A crisis of confidence and content

Does confidence or content pose the greatest issue for followers of Jesus Christ? Is it what we believe, or how strongly we believe what we believe that is the issue?

Does confidence cancel out humility? How certain can we be that our confidence is in the truth rather than in our understanding or interpretation of it? What if we are confident in an erroneous certainty? In a bad interpretation? In misunderstood content?

William Saletan recently wrote in Slate,

At its best, religion is about humility. It starts with a faith in something greater than yourself. Part of that faith is understanding that you’re not great enough to understand who God is. All you know is that he isn’t you.

 

When you start to think that you know God’s mind, that he speaks only to you, that you alone are in possession of the truth, that’s when you become dangerous. And being a Christian won’t save you.

The Slate columnist believes the issue religious people should avoid is the assurance that they know God. Assurance that I am not God is fine; assurance that I know God is not fine. It is okay to have faith, just do not have too much confidence in what you believe. Believe what you will, but none of that certainty business.

Saletan writes not as a rebuke to individual believers, but to entire religions.

My friend Trevin Wax blogged a rejoinder:

“No religion can possess the full truth of God,” says Will Saletan, but how is it humble and not breathtakingly arrogant to tell all the religious adherents of the world: None of you can be right? And how is it “humble” to consign convinced Christians or Muslims to the category of “dangerous” simply for believing they are right and others are wrong?

 

[…]

 

When you think the problem is due to someone having too much confidence in the truth of their religion, you are implying that the content of their religious beliefs is irrelevant. But the Christian Church is built upon the conviction that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. Therefore, the content of Christian belief matters.

 

[…]

 

And yes, sinful humans have committed atrocities in the name of Christ, but in each of these cases, the problem was a failure to be true to the content of the Christian faith.

It is, in my view, both presumptuous and erroneous to claim no one can understand who God is, a la Saletan, simply because he himself apparently does not. But, Saletan’s disbelief in a uniquely accurate religion does not convince that no uniquely accurate religion exists. Understanding who God is is different from understanding all of who God is. Knowing God, according to Jesus (John 17:3), is not only possible it is offered to all who believe in Him. To know Jesus is to know God. On this note Saletan is ear-numbingly flat.

But, whether it is possible to understand God in toto does not hit the full thrust of Saletan’s post, nor in my opinion does Trevin’s emphatic focus on being “true to the content” the entire solution. Saletan writes to distinguish ISIS from Islam, Wax to distinguish Christianity from the Crusaders. Trevin argues the issue is content since people act on what they believe. Pluralistic secularists act as if the content is neutral or irrelevant, placing the blame on confidence, hubris, or a lack of humility.

I think Trevin is right and wrong. How many cases of sinful humans committing atrocities in the name of Christ resulted from what was to them an acceptable attempt to honor the content of the Christian faith. What they believed (content) and the ideals developed from it was the basis for their confidence. Thus, in their own understanding of the Christian faith they were not committing any atrocities at all.

Theologian Juan Luis Segundo notes that traditional Western theology is not ideology-free because no theology is. [1] To put it another way, no theology arises in a vacuum. Theology is shaped by the surrounding culture more than we realize.

Developing theology in the early church contended with cultural challenges like circumcision, meat offered to idols, and other Gentile distinctives. The early Apostles communicated in Acts 15 the “official” stance on Gentile inclusion into the church were as confident as “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Their decision was humbly couched in the language of “perhaps.” When Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:12, “I now speak, and not the Lord,” I believe he was inspired. He, however, humbly reframed his message. At the end of the chapter (v. 40) as the Apostle assured his readers, he said, “I think I also have the Spirit of God.” Think is the same word translated seems good used by the Apostles in Acts 15.

After the Apostles what we see throughout church history is confidence based on content, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. It is easy for us to look backward at those historical problems, some of which we now view as erroneous, and interpret them as such. But, we do well to remember that some theologies of those days were widely if not near-universally considered correct. The problem was not that they had confidence rather than content. It’s that their content was problematic, yet they held it to be absolutely factual. It’s always a challenge to distinguish interpretation from truth, as we see below.

In The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, Willie James Jennings addresses the attitudes of the Portuguese as they kidnapped Africans for slave labor.

Long before one would give this event a sterile, lifeless label such as “one of the beginning moments of the Atlantic slave trade,” something more urgent and more life altering is taking place in the Christian world, namely, the auctioning of bodies without regard to any form of human connection…This auction will draw mutual power from Christianity itself while mangling the narratives it evokes, establishing a distorted pattern of displacement. (pg. 22)

The Portuguese slave traders, far from seeing a contradiction between their actions and the kingdom of God, believed themselves to be an integral part of it.

The slaveowners in the Antebellum South, and the pastors and churches that enforced Jim Crow laws did not think they were being disobedient to Christ. It was the opposite. They believed the content was guiding them. They had the “correct” theology. The Negro was inferior because the Bible taught it. That we 150 years later disagree with their understanding of the content in no way changes what they held true about the content.

Consider the theology of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America.

[T]he first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society … With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.

 

It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner”—the real “corner-stone”—in our new edifice.

Dr. Richard Furman of South Carolina was certain of the Bible’s content, in his Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States in Communication to the Governor of South-Carolina:

The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example…Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men and were ready to lay down their lives in the cause of their God, would have tolerated it for a moment in the Christian Church.

Those who claimed to be Christians in the South held the same theological, philosophical, and scientific positions as Stephens and Furman. Jefferson Davis and pastors in the South believed the same thing, many such pastors through the 1960s.

In 2011 three White teens in Mississippi caustically murdered 48-year old James Craig Anderson, a Black man. After taking turns beating him, they ran over him in a truck belonging to one of the killers while yelling “White Power.” During sentencing U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves lectured the three about the nature of racism and hate, noting a letter he had received in support of one of the killers, Dylan Butler:

The court must respond to one letter it received from one identified as a youth leader in Dylan Butler’s church — a mentor, he says — and who describes Dylan as “a good person.” The point that “[t]here are plenty of criminals that deserve to be incarcerated,” is well taken. Your point that Dylan is not one of them — not a criminal … is belied by the facts and the law.

Who committed this treachery? “A good person.”

Is the problem confidence or content? If it is confidence, how does one detach it from the content that morphs a White Supremacist murderer on a street into “a good person” before the judge?

Now one might jump to say, “Yes, but they were acting on their interpretations, not what the Scripture actually teaches.” To which another might answer, “Who among us does not? Who among the followers of Christ is not living according to his or her best understanding of the sacred text?” The answer is that we all do. So while one might say, “But the problem was they weren’t holding the gospel tightly enough,” the response might be, “They were holding the gospel they knew as tightly as they could.”

Do not read these words to somehow imply that this writer doubts the existence of absolute truth. I do not doubt it. “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” said Jesus. Nor am I against confidence. The New Testament speak of confidence in faith, in others, and in God. The writer of Hebrews implores us not to throw away our confidence (10:35).

There is, however, a difference between the confidence of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and in knowing without error how the truth of scripture is to be applied in every single situation of life. We still live among mountains, valleys and pathways of perhaps. If we are to “let God be true and every man a liar” may I be found with the former in humility rather than the latter in confidence. Missiologist Leslie Newbigin wrote, “[I]f the biblical story is true [as he held it to be], the kind of certainty proper to a human being will be one which rests on the fidelity of God, not upon the competence of the human knower. It will be a kind of certainty which is inseparable from gratitude and trust.”[2]

It is not difficult to fathom problems with confidence or certainty, but I do not see how content gets off the hook unless one accepts that Christians are always right all of the time. We deal with content preached, taught and believed at a given point in time. It has always been this way. That so many people have missed it in times past is a strong reminder of how deeply we must seek the truth, and how humbly we must hold our understanding of it.

[1]- quoted in The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction, by Veli-Matti Karkkainen, pg. 268.

[2]- Proper Confidence, by Leslie Newbigin, pg. 28.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Oloryn

    The issue of confidence is, I believe, a rather delicate balance, and often is expressed in terms of a paradox. Paul’s “if anyone thinks he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know” (I Cor 8:2) is one. G. K. Chesterton’s “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong” also expresses it. The issue is not so much ‘can we know the truth?’ so much as acknowledging that while we *can* know the truth, we are quite capable of failing to, while simultaneously being sure that we got it right.

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