Archive for June, 2008

Why Certainty Matters

June 5, 2008

In my ecclesiology seminar this past semester, we discussed a snippet from Brian McLaren’s book The Story We Find Ourselves In.  I have not read the whole book, but the snippet was about a group of friends who, spontaneously around a dinner table, observe communion.  The major element of the story was the participation of one person, a woman (and a cancer patient) who had never professed faith in Christ and was still quite hesitant about the whole thing.  Immediately afterward, the group went outside to a stream and baptized this woman, who wanted to become a Christian on some level, but who also on several occasions repeated the mantra that McLaren wanted to hammer home with the story: “I’m not sure about [fill in the blank: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc.]…”  Reading between the lines, one gathers that McLaren’s point is that participation, not certainty, is what really matters in the church.

I wondered aloud in class about what would happen if we transposed this story to another key.  What if it happened in Saudi Arabia?  What if, when contemplating whether or not she should be baptized, the hesitant woman said, “I’m not sure about all this: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and all of those things.”?  And then let’s say her Christian friends told her, “Well, once you are plunged into this river, the life that you know is over.  Your family will disown you.  Your closest Muslim friends will abandon you.  You will lose all prospects for living a respectable life in this community.  You will likely never hold down a good job or make a decent living again.  Your life will be threatened at every turn.  And you will have to worship with us in secret.  You will be far more likely than you ever were before of having your throat slit.”  What will this hesitant woman do?  She will say, “Well, that’s not for me.”  People don’t give up their lives for things they are not certain about.  Former Muslims who have lost everything for the Christian faith they now confess would likely be deeply offended by McLaren’s cavalier approach to baptism and communion.  For them, the line between belief and unbelief, between “in” and “out” is not fuzzy and imperceptible, as McLaren would have it.  It is, rather, clear and distinct, for it is drawn with the blood of those who have given up everything to cross it.

Athanasius was exiled five times because of his unswerving commitment to the word homoousios, which refers to the common substance of the Father and the Son, thereby asserting the full divinity of Christ.  Having already drawn the ire of the Pope, Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor at Worms and would not budge from his commitment to the sole authority of Scripture, knowing that from that moment on he would be hunted by both church and state.  The Anabaptists endured persecution from both Protestant and Catholic opponents because they did not recognize infant baptism as a legitimate practice.  Bunyan spent years in jail, all the while having the opportunity to go free if only he would agree not to preach without a state license.  Throughout history, countless martyrs have given up their lives for the confession that Jesus Christ is Son of God, Savior, and Lord. 

What do all these people have in common?  Certainty.  They were all certain about what they believed, and anything less than a rock-solid commitment to their understanding of the truth would have sent them cowering in fear before their oppressors.  Only deeply held conviction leads to this kind of sacrifice, for men and women will not give up their lives for wishy-washy notions of postmodern fuzziness.  If we are constantly questioning the truth of what we believe, we will never have the kind of steel in the gut it takes to stand firm when the whole world tells us we are fools and then gives us a fool’s reward. 

Recently I have been reading the authoritative book on the Bush presidency.  The title really says it all: Dead Certain.  Whatever you may think about President Bush and his policies, one thing is clear: he has not allowed external pressure from the public or from the media to determine his actions.  He has been true to his convictions, for good or for ill.  The only way someone could have the courage to withstand the attacks and pressures he has been under day after day for over seven years now is by the power of certainty.  Only by being dead certain of the rightness of his actions has Bush been able to stick to his guns in spite of opinion polls. 

The point here is not to say that Bush has been right on everything.  It is, rather, to show that the power to resist external pressure arises from inward certainty.  The postmodern ooze that we have been getting from McLaren and much of the emerging church conversation will not produce a generation of courageous believers ready to die for their confession of the truths of the Christian faith.  It will produce a generation of “believers” who are unsure of where the line between belief and unbelief really is.  And no one who cannot identify that line will be willing to spill his or her blood over it.