I’v noticed something as I’ve watched the ebb and flow of people moving between church traditions around here. Those leaving a conservative evangelical tradition often gravitate to Rome, while departing Catholics often gravitate to conservative or fundamentalist evangelical churches. The common thread, in this highly unscientific view of things, seems to be a movement between traditions that offer a high degree of certainty, with a claim of inerrancy about what the bible says and means. One tradition claims that scripture is inerrant while the other claims that the Church is inerrant in its teaching of what scripture means.
Whatever causes someone to move from one tradition to another, it seems to be important for them to be assured of certainty. In confusing and uncertain times, when the news of political unrest, domestic violence, and changing standards about what is socially acceptable, is spread across the globe instantaneously, with networks doing everything they can to exploit and sensationalize it, it should not be surprising that many are hungry for certainty. Some of it is supplied by intransigent polarizing politics. Some is supplied by a contemporary Luddite rejection of science and Enlightenment rationality. Some of it is supplied by religious traditions, old and new, that promise unchangeable, inerrant, absolute truth about God and humanity. It can be very comforting.
That’s especially true when mainline churches seem to be struggling to find a deeper truth through new, unsettling and controversial meanings in scripture. They can appear to have an understanding of God who cannot be trusted to remain as he was, is now, and ever will be. How often have you heard that the church is being corrupted by culture, and true believers must adhere to the absolute truth, even when it goes against popular culture? Oddly, the certainty of absolute truth that is often at the center of conversation is only what was taught to them as culturally acceptable when they were young. I wonder if it occurs to them that they are the dominant popular culture, or at least they have been. No doubt they dislike seeing their dominance fade away, but more important, it’s very upsetting to witness the culturally acceptable truths on which one has always relied being challenged, undermined, and replaced by new standards of uncertain worth.
Where can we go? To whom can we turn? Polarized politics and church gatherings offering indisputable certainty are attractive possibilities. I am convinced that neither is the path down which Jesus is leading me, nor do I believe it is a path down which he leads anyone. When I get serious about following him, I find myself in a place where I must reject the self righteous and sometimes frightened certainty that, to me, represents contemporary cultural values overlaid with a very thin veneer of Christianity.
Following Jesus requires me to walk in the way of the cross, which is not always a comfortable place to be. It challenges what has been, is now, and entices me into an uncertain future. It compels me to trust in the already but not yet presence of God’s kingdom. I am instructed to go on with only the commandments to love God, love neighbors, and love others as Christ has love me as the unchangeable truths on which to depend. I’m not very good at any of them.
The Friday morning collect asks God to assure us that we may find walking in the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. Life, maybe, but peace? By my standards, there is not much of it. The resurrected Christ has ignored my standards and given us his peace. It is enough, at least for today.
As a post script, I am not unaware of the exciting theology coming out of Roman circles these days, nor of the new life being breathed into the Vatican by the current pope. Local bishops, some priests, and the catechism for new Catholics have a lot of catching up to do.