The Trouble with Normal...

Another look at certainty.. by Len Hjalmarson

Recently I was drafted into a conversation on certainty, which was ostensibly generated around the topic of fundamentalism, and I chimed in with a favorite quote: “God help me always to seek the truth.. and protect me from those who have found it” (attributed to Sir Thomas More). Later I got thinking about the connection of knowledge and power; these two are inseparable in the modern world, as Foucault and others pointed out. Those who have knowledge tend to use it to strengthen their own positions, and to impose their will on those “down the ladder.” Yes.. the whole issue connects with colonialism, the Enlightenment, our need to be in control, and through those grids to models of leadership and change.

More on that shortly. In my musings I was reminded of other renderings that capture the issue with poetic beauty. Another favorite is Walter Brueggemann..

“We all have a hunger for certitude, and the problem is that the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity. So what we all want to do if we can is immediately transpose fidelity into certitude, because fidelity is a relational category and certitude is flat, mechanical category. So we have to acknowledge our thirst for certitude and then recognize that if you had all the certitudes in the world it would not make the quality of your life any better because what we must have is fidelity.” Quoted at the Emergent Convention, Atlanta, Georgia, September 16, 2004.

Brueggemann reminds us that fidelity is far more important than certitude. Certainty is highly over-rated, and is the favorite bastion of every brand of fundamentalism, whether expressed in politics or religion. Yeats famous lines remind us,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Ultimately, the Lord is unlikely to ask, “Were you always right?" in contrast to, “Were you faithful to the truth you knew?” None of us holds all the truth, and the longer I live the less I seem to know. I like the latter question, because it has to do with faithful following, obedience, the life of a disciple.

But certainty, in times of rapid change, becomes a commodity we seek. In times like these, we look for those who seem to know where they are going, even if they are only spouting yesterday’s truth. When everything that can be shaken is shaking, we look for solid ground.

The virtues of uncertainty, then, are hard to extol. One of the most obvious to me is imagination, and related, creativity. Liminality takes us to these places, because when our categories expand and old frameworks fail us, we have to seek and find a new synthesis. When the maps no longer describe the territory, we become seekers and learners. And that process, in turn, generates community.

Because imagination and dreams are ill defined places, they are wide spaces that invite participation. Imagination is thus a fundamental component of a creative commons, and these places of shared liminality are the only way forward.

Even such practical saints as Oswald Chambers had a deep appreciation for the power of Holy imagination. Chambers wrote,

“One of the reasons for our sense of futility in prayer is that we have lost our power to visualize. We can no longer even imagine putting ourselves deliberately before God. It is actually more important to be broken bread and poured-out wine in the area of intercession than in our personal contact with others. The power of imagination is what God gives a saint so that he can go beyond himself and be firmly placed into relationships he never before experienced.”

The imaginative saint knows that the eternal now is the Empire’s version of the gospel. The eschatological kingdom is the kingdom of tomorrow. The imaginative saint is not fixated on the present order, as if this is as good as it gets, but knows that the eternal kingdom is a gift that is coming, and that gift is given to those who don’t deserve it. The imaginative saint knows that mystery is as important as knowledge, and that to worship is to bow before a God who is totally Other. We learn to honor the questions as much as the answer, because to be a disciple is to be a learner - one who is on a journey from the known, to the unknown.

In recent years we in the western church have been enamored with certainty, and related, with propositions. As a writer, I understand the passion for words. As a lover, I am intimately acquainted with their limits.

The dominant ways of knowing were one with the dominant culture. Epistemology was translated into an ethic. Since our primary way of knowing has been objectification, the direct application of power, inevitably our culture thrives on violence and oppression. Violence against women, against the poor, against our environment, against those who are too different from us. (Heidegger’s calculative thinking versus meditative thinking fits here. The root meaning of “objective” is “to oppose.”)

But what if knowledge has less to do with individual mastery and more to do with openness and community? I remember Edith Schaeffer’s words,

“A completely new work would never have been possible if we had not been uprooted in every way, and if in that uprooting we had not decided to pray for God’s solution and leading every step of the path as it wound through unknown territory.”

Certainty puts me in control. Most of us are addicted to control at some level. But if we are willing to let go, we can discover a new level of dependence on God.

What if knowing is perspectival? We can know the position or the speed of the electron, but not both. What if Polanyi is right, and knowing is less rational than we supposed, and more relational: neither objective nor subjective, but personal? And what would be the implications for the hegemony of Empire?

Incarnation, we know, is the path to God”s future. On this day in the history of the world, and on this day in God”s story, we are like those awakening from a long sleep. We have taken the red pill, and we are discovering how deep the rabbit hole goes. We are seeing how deeply immersed and accommodated we have become to a narrow set of values, anchored solidly in a limited Enlightenment epistemology: a particular way of knowing the world. Parker Palmer and others have helped us discern the violence of that method, and we are discovering that while science illuminated one set of truths, it lost another. Holy imagination is helping us to rediscover fidelity and God’s future, and in the process, we may deepen our ability to worship.

One thoughtful brother responded to my blog post by quoting,

“We all have a hunger for certitude, and the problem is that the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity” The fidelity of who? And how do we find out who this person is? Is the Bible or? And if it is written down anywhere, we have to have a certainty that something is true, if we are to trust the fidelity of the person who is offering it? And who decides what the characteristics of this fidelity that is being offered?

I wrote in response..

I love your first question: “the fidelity of Who?” Because our standing before God is all about the faithfulness of God, who kept His promise in Jesus.How do we know about this fidelity? It is brokered by the living community, tradition (including Scripture) and the Holy Spirit (Grenz trialogue, or if you are in the Holiness tradition, Wesley’s quadrilateral).

Does this mean we know with certainty, and if not, then we are always left with some level of anxiety? I don’t know with certainty in the modern, scientific sense, but I do know with assurance that Jesus lives. Grenz writes,

“We cannot simply collapse truth into rational certainty. Rather we must make room for mystery — as a reminder that God transcends human rationality. Central to the task of thinking through the faith is an obligation to rethink the function of assertions of truth or propositions. Christian truth is more than correct doctrine. Truth is both socially and linguistically constructed, and at the heart of Christianity is a personal encounter. Propositions may serve that encounter [but the map is not the territory].” A Primer on Postmodernism


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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in January, 2008