If You Say Your Certainty

If you say your certainty is a matter of faith—is no one else allowed faith?

If you say your certainty is a matter not of a choice you’ve made, but of what God has shown to you—has God really spoken to no one else, has God really only spoken to you, or to those who’ve taught you?

Has it not occurred to you that every certainty you hold about your religion is held by someone else about theirs?

Has it not occurred to you that they think you are as foolish, odd, and misguided, as you do them?

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For instance: a novelist, adopted and raised by a strict Protestant denomination in England, described the following event from his childhood:

I was about seven years old, and there was—and there still is—a memorial in High Street to, I think, three Protestant martyrs, who were burnt by [the Catholic] Queen Mary. And [my father] very solemnly told me that One daythey’re going to burn me here…. He believed that the forces of the Pope would join with the forces of the Communists, and there would be this sort of a Moscow-Rome axis that had only one aim, which was to extirpate true Protestantism from Britain. So I was brought up to hate the Catholic Church, and to hate its liturgy, and to hate its decorations.[i]

This is remarkable, because I grew up almost exclusively among Catholics, and I doubt any of them could imagine that, to others (let alone other Christians), Catholics were the evil ones. It would simply have never crossed their minds; while to someone else, it is the easiest thing to believe.

No matter our religious, political, or social persuasion, someone out there thinks we are evil, we are “what’s wrong with the world.”

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Similarly, I know of two brothers, one Catholic and one Lutheran. Both rail constantly against what they agree are society’s ills, such as homosexuality and abortion. Yet the Lutheran has told me numerous times that he believes the Catholic Church is evil, while the Catholic has suggested that all other denominations of Christianity are mistaken, but I don’t know of a time they have ever discussed this.

Yet it seems that, rather than commiserating over what they agree about, they might learn something deeper by discussing their own fundamental differences. If someone so close to them is revealed to be a decent human being despite their disagreements, the same might be true about millions of strangers who are otherwise merely condemned as cogs in the “great evil” that is modern society. (In the same way, I’ve always thought the Catholic Church should be arguing birth control and divorce not with unbelievers or liberal lawmakers, but with Protestants who have no problem with it.)

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An exercise I go through that helps me is this: whenever I attend a wedding or a funeral, or hear of a young person suddenly experiencing doubts about his religious faith, I imagine a wedding or funeral anywhere else in the world, overseen by rituals different from those I have experienced; or I imagine a young person, merely in a different city or country, who is experiencing the same doubt, just over a different religion.

Do those who believe in exclusive truth really think that such rituals which commemorate a marriage, or one’s death and life, are a waste of time, or worse? Is the young person unsure of religion doubly mistaken, and is his anguish doubly pathetic, not just because he is doubting God, but even doubting the wrong God?

Or, is it just possible that such incidents, rather than isolating us, can remind us we are not entirely alone? What would it mean to a young Catholic or Lutheran or Presbyterian, to realize other people are doubting in the same way, about a God they’ve never heard of? What does it mean, to know that couples are consecrated, and the dead are mourned and memorialized, in ways and using words and addressing God or gods that are utterly alien to us?

 

 

[i] Bernard Cornwell, interviewed on Desert Island Discs in 2004, starting about 5:50 from the download that can be retrieved here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/00f984e6.

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