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  • Brian Chilcote

An Invitation to Uncertainty

"Trust is the bedrock of social life at all levels, from romance and parenting to national government. Deception always undermines it. Because truth is so essential to the human enterprise, which relies on a shared view of reality, the default assumption most people have is that others are truthful in their communications and dealings. Most cultures have powerful social sanctions against lying."

Has Homo Sapiens ever had a moment of consensus on what reality is?

Every identifiable human culture seems to have a generally accepted set of propositions that describe their own consensus on how the world works. Ironically, that same agreed-upon body of truth about the world also affirms that no one individual or group possesses a comprehensive and perfectly correct set of data. Its not hard to support that idea. Proverbs like, "we're only human," and "everyone makes mistakes…" emerge from a healthy sense of ignorance about the universe. Science is perhaps our best source of skepticism about what we know, what we don't know and what we can't know.

And yet there are exceptional groups and individuals who promote a contrary belief; that it is possible to access absolute truth and apply it to everyday life. And better yet- it's universal, applicable to any culture at any time and in any place! How astounding and in-demand would that access to truth be? One could almost imagine the instant social, political and ecological harmony that would result from the dissemination and implementation of those truths.

How strange then, when we encounter Christian entities that purport to have a set of ancient texts that flawlessly represent the truth about the universe from the very desk of it's creator. Truth that is absolute, inerrant, infallible and readily accessible to any believer who has made a commitment to their particular membership (and interpretation of that truth).

The San Andreas fault runs through the deserts of southern California, a deep fissure marking the edges of two tectonic plates that scrape ever-so-slowly past each other. If you visit the fault in the vicinity of Coachella Valley Preserve near Palm Springs, you'll notice a distinctive change in the dry rocky soil as you approach the fault line. It changes from loose gravel, stones and boulders to a fine powder- the result of millions of years of bedrock grinding together. It's finer than sand, like confectioner's sugar compared to granular sugar.

A similar fault runs through the church as we know it today. One "plate" consists of what we might call literalists or inerrantists, who do their best to stay unmoved in their position as described above: that the Bible is sui generis, in a class of its own: a univocal, transcultural, God-breathed document. There are gradations of this view, from those who are staunch advocates of biblical inerrancy, who enthusiastically sign manifestos like 1978's Chicago Statement…

"The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

"[The Bible,] Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives."

…to those who acknowledge the need for historical, social, textual, linguistic and other domains of contextual study in understanding a complex set of ancient documents, and aren't as dogmatic on the precision or accuracy of biblical accounts of history or theology. In spite of that, however, staying on the traditionally inerrantist side of the debate is important enough for them to resort to creative interpretation to solve obvious (but only apparent) contradictions they find in their Bibles.

Here's an example is how one inerrantist handles the problem of maintaining a position that every word of the Bible is inspired and error-free when it has been translated, re-translated, copied and re-copied innumerable times down through its journey to the 21st century. From Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:

"What a lot of Christians don’t know is that the autographs (original writings) are inspired–not the copies. The autographs are the original writings–the original documents penned by the biblical writers. The copies are copies of inspired documents. The copies are not themselves “inspired”; that is, they have no guarantee of being 100% textually pure. But don’t worry, the Bible manuscripts are 98.5% textually pure.

…Does this mean that the Bible we hold in our hands is not inspired? Not at all. Inspiration comes from God; and when He inspired the Bible, it was perfect. Our copies of the original documents are not perfect, but they are very close to being so.

On the other hand, there are literalists for whom the authority of scripture is more nuanced. They emphasize a bit more of the humanness of the Bible in its origin, translation and use through history, but at a foundational level, the literalist side of the debate must invoke the miraculous when the data don't add up, like Matt Slick's inspiration move quoted above (For more on this topic, find our blog article Interrogating Biblical Inspiration).

The other tectonic plate is the domain of the pragmatist. A dogmatic center that captures this side is more elusive than for the literalists/inerrantists. Here you find academics, scholars and liberal-leaning churches on a different spectrum. For this side of the debate, the Bible's authority and authorship are far less clear-cut. In some cases, the Bible is but one of many "scriptures" that contains valuable truths:


"When we read scripture in worship, whether it is the Bible, the Dhammapada, or the Tao Te-Ching, we interpret it as a product of its time and its place. There is wisdom there, and there are inspiring stories, but scripture is not to be interpreted narrowly or oppressively. It can be beautiful, inspirational and wise. But in our tradition, scripture is never the only word, or the final word."

The Episcopal Church:

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 236).

The Bible is our foundation, understood through tradition and reason, containing all things necessary for salvation. Our worship is filled with Scripture from beginning to end. Approximately 70% of the Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Bible.

The Presbyterian Declaration of Faith, Chapter Six:

"God has not waited to be discovered. The Lord has taken the initiative and addressed his Word to humankind in many ways. Through the Word of God the world was created. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. Through the Word of God the New Creation is being formed.

We believe God's Word is God's communication to us. Although God is free to speak to us in unexpected ways, we confidently listen for his Word in Jesus Christ, in holy Scripture, in preaching and the sacraments.

Two competing claims for what's really true about truth. Like the Psychology Today quote above points out, this fault line has serious consequences for the church and our entire society. We see it in the political polemics in our nation, where neither side is shy about pointing out the fantasy world the other side lives in. The bedrock of the church has had fault lines through it from its very beginning as power struggles and ideological supremacy continue to vie for ascendency, and we've suffered for it in scandals, crises, marginalization and decline.

Is there room for consensus? Is it possible to melt the two sides together in new ways? Is one side always going to be too squishy and the other too hard about their authoritative source of truth?

What if all of us decided to move away from our certainties, and when we encounter new information about our faith, we allow something other than dogma decide the outcome? Critical thinking requires careful consideration of data from more than just one source, mixing it with our previously collected information plus our lived experience, and arriving at a theory that can change later if need be. This is much more difficult than digging a "safe" foxhole of certainty- there's loss and change to endure, and our allergy to the unknown to manage.

The author of the gospel of John has Pilate ask Jesus, "What is truth?" in response to Jesus's claim to represent and call truth-lovers to his ultimate truth. More than a reference to Hellenistic sophistry, it's a question to which we all want an answer. While its far more comfortable to think we have the matter settled, if we take seriously the collisions of our "truth" with another's "truth" we may have a chance at arriving at a common ground of uncertainty that opens the way to a whole lot more learning and discovery. In John's story Pilate almost got there, but in the telling he invites all of us to see what's around the next bend in the road.

Questions for You:

What is on your short list of Christian truths that would be difficult or impossible to lay open to question?

What is frightening about uncertainty when it comes to faith?

What dogmas do you wish the church in general would jettison?

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