Not too long ago, I got shot in the chest. I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car, and a woman stuck a gun through the passenger window and demanded that I give her all my money. She seemed extremely nervous, so I tried to calm her down and assured her I had no problem with giving her my money. She kept looking behind her, as if she was expecting someone to sneak up on her. I handed her my money, she looked over her shoulder one more time, and then pulled the trigger. It felt like someone threw a hot bowling ball at my chest. I looked down and saw blood start to expand around a little hole in my T-shirt, and I thought, “Oh my God. I’m going to die.” I started to feel very cold, I heard myself stop breathing, and then everything went black. And I died. And in that dark silence, the last thing I thought before I woke up was, “I wonder what’s going to happen next….”
That dream really shook me (and it wasn’t just because I watched the movie Dreamscape too many times as a kid and sort of suspected that if you died in a dream you would die in real life). It shook me because of how certain I was during the dream that what was happening to me was real. There was no “I wonder if I’m dreaming” moment when things started getting crazy. I was SURE that this dream was reality. And faced with the real situation of my life ending, my final thoughts were, “I wonder what’s going to happen next….” It made me question my salvation. It didn’t seem like the sort of question a person would be asking if that person really BELIEVED that Heaven was coming next. “Welp, that’s the end of that life! Bring on the pearly gates and the streets of gold, Lord!!!” <–THAT’S the sort of thing someone says who is filled with FAITH.
So I started thinking…. What is “FAITH” anyway? And if faith is what gets you into Heaven, how much faith are we talking about? Or if we’re “saved BY grace, THROUGH faith, we should probably have a REALLY good understanding of the difference in meaning between those two prepositions, right? And I hope, for our sake, that those prepositions translated PERFECTLY from Greek to English, because a subtle difference might mean the difference between salvation and damnation. And what about that whole “salvation/damnation” thing–What if someone believes something different than me about Heaven and Hell? Does a person have to have a right understanding of what happens when we die in order to get into Heaven? A lot of questions….
Here’s one way to think about this: Rate between 1 and 10 how certain you are that the things you currently believe about God are absolutely true and that, when you die, you are going straight to Heaven (1 being you are completely unsure that what you believe is actually true, and 10 being complete certainty that you’re right). Now…. Consider this: How high of a number does someone need to have in order for God to let that person into Heaven? Four? Six or higher? Does it have to be a ten? How much doubt are we allowed before we are sent to hell? Or, as you’re considering this, did you feel a deep sense of “How could I ever presume to know such a thing?” Because I did….
The opposite of faith is not doubt…. It’s certainty. But something messed up has happened in the psyche of the Church, and a lot of people have started believing that to have faith in something means to have no doubts about it. I think some of this way of thinking has come as an attempt to take poetic language in the Bible and make it literal. For example, the writer of Hebrews speaks about faith, and depending on the version of the Bible that you are reading, it comes out different ways: In the King James Version, it says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In the NIV, it says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The English Standard Version says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And then The Message says that faith is “our handle on what we can’t see.”
This language is clearly poetic. Hope, by its very definition, requires a lack of certainty…. But we end up with faith being described in terms of a certainty of something uncertain, a touchable part of something we can’t touch, or a handle on something invisible. And people try to turn those poetic phrases into dogma. And literalism. And it kills the power of the poetry, like a person who walks around with her hands above her head because she heard that we should always “reach for the stars.” It’s what happens when we start confusing knowledge with belief. It has to do with what we believe knowledge really is, or “epistemology.” But there are different kinds of knowing…. There’s knowing the answer to a math problem, and then there’s Knowing that I love my Grandpa, even though he is buried in the ground.
I have begun to consider myself a Missionary of Uncertainty. So many people have developed such an unwavering certainty in their beliefs–Their truth is the one and only truth, God is on (only) their side, and anyone who doesn’t share their same beliefs is going to hell. When a person believes he or she possesses an unclouded knowledge of God’s truth, it’s
hard next to impossible to have an actual conversation with them. It’s this same sort of unwarranted confidence that allows members of congress to prevent any sort of progress, because they believe that compromising THEIR principles would be compromising GOD’S principles (and that is just not okay). It’s this same sort of unwavering certainty that hates a person that you’ve never talked to…. The same one that casts a gay son or daughter out of a home and into the streets…. And really, it’s the same sense of certainty that straps a bomb to its chest.
Certainty is not only annoying, but it can be really dangerous. It allows people to feel justified in their hate, but as Anne Lamott said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Now, you might be thinking “If you’re so unsure about everything, why would we listen to you?” That’s a good question. I used to be sure about almost everything, but like many people have said before–“The more I learn, the less I know.” All I can tell you is that I have not come to this place frivolously. I know enough to understand that you shouldn’t be nearly as certain as you are. Also, consider that when describing the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Age to Come, or the Banquet, or Paradise or Heaven or whatever), if there is one point that Jesus makes over and over again, it’s that people are going to be really surprised by “who’s getting in.“
Following Jesus does not mean having all the answers, and having faith does not mean being certain. For some, this illusion of certainty is the only they have to cling to, and any threat to that feeling of certainty (such as the idea that the Earth might be a whole lot older than 6000 years, or the thought that being in a whale for three days might not be what the story of Jonah is actually about, or the suggestion that the Bible might not be as clear-cut about homosexuality as people once believed) is a threat to their feeling of safety. And uncertainty can feel scary…. Especially at first. But a faith that is honest enough to admit that it has doubts is probably also humble enough to admit it doesn’t have all the answers. And a beautiful thing happens when you admit that you don’t have all the answers–It frees you from having to ACT like you have all the answers, and it allows you to take yourself out of a position of judgment, and simply love people…. People who are doing their best to figure it all out, just like you are.
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