Sin of Certainty vs. the Seven Principles

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by Rev. Clay Nelson


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How is it we come to feel certain?

How do we know what we know is true?

Can you be certain and be a UU?

Clay Nelson © 9 November 2014

In RE class a group of children were colouring with great focus and intensity. As the teacher walked around the room checking out their artistic efforts she stopped to ask one little girl what she was drawing. The little girl, without looking up, answered, “A picture of God.” The teacher paused for a moment seeking a diplomatic response and then said, “Well, actually no one knows what God looks like.” Still drawing with great purpose, the girl answered with certainty, “They will when I’m finished.”

My intended focus this morning was to be another of the sins of scripture, the sin of certainty. But upon reflection, I came to appreciate that certainty is not just an issue for the Bible. It is much broader than whatever picture of God we might draw. It is something we hunger for as human beings. We all wish to have some assurance that our choices and actions are the right ones.

Have you ever struggled at a time when you have left one path for another to know if it is the right one?
Have you ever wondered if the values and causes you have poured your life into will make a difference?
Have you ever wondered if you will be filled with gratitude or regret at the end of your life?
If you have ever pondered such questions, then I am certain you are human.

Neuroscientists have studied not only what’s happening when we are consciously thinking and deciding, but what we are experiencing when we feel certain about the answer we reach or the choices we make. One of these scientists, Robert Burton, learned that we are capable of holding onto certainty no matter what evidence to the contrary is presented. You may have heard a person stubbornly say, “I don’t care what you say, I know what I know.” Perhaps, you have even been that stubborn person once or twice.

Burton collected stories of where people were certain they were right even when the evidence was clear that they weren’t. One he reported was about a professor who, the day after the Challenger disaster, had his students write down where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. A number of years later he went to the same students again and asked them the same questions. He got very different accounts. When showed what they had written the first time he would get responses like, “I know that is my handwriting but that is not how it was.” We apparently are proficient at creating false memories and then cementing them in certainty.

To explain this he scanned brain functions in times of certainty and uncertainty. What he discovered is that two parts of the brain lit up. One was the neo-cortex where rational thought is conducted. The other is the amygdala, an ancient part of the brain that produces our emotions. What this told him is that certainty is not the result of rational thought, but is an involuntary brain state much like fear is. It turns out knowing something and being sure that we know it are two separate steps happening in two different parts of the brain.

Roger Shank, another neuroscientist, has come to the conclusion that we make decisions emotionally and then create rational arguments to justify those choices. This is how we can be certain of memories that are demonstrably untrue.

I think this is true not just of individuals, but communities as well. While birds of a feather may gather together, I would suggest that people of shared certainties gather together.

I would like to share a case study from the Bible. It is from the Epistle of Jude. The Epistle of what? Jude. It is the next to the last book in the Bible. Well, it is hardly a book. It is only 25 verses, which might explain why it is often overlooked. Who wrote it, to whom, and why is not clear. What is clear is that it is the most judgmental and condemnatory of all the New Testament documents. It is rarely quoted from and when it is this is the verse: “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” The implication when quoted by some Christians is that Christianity can be and has been captured in a series of creeds, doctrines and dogmas, the truth of which is both self-evident and unchanging. Anyone who dares to question this conclusion or these core beliefs is questioning nothing less than God. Once those implications are accepted, it becomes the duty of the church and its hierarchy to protect all the other people of the world from the heresy of questioning.

Whenever truth becomes set as being certain, it is inevitable that every new idea and every new perspective becomes threatening and disturbing to the stated truth and thus becomes the enemy to be suppressed, as Michael Servetus learned to his detriment. When certainty combines with zeal, horror always results. In other words, this phrase from an otherwise unremarkable book, has been the justification for the inquisition, crusades, witch burnings, ghettos, the holocaust, aggressive and imperialist missionary activities, and assorted other low points in Christian history. Such is the price of group certainty.

How did the church get there from their experience of a first century itinerant preacher and healer in whom followers experienced the intensity of the divine?

Christianity was born of an experience. The next step after the experience, as with all experiences, was the apparent human necessity of explaining it. Next Christianity codified its own explanations so that they became creeds. Then it claimed for those creeds the authority of absolute truth. In time, the church hierarchy began to persecute and even to kill those who would not acknowledge the authority that was attributed to those creeds. In the process, it revealed ever so clearly what believers are loath to admit—namely, that religion is not primarily a search for truth; it is overwhelmingly a search for security.

In the case of Christianity that process began for Jesus’ Jewish followers as a simple creed, Jesus is Maschiach, which literally means the Anointed One or Messiah. In Greek, Jesus is the Christ. There was lots of wiggle room in this three-word affirmation as to what was meant by it. After bitter debates that lasted centuries the creeds became more and more complex. The Apostles’ Creed, which was definitely not by the Apostles, was 93 words. But that was not sufficient to say who was in and who was outside the church. Eventually, the Nicene Creed would have 206 words and a lot less wiggle room for individual interpretation. But even that was insufficient. The last of the Catholic creeds was the Athanasian Creed with 637 words. While all the creeds claimed to seek unity, they only created division between competing groups that frequently resulted in violence and death.

Increasingly rigid creeds, driven by the human need for certainty, failed to force the divine mystery into universally accepted human concepts. Those who wished to nail God into a creedal box resorted to violence and persecution against those not persuaded. They justified their evil by appealing to the authority of scripture and particularly to the text in Jude. Such an appeal never works. There is no such thing as a set of propositions that constitute “the faith delivered to the saints.” For those who need security there is no place for uncertainty and humility before divine mystery.

The last few centuries have made those Christians seeking security very uncomfortable. Biblical scholarship and the rise of science have undercut the authority of scripture as the source of everything we need to know and our confidence that it is true because God said it. You need no further evidence of how strongly the need for security in us is than the conservative Christian who continues to believe in a seven-day creation in the face of archaeological evidence to the contrary. “I don’t care how many fossils you show me, I know what I know.”

We, who favour liberal religion, scoff at such statements and claim an ability to live comfortably with doubt, but our need for certainty is just is strong. After all, we have an amygdala as well.

When the Enlightenment began planting the seeds of doubt in religious knowledge, James Freeman, who was the first Unitarian minister of King’s Chapel, Boston, began to doubt even the possibility of religious knowledge to provide clear, simple answers. He not only desired to know the answers but to know that he knew the answers.

Christian reformer, John Wesley, in the 1700s sought to offer four sources of authority that we can to turn to for greater certainty about what we know: Scripture, tradition, experience and reason. From this and earlier sermons I have made the case that the Bible is a human document. It is filled with ambiguities, uncertainty, and contradictions. It is culturally conditioned. It has a pre-scientific worldview. Thus it is unreliable for definitive answers.

For the most part, Church tradition is based on interpretations of scripture, which undermines its authority almost from the start. But it is also culturally and historically conditioned. Tradition tends not to respond to changing times, reflected in the oft-heard comment, “we have always done it this way.” Lastly, it is dependent on the interpretation of religious leaders. Since religious leaders can be wrong – other religious leaders I mean — it, too, proves unreliable for providing definitive answers.

Experience sounds more appealing to us as an authority to rely on for knowledge. But how does anyone person’s personal experience become the truth for others? How can the impressions of one become a source of certainty? Much of what we experience is based on our senses. However, our senses are hardly reliable. If a man is colour-blind he will not see certain colours the rest of us know with certainty are there. Kiwis think feijoas are a taste treat. Perhaps because I didn’t grow up here, my taste buds don’t agree. After I eat asparagus I am quite aware of a less than pleasant aroma after using the toilet, but apparently only 25% of the population can smell it, as the rest don’t have the gene necessary to do so. If our senses are so divergent regarding the physical world, how reliable can our individual experiences of the spiritual world be for finding certainty?

Wesley’s fourth authority, the power of reason, is for Unitarian Universalists the most appealing one to rely on for certainty. In a rational approach we insist legitimate knowledge must make sense. It must not contradict itself or other facts that we know. While reason has made great contributions to science and technology, can it, in fact, provide the certainty we are looking for? Scientists are quite clear that the form of reason we call the scientific method cannot prove anything beyond the shadow of a doubt. For instance, if we hypothesise that all swans are white after looking at hundreds or thousands or millions of white swans, it is not yet proven. It only takes one black swan to disprove it. Science may give us increased confidence about our knowledge but not certainty. Confidence is not nearly as satisfying as certainty.

The failure of these four authorities to provide certainty may be why we now live in a post-modern world, where there is no such thing as certain knowledge or absolute truth, no matter how certain our amygdala is. What we used to think of as truth is now seen as interpretation. Because of our cultural limitations, all of our interpretations are only partial. And it’s not just that each of us has only a partial view of some larger truth. The metaphors we commonly use, such as looking at the same light through different windows or going up the same mountain on different path, are challenged in postmodernity. In the postmodern way of thinking, there is no larger truth. We are all wandering around on different paths or lost in the bush on different mountains. We each have our own truths and our own knowledge, according to our circumstances.

I would suggest that postmodernity creates problems for us as UUs. As a community we are committed seeking truth, but that is difficult to do if it does not exist. We are committed to making the world a better place, but what is the vision we are seeking to achieve? How do we know we are going to make it better? How can we take a stand in such a world?

I would suggest that we should spend a lot of time questioning the certainty our amygdala offers us, but not by doubting it. Too much doubt can paralyze us into inaction. A better response to our certainty is humility. UU minister Forrest Church once offered us the concept of “Sixty per cent convictions.” “Sixty per cent convictions” empower us to take moral stands on complex issues even if we can’t claim absolute certainty about the infallible rightness of those positions. We can live with “sixty per cent convictions.” It is 100% convictions we can’t afford. They are arrogant and dangerous as the Epistle of Jude proved to be.

Once we reach 60% confidence in our position the challenge is to be 100% committed to it. In other words, we are called to realise the relative validity of our convictions, and yet stand for them unflinchingly. I would suggest that a religion worth having in a postmodern age will demonstrate abundant humility and abundant commitment. May that be us.