Many conservative Evangelicals would no doubt say that they are certain that they are right about faith. In this, they are missing something very important: faith and certainty are not the same thing; in fact, faith and certainty are opposites. Faith is not necessary if one is certain of anything; it is being uncertain that requires faith. So the tendency to want to be certain—about moral behavior, sexuality, politics, points of doctrine, apologetics, science (or lack of value thereof) is not a marker of faith; it is antithetical to faith. If one needs all of those things lined up in order to be “right” in the faith, then what they are becoming “right” in is not faith, but in the need to be in control.
Frankly, whether we want to admit it or not, we are all living every moment in a place of not-knowing anyway. We are truly certain only that we will die; pretty much any way in which we affirm life in the face of this fact is an affirmation of faith. Certainty is an illusion, and a dangerous one. When we think we need to be certain of the truth, we tend to use that “certainty” as a weapon against those who do not see things the same way we do.
Recently a friend of mine, who is a pastor in a small town, told me the story of a local funeral done by another pastor. The funeral was for a man who had taken his own life. For some reason, the pastor conducting the funeral found it necessary to tell the assembled mourners that people who commit suicide always go to hell, and so the man whose life they were remembering and supposedly celebrating had obviously be sent to a place of eternal torment.
This is unimaginable to me.
How could any human being who is not a psychopath, anyone with even a shred of empathy, ever do such a thing? Even if it was his private conviction after deep study and theological reflection, how could he possibly consider that making such a statement at a funeral was appropriate, much less necessary?
If I could ask the pastor such a question, no doubt his response would be along these lines: it is his responsibility to “speak the truth”—the Bible makes that clear—and thus his duty is clear. He would be flinching or shirking or allowing false doctrine to dishonor God by not telling those assembled the plain, unvarnished, “truth” of the situation.
I would counter with this: Jesus made it clear that the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor. Even if you think that it is necessary to tell such a “truth” out of your duty, it cannot be considered a mark of loving God or loving neighbor. In fact, it is clearly, patently, obviously a very unloving act toward all who were gathered in their time of need. No amount of theological sophistry can make such an action a loving one. The pastor’s “certainty” has no doubt multiplied the pain already being experienced by the mourners, and is likely to increase their alienation from God and from the Christian faith, instead of bringing them closer to grace and peace.
As I have grown older, my sense of certainty has dramatically diminished. Fortunately, my need for certainty has also diminished, or I would be the most miserable of mortals. My certainty about scripture, for example, has been boiled down to that one sentence from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And just in case we want to argue that “truth” is also essential, Jesus adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Any word of law or voice of prophetic “truth” must be filtered through love.