Thursday, February 26, 2015

Progressive Christianity: Certainty and Doubt

I found this on a couple of websites that advocate for Progressive Christianity:

By calling ourselves “progressive” we mean that we find more meaning in the search for understanding than in the arrival at certainty; in the questions than the answers.

Ben Corey agrees with at least the basic thought here. So, he spends a chapter on it. He really doesn't like the idea of a Christian being certain when it comes to the faith. For Ben, there is an important role for doubt instead of certainty. Here are some quotes from that chapter, 'Undiluted Tension' in his book Undiluted.

Jesus didn’t intend much of his teaching to be always clear, black and white, or even easily understandable — he intended much of it to be complex, obscure on the surface, and something that invites us into undiluted tension instead of an idolatry that becomes our own certainty.

… religious teachers … craved a type of black and whiteness that could be applied in cookie-cutter format — not a faith that invites one into tension and uncertainty.

Ben spends a good bit of time talking about that father who cried out to Jesus, 'I believe; help my unbelief'. He comments,

What is often missed in this scripture story is that when the man was able to openly and authentically be real about the tension of faith and doubt, it allowed him to have a relational encounter with Jesus that actually strengthened his faith.

Ben would rather that Christians experience a sense of tension between belief and doubt. Certainty is something to be avoided.

I think that he has some good reasons to reject certainty, or at least the kinds of certainty that he is reacting to. I think that he nails it when he refers to 'the idolatry of certainty that so many of us have grown accustom to'. For so many evangelical Christians it really is a matter of idolatry. And there are reasons why this is the case. Here's another quote where he refers to the faith he used to have.

Mine wasn’t a faith of mystery, tension, or confidence with doubt, but was a faith that thought it had the mysteries of God completely figured out. On one hand, there was no fun in a Christian faith that had answers for everything — but it was safe and comfortable, at least.

'Safe and comfortable.' And that kind of faith is important for so many because if there is one thing that we Americans have been taught to strive for it's control. We don't like loose ends or bits of unknown. Who knows when some surprise might jump out at us from one of them? So, for the sake of safety and comfort the goal is to have everything under control. And when it comes to Jesus that means understanding Him so well that there will be no surprises from Him either. The idolatry of certainty.

And so, as Ben continues to describe his life before,

In time, I realized that my hope, trust, and previous faith had all been rooted in the securities of my answers, instead of the security of Jesus.

And that's where the real issue is. Who or what will save us from all that threatens us? Is it our own ingenuity in figuring out all the questions or will it be Jesus? And as someone learns what it means to trust Jesus alone to save, he will have to agree with something else that Ben wrote.

Instead of trusting in our answers, we’ll find that we’re forced to begin placing our trust in him. Instead of relaxing in the security of our knowledge, we are forced to find peace simply in following him the best we are able.

The problem with that, of course, is that it's scary. Things are not under control, at least not under our control. We actually have to trust someone else to have everything under control. And that just seems wrong to so many these days.

All of this helps to explain a sobering problem within too many evangelical churches. There is no mystery. All the mysteries of God are figured out. And we are certain that they are. But where there is no mystery there is no wonder. So many Christians are just not amazed at God. What I'm talking about here is more than being 'amazed' at God finding your lost keys or curing your cold in time for some important date. I'm thinking about being amazed at God because of who He is and because of the very strange and surprising things that He does. There is no wonder because there is no longer any mystery. We think that we have Him all figured out. How sad.

So, I'm really with Ben as he points out what he is rejecting: the arrogance of certainty, the lack of mystery, the demand for safety and comfort, the idolatry of it all. I'm totally there, right alongside him with a hearty, 'Amen!'

But …

I have to say that I don't think his suggested solution to the arrogance of certainty is the best option.

Jesus never wanted us to have canned, prefabricated answers for every issue — he wants us to wrestle with the complexity of his message over and over again, until we are able to hold truth in tandem with tension. Truth must be held humbly next to the same hand that holds our doubt.

I'm fine with the rejection of 'canned, prefabricated answers for every issue'. And I'm even good with the need 'to wrestle with the complexity of his message'. After all, the complex problems that sin brings into the picture will require complex answers. And they aren't arrived at easily. All of that I agree with. It's the theme of doubt that I have reservations about.

As I mentioned earlier, Ben spends a good bit of time on the story of the father who came to Jesus because of his demonized son.

The man in the story tells Jesus, “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” in a beautiful example of what it means to wrestle in the tension of faith — believing, but still needing help in our unbelief. Understanding, but still needing help to understand.

So far so good. But there's a problem when Ben writes,

When he asks, “help me overcome my unbelief,” he opens the door to begin experiencing God at work in his life, and opens the door to a relationship that can bring peace and hope amid tension and doubt.

The words matter. The father doesn't admit to doubt. He admits to unbelief. They are not the same. Belief isn't about a response to a concept. It's about a response to a person. It's a response to Jesus. Jesus has presented Himself as someone who can heal because of the power of God. The father believes that - and doesn't. He believes Jesus, and he doesn't. The failure to believe may be because of doubt. That wasn't the case with the Pharisees, but it may well be the case with this father. But his unbelief, regardless of its cause, is still an affront to Jesus. It's saying, 'I'm not sure You are who you say You are. I'm not sure that I can trust You.' Jesus is very gracious to this father. He accepts what little belief he has. But that does not change the fact that his unbelief an offense to Jesus' person. It's sin, something to be repented of.

Consider the case of Thomas, yes, 'doubting Thomas'. When he hears that the other disciples have seen the risen Lord what does he say?

Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.

This doesn't make him 'doubting Thomas' but rather 'unbelieving Thomas'. When Jesus shows up how does He deal with Thomas' unbelief? He doesn't commend him for holding truth in tension with doubt. He doesn't even talk about doubt. He gently rebukes Thomas and tells him what he should have done at the first.

Do not disbelieve, but believe.

Regardless of the cause, Jesus confronts and corrects Thomas' unbelief. He tells him not to act like that again.

You will never find within the pages of Scripture any call for doubt. It is not a virtue, but rather, in that it shows itself as unbelief, it is a sinful insult to Jesus who is the Truth. It is something to confess and repent of so you can be forgiven.

So, we have Jesus saying to a sinking Peter,

O you of little faith, why did you doubt?

And then, to the Twelve,

Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.

Doubt is a problem and not a virtue. There will be those who do doubt, something that will show as unbelief - and which of us has never been there. But Jude tells us what to do with such people.

And have mercy on those who doubt.

That's what Jesus does with that father. In mercy, He heals the man's son. But I'm pretty certain that after that if the father were confronted again in a similar situation there would be no, 'I believe; help my unbelief'. Jesus had given him good reasons to jettison that unbelief. Doubt has been banished.

So, what about certainty? Is every kind of certainty wrong? Is it possible to be certain without falling into the sins of idolatry or control or any of that? It must be. Scripture talks about things to know, to be certain of.

I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. Jeremiah 24:7  

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:13

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 1 John 4:16

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:68-69

There are things to be known, to be held with certainty. Sadly, there are some who hold to these truths, who are certain of them, but do that arrogantly. How is that possible?!? But it is. The power of sin. But those who have even a little inkling of what it means to know Jesus and what it means that He is for us are deeply humbled by that knowledge. And that's what we have to aim for. Humble certainty.

And out of that humble certainty will come the attitude that says, 'There are things that I know, but there are lots more things that I don't. And even what I know has been a gift of God's amazing grace. He has surprised me before, and He will surprise me again. And when He does I'll have to adjust the things that I know. But in the meantime, so that I can follow Jesus well, with love and joy and humility, and help others to do the same, I am going to hold on to and proclaim these things that I know.'