Finding Faith After Christianity: Getting Rid of Certainty

February 14, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Feb. 14, 2016

“Finding Faith After Christianity: Getting Rid of Certainty”
Prov. 18: 12-13

Our friend Phil is literally a traveling salesman. Traveling around the Midwest, he runs into all kinds of hokey sorts of places:
• In Seward Nebraska, you can visit the World’s Largest Time Capsule, which includes an entire car
• In Hastings Nebraska, you can get a supersized drink at the world’s largest Kool-Aid stand
• On the highway to Regent North Dakota, you can enjoy the world’s largest collection of scrap metal sculptures, including giant grasshoppers and a giant farm family.
• Of course, Cawker City Kansas boasts the world’s largest ball of twine.
• Phil’s least favorite, however, is the too cute Precious Moments Factory, Chapel, gardens, and gift store. This is 3,000 acre area and everywhere you look, there are droopy-eyed Precious Moments clay figurines near Carthage, MO.
Please accept my apologies if you love Precious Moments or collect them. Phil absolutely gags at the thought of the chapel with murals of Biblical scenes, all cast by Precious Moments figurines. In addition to the church, there’s an art gallery and a bizarre resurrection scene in which 5’ tall Precious Moments guards watch over Jesus’ tomb. Eventually, you come to an island in a lake with a wedding chapel.

A T-shirt featuring these little sad-eyed cupie doll looking figures is a white elephant gift that Phil and I have passed back and forth for years. Each time one of us opens the dang thing, we pretend gag and act like it is a hot potato we can’t wait to get rid of.

One day I asked Phil why he was so annoyed with the Precious Moments idea. Besides the obvious marketing gimmick and making money on cute Christianity, he explained, he really objects to the idea that the Christian faith is cute, sweet, or captured in anyway by the sad-eyed dolls. Faith is something deeper and much less certain than depicted by Precious Moments. It sometimes requires uncomfortable conversations, personal morality, being active in community service and creating justice. The dolls simply don’t reflect a faith like his.

What does it mean to be a Christian today? How do we understand our faith in a post-modern, post-denominational, highly individualized and increasingly cynical world? These are some of the questions we will be exploring in the next weeks as we consider how to construct a faith in our time. I am following a book by Mark Stenberg entitled “51% Christian: Finding Faith After Certainty”.

Today’s topic is “getting rid of certainty”. As Anne Lamott writes, “I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remember something (a friend) had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

If you look in the dictionary, you may find certainty listed as a synonym for faith. However, if you look at the Biblical stories of the most faithful followers of God, you will find that most of them struggled with doubt.
• Abraham left his homeland to follow Yahweh, but was not certain he could trust God to give him an heir.
• Moses made excuses to try to get out of leading the Israelites out of Egypt.
• The Disciples struggled to understand what Jesus taught them. Their struggle to understand who Jesus was came not so much from a lack of faith but from a certainty that the Messiah must be something that was much different than what Jesus was.
• Peter denied knowing Jesus.
• Thomas doubted Jesus.
Perhaps doubt should not be equated with losing faith. It seems that doubt is actually an element of faith! Doubt may show that we care enough about our faith to wrestle with it.

In 2,000 years of Christian history, we’ve witnessed countless episodes in which certainty of faith has legitimized discrimination, persecution, violence, and war. During such dark times, certainty has become an idol, with truly tragic results. Humans have created God in the image of their culture, their belief system, or their tribe. Then, they extracted from their “god” some indisputable “will of god” that remarkably corresponded with their arrogance, exclusion and condemnation.

Bertrand Russell has a quip that gets to the heart of the danger of using certainty in place of faith. He says, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” He is advocating for us to be a bit less certain of our claims and much more open to dialog and reflection.

Before destruction one’s heart is haughty,
but humility goes before honor.
If one gives answer before hearing,
it is folly and shame. Proverbs 18:12-13

In the musical, The King and I, the king of Siam wrestles with decisions and knowing which choices to make in very difficult matters of faith, leadership, and heart. He sings a song A Puzzlement, the lyrics are:

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know
Very often find confusion
In conclusion, I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure
In my head are many facts
Of which I wish I was more certain, I was sure

And it puzzle me to learn
That tho’ a man may be in doubt of what he know
Very quickly he will fight
He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so

We’ve all known people who were so certain about everything that they came off as arrogant, bullish turkeys. It is difficult to be around those who are that way. Yet, when it comes to matters of faith and reason, many of us work very diligently to find certainty. We want to know the answers to the great questions of life. We want to get it right.

But what if faith is learning how to live without knowing? You understand that for a planner and a control freak like me, this is downright scary. I would rather have my religion tied up into a neat package and presented with a big bow on top. But what if faith is about sitting in the chaos of our lives and waiting for the light? What if certainty isn’t being faithful – it’s just fulfilling our own desires to be right?

There are many painting in the Unterlinden Museum in France. They are huge and haunting, and the colors are so spectacular with oils so thick and textured that you can almost smell them. Matthias Crunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece was first installed on the altar at the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim. At the time, the monastery served as a hospital, a place of care for victims of the black plaque and other skin diseases. Instead of asking the “why” questions of faith which can lead to certainty, this painting presents another option.

The central panel of the altarpiece features a dying Jesus on the cross. His remarkably muscular body is covered in pockmarks and sores. To the right of the cross is an anachronism. John the Baptist is standing there. Of course, we know that John the Baptist was long gone before Jesus’ death. And yet, here is John at the cross.

Although the figure of Jesus is front and center, many observers are struck by a second image. John is pointing. His elongated, bony, fleshy finger is straining to point at the corpse on the cross. John’s finger is speaking the message “Look, here is God. God is present in our affliction. In fact, God is for us in such a deep, intimate, painfully passionate way that God became this. This is a picture of love.”

We don’t need to know all the answers to be good people of faith. We don’t have to have it all together in life and show up in the best outfit with perfect family members around us. We don’t need the biggest cross necklace or the most marked up Bible or the biggest steeple.

What faith asks of us is much harder. It is to be the fleshy, bony, elongated index finger, pointing to greater truth than our own reality. No words are necessary. No answers or explanations or long theological diatribes. Just a choice to acknowledge and point out the heart of God in the midst of sorrow and pain and heartache of the world. And that is my hope for each of us today. Not that we have answers or certainty. But that we have faith enough in the middle of the bleakest of winters to just point – point to God’s love.
From Mark Stenberg, “51% Christian”

Resources Used:

“9 Reasons Faith Does Not Equal Certainty”,

“The Liberty of Open-Handed Living – Faith vs Certainty”, by Lucas J. Draeger
Legionwriter, March 28, 2015.

“Questioning With Grace: The Opposite of Faith is…Doubt…or Certainty?”, “What About Jesus?” Teacher, Prophet, Friend