A little over a year ago, a former evangelical minister named Ryan Bell decided to take a year off from God and religion. In an interview about his decision he explained that he had grown up, and served as a minister, in a very insular and dogmatic evangelical church, but always had questions about his faith. After many years of having questions, but finding no answers, he left his religion and his faith. He made an interesting observation at the time. He said, “If your (church) community cannot contain those questions, then you step outside it.”
He was interviewed again, more recently, as a follow-up to his “year off from God.” The content of the follow-up interview was what one would expect. Having taken a “year off from God” he decided there were no compelling reasons to return to faith and religious practice. The most interesting thing about the interview was that he described himself as an “awkward” atheist. He said that he did not have the certainty that other atheists seem to possess.
I found this very ironical. He left religion because he felt he didn’t fit in due to his uncertainty about God, but found that he didn’t fit in with atheists because of his uncertainty about atheism. It doesn’t appear that either God or faith were really the problem he faced; rather, his problem appears to be his own lack of certainty about his life.
Lack of certainty is not an uncommon experience. We live in a finite universe that is always changing; uncertainty is a necessary part of life.* Great discomfort with uncertainty, however, is not necessary. The Gospel reading this Sunday offers a sensible and helpful perspective on the uncertainties of life.
Matthew’s Gospel introduces us to a number of people who were witnesses to the birth of Jesus. Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Herod, the Chief Priests and the Scribes, each in their own way, heard the news of the birth of a new king. (Matthew 2:2) It is interesting to note that none of them had much certainty about the child or his destiny. Joseph thought, at first, that Mary had been unfaithful to him. Herod tried to kill the child, and the religious leaders learned of the child’s birth from foreigners. The Magi, who seem to have had the most knowledge about the child, visited him briefly, and then left. If they had known who the child really was, we might have expected them to stay longer.
The uncertainty about the time, place and circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and the near complete lack of knowledge about his future destiny, should not surprise us. Life is always uncertain; the future exists only as a possibility. As we can never have perfect (or sometimes, even adequate), knowledge about our lives, we are faced with a choice. We must choose how to live with uncertainty.
The Gospel presents a wide range of responses to the uncertainties surrounding the birth of Jesus. Joseph, not knowing what to do, gave faithful attention to the divine guidance he received in dreams. The Magi, knowing very little about the child, sought answers from both their own wisdom and that of others. Herod, having learned about the child from the Magi, flew into a jealous rage, and committed infanticide on a massive scale. These, and other responses, are available to us; it is up to each of us to choose how to live with uncertainty.
If you are looking for an adequate degree of certainty about your life, or about your faith, let me make a recommendation. The people in the Gospel who were able to see God at work in the birth of Jesus were the ones who gave their diligent attention to God’s Word. Joseph attended to the words of instruction that came to him in his dreams. The Magi gave their attention to the words of Scripture spoken to them by the Chief Priests and the Scribes. (Matthew 2:5-6) Neither Joseph nor the Magi gained complete knowledge of Jesus, but they gained knowledge adequate for the moment.
The same degree of adequate certainty can be ours if we are willing to give our attention to God’s Word. If you are looking for a reasonable degree of certainty, give your attention to God’s Word in the Scriptures and to the presence of Jesus in the poor. If you’re looking for a good New Year’s resolution to improve your life and your faith, give your prayerful attention to the Scriptures and your compassionate attention to those in need. The first thing you’ll notice after doing this is that your personal questions, worries and concerns seem less significant; the second thing you’ll notice is that uncertainty is much more complex than it appears.
One of the odd mysteries of life is that unimpeachable knowledge isn’t the remedy for uncertainty; the remedy for uncertainty is trust. Weak marriages and friendships are strengthened by trust. Concern about the future is quelled by trust. Questions about God, religion and faith are – you guessed it – resolved by trust. At this time of year it is social custom to wish one another a peaceful, prosperous and happy new year. If you truly desire a year filled with peace and joy, then you must choose to fill the year with trust in God’s Word.
(*)The age in which we live has been called “post-modern.” The term refers to modernist philosophy, an overly optimistic belief in the power of social progress that began in the eighteenth century. The eighteenth century probably doesn’t seem “modern” to us, but it was a time when “modern” ideas first captivated the imaginations of people in the western world. Today, we take these “modern” ideas for granted.
Personal freedom, ownership of property, democratic government and the promise of a brighter future through social and scientific advances are normal expectations for people today, but it was not always so. For centuries, people lived under monarchical rule; most were prohibited from owning property, and only a few had political power. “Modern” thinkers such as Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Hobbes, Rousseau and Kant offered a radically new perspective on human life. Eventually their ideas were popularized by a wide range of people from Karl Marx to Bertrand Russell.
Very early on in the “modernist” movement there were voices critical of the naive optimism that modern thought represented. One of my favorite novels, Candide, is a criticism of the utopian idealism that resulted from modernist thought. Today, in the west, we live in a decidedly post-modern society. The weaknesses and failings of utopian ideals are readily seen. Science and technology contribute a great deal to our well-being, but there remain intractable social, scientific and medical problems. Politics is widely regarded as a self-serving industry rather than a service to citizens. Ownership of property and capital is a two-edged sword: that which appears to be wealth can become a liability.
In an age in which the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a central scientific theory, it should come as no surprise that we are faced with a great deal of uncertainty in our lives. For this reason, questions about God, faith and the world are always also questions about ourselves. Further, uncertainty in one realm of life is inextricably linked to uncertainty in the other realms of life. In a social milieu in which uncertainty is a given, it is incumbent on us to find positive value in our uncertainties. Although the Scriptures were written in an age and a culture very unlike ours, they contain deep wisdom for living with uncertainty. In today’s Gospel reading the humble found an encounter with God in the Christ child; the arrogant and self-sufficient found confusion and fear.