Leonard I. Sweet is president of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
This article appeared in the Christian Century June 23-30, 1982 p. 721. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The difference between conservatives and liberals is not that one groups is certain and the other is not; rather, it is that conservatives are certain of too much. No matter how incomplete our vision, we must move from questions we cannot answer to answers we cannot evade.
The German poet Heinrich Heine stood with a friend before the cathedral of Amiens in France.
"Tell me, Heinrich,” said his friend, “why can’t people build piles like this any more?”
Replied Heine: “My dear friend, in those days people had convictions. We moderns have opinions. And it takes more than opinions to build a Gothic cathedral.”
I thought of this exchange while reading in the New York Times (December 13, 1981) the impression of the faith journey of Americans that Hans Küng gained during a ten-week stay here. “Most people are looking for constants, for beliefs they can rely upon in the midst of life’s flux,” he said. What Küng has observed firsthand is a validation of what sociologists and pollsters have been telling us for years: masses of Americans are having difficulty coping with the loss of certainty that is perhaps the most telling feature of postmodern culture. As economics, family relationships and political structures move toward greater and greater complexity and inconstancy, religious institutions, swept up by the same forces as everyone else, are failing to provide steady coordinates that orient and order life.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of Dean M. Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, which argued in part that people are dazed by modernity’s mazes of complexity, ambiguity and sheer madness, and are desperate for direction. That observation is even more compelling today than it was ten years ago.
The modern age, born of assurance in the transcendental reach of science and reason, has now crumbled into a heap of blasted hopes, eroded confidences and not-so-self-evident truths. The modernizing forces of technology, bureaucracy, urbanization and communication appear more and more to be the problems rather than, as they once did, the panaceas to the dislocations of our complex culture.
The Age of Uncertainty is how John Kenneth Galbraith characterized the current state of economic thought. Modern art has been vacated by The Lost Center, according to the analysis of Hans Sedlmayr. Philosophy, which was invented (as Horace Kallen pointed out many years ago) because humans wanted the security and constancy of an unshakable corpus of thought, now rises in the name of pragmatic relativism to slay the very needs that gave it life. Ironclad certainties are deemed philosophically obsolete. “We have lost our center,” writes philosopher Jeffrey Stout on the first page of his recent book The Flight from Authority.
And ever since the discoveries of undecidability, even the seemingly unassailable certainty privileged to mathematics has dissolved. The truth of mathematical systems has become a function of consistency, not correspondence. Mathematicians now settle into one of the four rival hammocks set up by formalists, intuitionists, logicists and pure set theoreticians and, once in, find it very difficult to get out. Mary Hesse in Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science argues that in some form relativism is an inescapable conclusion of modern science. History documents how yesterday’s certainties quickly become tomorrow’s curiosities.
Scholars and scientists widely read and respected by the public have popularized this refrain. Niels Bohr notified his students, “Every sentence that I utter should be regarded by you not as an assertion but as a question.” Max Born, the Nobel Prizewinning West German physicist, agreed: “I am convinced that ideas such as absolute certainties, absolute precision, final truth, etc., are phantoms which should be excluded from science.” Stated British mathematician Jacob Bronowski in his influential Ascent of Man: “There is no absolute knowledge.
All information is imperfect.” Even Karl Marx, according to Marshall Berman’s puzzlingly rhapsodic celebration of life in modernism’s “maelstrom,” confessed that modern experiences are characterized by “everlasting uncertainty”: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity).
Among many of the scientific intelligentsia, the profession of atheism has become almost as academically unfashionable as the profession of religious belief. Anything other than agnosticism postulates an arrogant certainty, whether negative or positive. Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” would be a fitting epitaph for the spirit of this postmodern era that has made a principle out of its uncertainty.
At least in part because of what historian William R. Hutchison has identified as the “adaptionist” impulse within the American liberal tradition, mainline religion has partaken heavily of the diminished certitudes of modern existence. In the punctuations of faith, the exclamation mark of an absolute, the colon of a secure conviction, the dash of a dependable axiom, the period of a “center that holds” have been shoved aside by the supremacy of the question mark, which has come to occupy an almost iconic place in the contemporary liberal mind.
The Bible is not to be read as a book in which answers to life’s vexing questions can be found. Liberals cringe when they hear remarks such as the one by an executive of a major conservative publishing house, explaining the durability of his firm’s Bible sales: “Our product has the answers.” To the liberal, the Bible is neither a product nor an answer book. It is rather a “question book” (Cohn Morris), where we go not to find the right answers but to find the right questions -- questions we evade at our peril. The Holy Spirit then works, according to Paul Tillich and others, to help us ask these right questions and to find answers which will be both personal and provisional.
Where once children in Sunday schools were expected to answer questions, they are now taught to ask them. The battle of the bumper stickers between conservatives and liberals in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s predictably was fought from such Sunday school formations; evangelicals, fundamentalists and charismatics fired volleys of “Christ is the Answer!,” and liberals responded with smug salvos of “What is the Question?” One of the favorite liberal expressions to come Out of the 1970s was inspired by a misreading of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in his Letters to a Young Poet, “Do not now seek the answers, . . live the questions now”; it was rendered, “The point is not to find answers, but to live questions.” Robert A. Raines’s title Living the Questions summarized the means for survival on life’s seas after all the anchors have snapped.
There is much to be said for the way in which liberalism feeds on ambiguities and complexities yet chokes on absolutes. No respecter of received opinion, liberalism refuses to submit to the authority of doctrines inaccessible to reason, properly perceiving that irrationalism underlies many slick “certainties” peddled by fat and thriving gurus. In liberalism the questions of the time are taken seriously; there is no attempt to answer unasked or improvident questions, and all speaking is in the accents of the age. A keen reading of history demonstrates that, as Robert Farrar Capon has written, “Most of the mischief in Christian theology is caused not by answers but by questions.”
Because liberalism takes account of the fact that we human beings cannot rise above the fallibility of our nature and the finiteness of our perceptions -- which is why Tillich’s “Protestant Principle” is so terribly important -- liberalism rejects a narrow-minded, merciless certitude and instead speaks in a conversational tone. Ear from being its death rattle, as some would claim, this accent on openness and humility represents a healthy hearing of other traditions as well as a guard against salvationist imperialism and “inappropriate closure” (John B. Cobb, Jr.).
Since no one can exist without hard ground on which to stand, liberals have fashioned the functional equivalents of absolutes, variously styled “values,” “goals,” “priorities” or “agendas,” which have the great assets of being contextual, relational and mobile. Without irreverence or irresponsibility, liberals are also able to retain their sense of humor, even about these “values/goals/priorities/agendas” concerning which they can be so serious and intense.
In short, the mainline religions, with varying degrees of effectiveness, have helped their members to risk experiencing the ambiguities and complexities of modern life, steering people away from bleached-out faiths where truth is never gray, and enabling them to live with and even embrace uncertainty. Lamb’s-Book-of-Life certainty on most issues is antihistorical, credulous and unscriptural. The movement of the Spirit toward the Kingdom is profoundly historical, and therefore relative. We live and die in the context of imperfections and in the confidence of relative judgments. The Bible teaches that the just shall live by faith, not certainty.
Despite all that liberalism has going for it, the liberal church approaches the threshold of a new century with haggard spirits and empty pews. Not since the 1920s have liberals so taken it on the chin. Some contend that liberalism, beaten down and knocked out too many times, is suffering from brain death. Its heart of compassion is still strong and beating, and there is life in its outer extremities, since it responds reflexively to social stimuli. Indeed, there have been some -- especially those motivated by wishful thinking -- who profess that they have already performed liberalism’s autopsy and signed the death certificate. Cause of death: an uncertain faith. This pronouncement of death is premature, but the diagnosis of the ailment is sound. Everyone knows that liberals feel, but there is much confusion about what liberals believe.
Certainty holds too many terrors for liberalism, and uncertainty too few. In the interests of intellectual exactness, social relevance and ecumenical dialogue, liberalism has frequently settled for unresolved tensions, stretchy ambiguities and impenetrable mysteries when dealing with “the truth question.” Alternating between a belief that absolutism lurks just behind absolutes and a suspicion that truth is a human construct, liberals are accustomed to offering opinions instead of truth. At their best, they have demonstrated that the love of humanity sometimes takes precedence over the love of truth. At less than their best, however, liberals have been too certain of uncertainty. Liberalism has exhibited a lazy satisfaction with proclaiming cross-eyed paradoxes and crossroads ambiguities, large questions and tiny truths, as if this is the best we can hope for.
It is little wonder, then, that liberalism has been accused of being fundamentally elitist, a religion for the Ph.D. crowd. Liberals have walled themselves off into elitist colonies: each preoccupied with some unique speculation, all absorbed in playing with ideas, and with openness often meaning uncommittedness. When spirituality becomes a daring high-wire venture without reassuring safety nets and stakes driven deep into solid belief, the admission requirements are quite restrictive.
Theodore Roszak claims in an article in the Nation that “by indiscriminately denying the validity of all the absolutes to which spiritual need would offer its allegiance, secular skepticism leaves the field open to quacks and rascals.” Since the majority of people “cannot diet on the disinfectants of critical intellect,” they “continue to nurse transcendent longings, for this is, at last, a deep natural need of our kind.” Longings after transcendence are not slaked by search, however, but by discovery:
Often the first thing that comes along to offer ungrudging hospitality to their capacity for wonder and their need for metaphysical anchorage captures their complete allegiance. Perhaps it will be something wise and gentle; too frequently it is a commercial gimmick; in a few unhappy cases, it is vicious nonsense. But no amount of mocking and scolding will stop people from taking the gamble.
Life without a centered faith suffers extreme spiritual discomfort. The idea that God has not given us some answers to our questions is intolerable to the human spirit, driving us to the very edge of fatalism on one hand, or fanaticism on the other. Questions provoke only deeper yearnings for answers.
In the words of Martin Luther, “The Holy Spirit is no skeptic.” The primary work of the Spirit is to bring us assurance, not puzzlement; confidence, not conundrums; to bring us to faith, not doubt. Doubt is important to faith, but primarily as a means of keeping faith alive and animated. The Holy Spirit brings us to only a relative knowledge of truth, but the word “relative” accents the “knowledge,” not the “truth.”
Anthropologists tell us of the cultural importance of the ritualistic fixing of centers -- in space, in time, in thinking -- from which humans get their bearings. A prime function of religion throughout history has been to help people move from centers to suburbs without alienation or anomie. Thus, a serene indifference to the human need for fixed spiritual maps by which we can navigate through life, no matter how variable the weather, betrays an ignorance of the major meaning of religion for human existence.
“Unless there is truth that is changeless,” William Ernest Hocking has written in a brilliant essay on the mystical spirit in Protestantism, “religion becomes a branch of anthropology, chiefly of historical interest.”
The world does not want to know Christians’ speculations; it wants to know our affirmations and certainties. The popularity of the expression “the bottom line” reveals a larger story than merely the triumph of economic modes of thinking in the modern mind. The hunger is real and legitimate for a “still point to a turning world,” for a solid bottom, for groundedness and rootedness. for certainties which we can lay our hands on and say: “That may be, and so may this, and that may be too. But this is it!” We have been too inclined to see “This-is-it!” certainties as faith’s crutch. We would be better off to see them as the crux of a transforming ministry. If the modern condition, as D. H. Lawrence once described it, is “a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air,” only big affirmations can replant us in the universe.
When affirmations are negations, declarations are doubts, and answers are questions, “truth” is dressed in ill-fitting clothes that are inadequate to protect people from the cold and rain. Mystery, complexity, contingency and pluralism -- all have stood at the heart of recent liberal affirmations. And all are essentially negative and centrifugal. It is difficult to minister to the need for affirmations with “truth is relative,” especially when relativism becomes one of those analytic monsters like absolutism. Once relativism is out of the study and into the living quarters, few can ever again evict it, and it proceeds to eat us out of house and mind.
Pluralism does not affirmation make, for it is very difficult to construct a theology out of openness to many theologies, or to none. When living in ambiguity is mistaken as a positive program, it becomes especially difficult to elevate social justice as a positive, since one loses the moral capacity to shape action and spur motivation. Despite their historic and current concern about the moral malignancies of our day, mainline churches have not been able to build an affirmative identity on their commitment to social justice, and for more reason than an absence of enough of such commitment. It is difficult to speak with authority on issues of social justice when there is not enough confidence to speak with authority on issues of faith.
Or, to put it another way, can we expect our attempts to incarnate truth in social policy during the week to be taken seriously when we are tentative and modest about these truths on Sunday? This condition is one factor behind the steady decay of purpose and the decline in identity among mainline denominations: The second volume of the United Methodist Church’s “Into Our Third Century” series argues that the denomination’s most pressing need as it approaches its bicentennial in 1984 is “to develop a clear sense of purpose and identity for its life and work.” The need for a clear vision of itself is not peculiar to one mainline denomination.
Ever since Schleiermacher’s classic On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers was written in 1799, the essence of liberalism has been its attempt to confront culture on its own terms. This means that, without acculturation, the Christian message cannot become incarnate in the world. This was the case with Jesus, and it will be the case with us. But the very thing that gives liberalism its distinctive strength can, when undisciplined and uncentered, prove to be its greatest snare. Christ accommodated himself to the culture of his day to minister, not to follow. When religion loses itself in culture, it becomes lost to culture -- and loses in strength, m identity, in spirituality. We cannot follow Christ’s steps and track the meandering course of culture at the same time.
What Wittgenstein once said of philosophy (in a lecture) is equally applicable to theology: “Philosophy can be said to consist of three activities: to see the commonsense answer, to get yourself so deeply into the problem that the commonsense answer is unbearable, and to get from that situation back to the commonsense answer.” The strength of liberalism is that it shuns resting in the center and is bold enough to travel into and beyond the “common sense.” Wittgenstein continues: “The commonsense answer in itself is no solution; everyone knows-it. One must not in philosophy attempt to short-circuit problems.”
In theology, one must be careful not to overload belief with problems, either. From the purely pragmatic standpoint of human need, there is as much to be feared from the equivocations and fussiness of right thinking as from the certainties of half-baked thinking. No matter how incomplete, how partial our vision, we must be willing to move from the second stage of hard questions to the third stage of commonplace answers; from questions we cannot answer to answers we cannot evade. The mark of mature spirituality is certitude amid uncertainty: “Here I stand. I can do no other, God help me!”
Yet ultimately the issue is not that liberalism has lacked certainties but that liberals have been too inhibited about proclaiming with passion, constancy and especially self-consciousness the certainties that have been there all along. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has vigorously declaimed in The Christian Century about the “dishonesty” of any evangelistic pretensions to “certainty” or “unchanging truths” (“Evangelism When Certainty Is an Illusion,” January 6-13). Is “honesty” the abandonment of certainty’s halo around the kerygma, as Spong would have it, or is “honesty,” in the memorable words of Margaret Lewis Furse, “the constant hallowing of the truth in the situation of some doubt about the truth as a whole” (Nothing But the Truth? What It Takes to Be Honest)?
As Spong eloquently affirms, “When we say that we do not have the whole truth of God, that must not be taken to mean that we have no truth of God. St. Paul said, ‘I see through a glass darkly,’ but he did see. And so do we.” That and Spong’s moving testimony -- “The only reward Christ offers, I believe, is the Christian life of openness, vulnerability, expansion, risk, wholeness, love” -- scarcely bespeak an uncertain, “dishonest” faith. Just the opposite; these are Spong’s certainties -- the “truth of God” that he “sees” -- and they are worthy of proud placement in all liberal centers. Any preaching deserving of the name brings just such truths of God to bear on the lives of people. We cannot give with certainty what is the whole of God, but we can give with certainty some of God’s truths.
I shall never forget the impact on my ministry when I sat down a few years ago and jotted on paper “the great rocky facts of being” (Augustus Hopkins Strong): some elementary but elemental truths I felt certain of, with certainty defined as “no doubt about it” but as “convictions by and for which one lives and dies.” I now call them the gospel’s “Twelve Truths.”
1. God loves me.
2. God is not mocked.
3. God had the first word. God had the second Word. God will have the last word.
4. God speaks to us through a trinity of voices: silence, monologue, dialogue.
5. In Jesus Christ “God has visited his people” (Zacharias).
6. The Christian community exists to give witness to the central fact of history -- the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
7. The purpose of life is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” -- to grow in our love for God and in our love for each other.
8. No matter what happens to us, God can wrench good out of it.
9. Nothing can separate us from the love of God -- not our sinning, our suffering, or our dying; not a cross or mushroom cloud.
10. We can not outlove the Lord.
11. God has no hands but our hands.
12. We hold all truth in earthen vessels.
I found that if ministry were to have power, it needed to be conducted from an uncompromising position, from the vantage point of a “center that holds.” Flexibility over means to the truth is one thing; flexibility about the truth itself is an entirely different matter.
Liberals need to transcend faith’s uncertain-ties and stand up and make simple, strong declarative sentences about what they believe and know. That was done at Harvard’s founding in 1636: a profession “to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning,” and New England sat up and took notice. The effects are the same today. We must not retreat by giving up our questions; we must advance by “living into the answers” (the proper reading of Rilke’s words).
These lived answers need to be based on experiences that arise from within faith and from within community. Because truth is organic and social, it is the experience and work arising from within faith and community that bring conviction. So long as liberals attempt to go it alone, or display a readiness to pass resolutions voicing concern and decrying injustice but lack resolve to work out of their faith, an ineffectual witness is guaranteed. Until we can roll up our sleeves and lock arms, we can never be certain in our faith. Certainty is not a goal in life; it is an offshoot of a faith that lives and works.
The preacher Casey in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath says at one point, “One person, with their minds made up, can shove a lot of folks around.” At a time when liberalism needs to throw its weight around with a unified moral answer to the three big questions of our time -- peace, poverty and plenty -- there is evidence that the deep, deep sleep of liberal spirituality, from which there seems to be a reluctance to rouse, is coming to an end. For example, there is a growing awareness that if the claim is correct that some political values are universally right, then why should liberals be hesitant to declare that some spiritual values are universally true?
There is also great promise in the philosophical trail being blazed between rationality and truth by Harvard philosopher and mathematician Hilary Putnam, and the liberal way out of the jungle of relativism may well be guided by his skillful hacking away at all that divides Reason, Truth and History. Alisdair Maclntyre’s justly acclaimed After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory reclaims ethics from the anything goes” morality too often legitimated by pluralism and relativism.
Most important, the impression that liberals have given up the search for answers is beginning to disappear. If the liberal religious tradition is to regain its place as a vital force in modem culture, the two tendencies of the postmodernist temper, which Nathan A. Scott, Jr., has isolated as “negative capability” (a “disinclination to try to subdue or resolve what is recalcitrantly indeterminate and ambiguous”) and the “self reflexive” (a “retreat from the public world”), must be overcome. There are hopeful signs that the latter, at least, is taking place.
A few years ago, while visiting Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, I learned that spelunkers, before exploring unknown caverns, tie one end of a rope to an object outside. As they grope their way through the maze of passageways, they unwind the rope. Christians similarly need to be tied to some answers, some certainties on which they stake their lives. In a review of J. A. T. Robinson’s The Roots of a Radical, Don Cupitt beautifully summarizes Robinson’s spirituality: “One should be firmly rooted in a few central values, commitments, and doctrinal themes, while being open and exploratory at the edges.” I can think of no more needed definition of liberal spirituality.
The difference between conservatives and liberals is not that one group is certain and the other is not; rather, it is that conservatives are certain of too much. Liberals do not have all the answers, but they do have some. Or to borrow from Harry Emerson Fosdick a more poetic expression to describe the liberal temperament, “Astronomies change but the stars abide.”