe with uncertainty, infinate possibilties open up in your life. I have found that the more I learn the less I know.
It’s why the pursuit of curiosity is so much more integral to a healthy faith than the pursuit of certainty. When we’re curious… when we allow ourselves to ask questions and wrestle with big ideas and tough issues, even if we don’t ultimately reach a final conclusion the journey of exploration is still beautifully formational. It still leads us to new growing edges and new perspective of new truths we otherwise would’ve never encountered. Rev. Rob Carter
I have never felt more whole and inspired than I am now being free to wrestle with tough issues and to walk with uncertainty and doubt. It is harder yes…. and it is a little scary at times but it feels more peaceful and well ….just right. I now have language and vision for so much that has happened to me. I have skinned knees from constantly falling but I have learned my truth myself. I am most certainly more tolerant and tolerable than I was.
When I think of how I used to be… Oh My Goodness. An unbending, self righteous, prudish, know it all who had no grace and no tolerance toward anyone who was not ‘one of the annointed of God’. I must have been unbearable and insufferable. I had an answer for everyone and every answer was 100% right because it was founded on the word of God. (I think I just vomited in my mouth).
I finish this post with a description of faith by Dr Kelly Flanagan. Because I love it so much and I couldn’t have written it better if I tried. Trigger warning….. it’s not a bible story. Gasp…
“We were designed for the ground but, like birds, our beliefs were designed for the air—to flit from treetop to treetop as we chase them from below.
“The most beautiful beliefs are rarely caught and grasped, constantly chased, and in the chasing they draw us into new and better places we never would have discovered while clutching them tightly in the safety of our homes.
I think this might be what many of us call faith—the chasing of beliefs through the treetops, eyes raised, looking up into a big-unfettered sky. Stumbling and tumbling into a bigger and more beautiful world than we ever imagined was possible. Tripping and falling and skinning our knees and getting back up again, because the chasing is even more important than the catching.
A people with belief like this—a people holding it gently and releasing it again into the wild—becomes a gentle people.
Because when we can hold our beliefs gently, we can hold ourselves and other people gently, as well“. Dr Kelly Flanagan
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL.
Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York