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Going Beyond Certainty

This Sunday was our All-Music Service, so instead of a sermon I gave a brief introduction to the topic of Going Beyond Certainty and then read a few quotes from different authors.

Certainty is comfortable. But when you really think about it, how much in life can we really be certain of? I couldn’t be certain that I’d be alive again this week to talk to you. I can’t be certain that we’ll play the songs right. We can’t be certain that everything we have planned for today will go exactly as planned. COVID taught us that we can’t even be certain that the world won’t shut down for something unexpected. Goodness knows we can’t be certain about the weather! Death and taxes… I think that’s the saying… those are the only things we can be certain of.

To go beyond certainty means we let go of the belief that we have all the answers, we open to the mystery in life, we cultivate an open mind, a beginner’s mind, allowing that there are still things we can all learn. To go beyond certainty means we’re willing to let go of our death grip on certain ideas and let in the possibility that there might be other ways of looking at things – no matter what they are.

I was a rotten debater in high school. I was supposed to argue for one side of a case, right? I was supposed to convince the judge that my certainty in my case was real and could be adopted. But I’d hear the other side speak and I’d be like, you know, that’s a really good point…

Uncertainty was not my friend in that case. I didn’t win a lot of debates. But I’ve learned that when I can embrace uncertainty, I’m more flexible in the face of the unexpected, more open-minded to new ideas, more curious about new experiences, less afraid to go beyond the safe confines of what I know and have done.

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“After all of these years of being broken open by loss and love and life itself, I still resist the river of change. Whether is it something going on in my personal life, or at work, or in the world, I still instinctually tighten my grip when things feel out of my control. But that’s okay. I’m used to the drill. Something I didn’t want to happen, happens. I feel the resistance build within. I feel the pressure to control what is obviously out of my control. I become aware of what I’m doing – I become aware of the choice either to break down or to break open. I take a deep breath, uncoil my body, and stretch out on the river of change. Once again, I accept that life is uncertain – that the goal is not to become more certain about anything but to relax more into the mystery of not knowing what will come next. And then, miracle of miracles, out there in the deep and uncertain water, I come into a peaceful knowing – a faithful wisdom that surpasses control and certainty.” (Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open)

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Bishop John Shelby Spong tells a story about an Episcopal Church outside of Louisville, Kentucky, about 20 years ago that had a study group that was reading books that appeared to challenge what some in leadership there called the “true faith of the church.”

Turns out they were reading books by Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, Rowan Williams and Karen Armstrong. Keep in mind that Marcus Borg was a well-published Jesus scholar who was teaching at Oregon State University and was married to an Episcopal priest, and an active Episcopalian himself. Elaine Pagels was a professor of religion at Princeton University, whose books were regularly on the New York Times bestseller list. Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was liberal on social issues, but conservative theologically. And Karen Armstrong was a former Catholic nun and one of the most well-known religious writers in the world.

Well, the priest issued an ultimatum to this group, saying, in effect, “From now on, you must read only the books which we, the clergy of this church, assign and approve” (which, of course, were all traditional, boring, party-line Christian authors (not necessarily scholars). And, if they wanted to keep meeting in that church, they would have to be monitored regularly and perhaps even by led by one of the priests in the church. And if they didn’t like it, they could leave. The creeds of the church, he asserted, cannot be debated since they represent the faith that has been once and for all delivered to the saints. The group chose to leave.

Spong said what amazed him most was the “implication conveyed by the clergy of this church, who appear to define themselves primarily as the “defenders of the faith,” that the Christian faith can be and has been reduced to a set of propositional statements delivered to human beings by divine revelation. Perhaps it was even more incredible to [him] that they assumed that their finite human minds could define the reality of God and that their definition was ever afterward not to be subject to debate or change. 

“Our understanding of God and God are never the same.”

(John Shelby Spong, Sins of Scripture)

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This lack of consensus and proof should give us pause when talking about transcendent matters, but just the opposite is true – we are never as dogmatic as when we speak of God, despite our broad ignorance of the Divine. I say this not to be insensitive, but to point out the obvious – the fact that there is such wide disagreement about God can only mean that if some people are right about God, a far greater number are likely mistaken. Given this reality, shouldn’t God be approached with less certainty and more open-mindedness? Shouldn’t our approach to God be marked with a level of humility that reflects the vast gulf in our knowledge? But when the chief aim of religion is indoctrination, then humility, enlightenment, and open-mindedness fall by the way. (Philip Gulley, The Evolution of Faith)

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"Be patient to all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Resolve to be always beginning – to be a beginner!” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke 

Love & Light!

Kaye