In my opening installment of this series I cited Dave Tomlinson’s parable of the evangelical leader and liberal bishop. I’m now going to begin offering some critical response to it.
I’ve already observed how the parable is intended to be provocative and paint our two leaders in stark tones. And because it is aimed at evangelicals, the liberal is the one presented sympathetically. Were Tomlinson to write a parable intended to be a pebble in the shoe of liberal Christians, presumably the story-line would be different.
Even so, there are points on which it is worth pushing back, and in this article I want to focus on one of them: the question of certainty. As Tomlinson draws the contrast, the evangelical is confident in his convictions. The liberal, by contrast, is awash in doubt: “Virgin birth, water into wine, physical resurrection. These things are hard to believe in, Lord. In fact, I’m not even sure I’m in touch with you in a personal way.” What is more, the doubting liberal is presented sympathetically while the evangelical, with all his confidence and certainty, is not.
I can agree with the spirit of the parable on one point: publicly proclaiming your personal certitude tends to quash further conversation. Imagine that you enter into a conversation with another person on some particular topic and immediately they state their own certainty in the rightness of their opinions. At that point you’d likely be a little less interested in continuing the conversation. And this for good reason: such avowals would tend to signal a closed mind uninterested in further dialogue and thoughtful reflection. Consequently, many people perceive a negative correlation between certainty and open-mindedness.
Given this fact, it is no surprise that many people in the conversation-focused post-evangelical, emergent camps are keen to criticize traditional evangelical declarations of certainty. The titles of two recent books capture the general sentiment: Greg Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty and Peter Enns’ newly released The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. I haven’t read either book (though reviews suggest they are both worthwhile). And I do share these concerns that public declarations of certainty undermine dialogue and potentially flag a closed-mind.
But not all objections to certainty are of equal strength. Another concern is more problematic, and that is the tight association that many draw between certainty and intolerance. Consider the following passage from John J. Collins’ booklet Does the Bible Justify Violence?:
“historically people have appealed to the Bible precisely because of its presumed divine authority, which gives an aura of certitude to any position it can be shown to support—in the phrase of Hannah Arendt, ‘God-like certainty that stops all discussion.’ And here, I would suggest, is the most basic connection between the Bible and violence, more basic than any command or teaching it contains.” ((Augsburg Fortress, 2004), 32.)
Collins picks up on the concern that certainty “stops all discussion”. He also rightly raises a concern about a disproportionate confidence in the fallible human readings of scripture.
But he goes further than this by suggesting that certainty is correlated with violence and thus intolerance. As Collins says, “the most basic connection between the Bible and violence” is “God-like certainty”.
Here’s an example that Collins would surely resonate with. In his great play “The Persians” the Greek playwright Aeschylus memorably challenges the warring spirit as expressed in the voice of the conqueror:
“All those years we spent jubilant, seeing the trifling, cowering world from the height of our shining saddles, brawling our might across the earth as we forged an empire I never questioned. Surely we were doing the right thing…. It seemed so clear—our fate was to rule. That’s what I thought at the time. But perhaps we were merely deafened for years by the din of our own empire-building, the shouts of battle, the clanging of swords, the cries of victory.”
The fact that this warrior begins to question his own motives and the rightness of his cause is a good thing. And in that case, it is to everyone’s benefit that we insert some doubt into the warring spirit and the confident ideology that underlies it.
But a moment’s reflection suggests the real problem here isn’t certainty per se. Rather, it is that of which one is certain. I might rue the certainty of moral conviction that leads a Hutu to butcher his Tutsi neighbors. But I don’t rue the certainty of moral conviction of the UN peace keeper who risks his life to save the very Tutsis whose lives are under threat.
And if the evangelical is certain of the virgin birth, water into wine, and the physical resurrection, who am I to criticize her?
In short, the problem isn’t certainty per se. Rather, the problem is how you are certain (don’t express your certainty like the evangelical leader in the parable) and of what you are certain (don’t be certain of morally problematic or evil campaigns and projects like the Persian empire-building or the Hutu genocide of Tutsis.
But let us not attack the idea of certainty in itself, for to do so is confused and misbegotten. Of that much I am certain.