Insisting on Certainty, or Comfortable with the Mystery

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 3, 2013

Job 11:4-9 TNIV

When it comes to religion, there are those who insist on certainty, and then there are those who are comfortable with complete mystery.  The implications of that statement go much deeper than we might first imagine.

First, let us consider those who insist on certainty when it comes to religious beliefs and doctrine. Their frame of reference won't allow them to be comfortable with unknowns or grey areas.  I know, because in my younger years I was one of those who felt the need to have everything cut and dried, with lines of truth clearly drawn.  Many who fall into the camp of needing certainty and everything clearly defined are ready to defend their beliefs with the phrase, "But the Bible says..."  If I can believe that because the Bible says something then it is true, and if I know the Bible from cover to cover, then I can have my world of religious faith and practice neatly boxed up, and I can take comfort in that.

And so, there is a certain amount of security in religious certainty.  If I feel that I know the exact nature of God; if I have an unequivocal knowledge of what God requires or what it means to be “saved” or “right with God;” and if I am convinced of what it will be like in the afterlife, then I do not have to question or wonder.  I can find contentment in my religious certainty.  And for many people, that is the only way they can get along in this world.

But what happens when I realize and am willing to admit that the Bible itself often contradicts itself? And what happens when I realize and am willing to admit that a literal interpretation of the Bible often is in contrast to what we know today to be scientifically and rationally true? Where does my sense of religious certainty stand then?  Before I was twenty years old, I had read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation.  And I had noticed that the Bible didn’t always agree with itself.  For instance, there are a couple of places in the Old Testament where King David calls for a census or numbering of the people of Israel.  In one account the writer says God told David to take the census (and then God was angry with David for doing it, 2 Samuel 24), and in a different account the writer says Satan incited David to take a census or number the people (1 Chronicles 21).  Obviously, one account was a pro-monarchy, pro-David viewpoint, and the other account was an anti-monarchy, anti-David viewpoint.  But for awhile, this discrepancy bothered me.  Then in the book of Acts, when Saul (who was to become Paul) is struck down by the blinding light from heaven, there are two different accounts.  One says those who were traveling with Paul heard a voice, but saw nothing (Acts 9:7).  But a later telling of the story states that Paul’s traveling companions saw a light from heaven, but heard nothing (Acts 22:9).  That, too, bothered me.  If you insist on taking the Bible literally, and need a sense of certainly, how do you reconcile such inconsistencies in the scriptures?
One of the possible ramifications of religious certainty is intolerance.  If I am certain of my religious convictions and they are true, then yours, if they are different, must be wrong.  Such, as you very well know, can and does lead to religious fighting and waras, as we see in the Middle East today.
But let us consider those who are comfortable with the Mystery.  Others are comfortable not knowing all the answers about the Bible, God, “the will of God,” the afterlife, and so on.  Such are able to welcome and enjoy each day as it comes without having to have all the answers about religion and life’s mysteries.  Instead of having a definite idea about the nature of God, such are comfortable with acknowledging God to be the Great Mystery.  Instead of having to be certain about the afterlife, such are able to relax, believing that whatever the afterlife holds, it will be okay.  

Oglala Sioux Chief Luther Standing Bear put it well when he said, “For after all the great religions have been preached and expounded, or have been revealed by brilliant scholars, or have been written in fine books and embellished in fine language with finer covers, man—all man—is still confronted with the Great Mystery.”

Such seems to be the message from the book of Job.  Job’s friend, Zophar the philosopher, rightly observed, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?  Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?” (Job 11:7).  The obvious answer is “No, you cannot.”  Who are we to think that we can understand the mysteries of God?  That being the case, we should just learn to be comfortable with and embrace the Mystery.

Religion News Service carried an article a few weeks ago about Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.  Some members of this United Church may remember that Spong was here to give a series of lectures in 2005.  Spong is 82 years old now, and he has published 24 books.  When interviewed, Spong stated, “The older I get the more deeply I believe but the fewer beliefs I have. . . I have a sort of mystical awareness (of God) that’s indescribable. . . .  When I’m asked to define God I’m almost wordless.”

One of the books I read during my sabbatical was Brian Swimme’s, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmo.  Swimme observes, “Conceivably for as long as three hundred thousand years, humans have huddled together in the night to ponder and to celebrate the mysteries of the universe in order to find their way through the Great World they inhabit. . . people told the sacred stories of how the world came to be, of what the human brings into the universe, and of what it takes to live a noble life with the Great Holy that is the universe.”

One of the primary functions of religion from the beginning of human interactions has been to ponder the great mysteries of life, the universe, the Creator, why there is suffering and death in the world, and what happens after death.  But when all is said and done, if we are completely honest with ourselves, and as Chief Luther Standing Bear said, we are left with the Mystery.  And that is okay.

Several years ago, before Opryland theme park closed (much to my dismay, I might add), there was an indoor roller coaster that twisted and turned, went up and around and down in total darkness.  The ride was called Chaos.  When I first started riding Chaos, as soon as the ride started I could feel myself tense up all over.  I would lock my arms in place, and my neck would be as rigid as a telephone pole.  And I would be that way until the ride had ended.  Consequently, every time I exited the ride, I would have a stiff neck.  Well, eventually I allowed myself to just relax and be comfortable in the dark and enjoy the ride. Relaxing and being comfortable in the dark made the ride so much more enjoyable.  And when I exited the ride, I didn’t have a stiff neck either.

Such can be a metaphor for religion.  If we insist on complete certainty in our religious beliefs and doctrine, needing to have everything cut and dried or have everything fit neatly in a little box, we will be uptight if someone or something questions our religious belief system.  We might even go through life “stiff-necked,” which is itself a metaphor for those who are religiously rigid or dogmatic.  But if we can just relax and be comfortable with the ride in the darkness—in the midst of Mystery—the ride of life can be so much more pleasant.  At least, that has been my experience.  Like Bishop Spong said, my own beliefs over the years are fewer, but stronger.  And I have learned to be comfortable with, be fascinated by, and even embrace the Mystery of God and the Mystery of the Universe.

Brian Swimme concludes in The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, “It may be that in the next millennium religious convictions will be awakened and established within the young primarily by such meaningful encounters with the mysteries of the universe, and only secondarily by the study of sacred scriptures.  The task of education then will focus on learning how to ‘read’ the universe so that one might enter and inhabit the universe as a communion event.”3  Such is something for church leaders to ponder.

There is an axiom that says, “The more we know, the more we realize how much we don’t know.”  Yet, one of the greatest blessings of life—of my life, anyway—is the ability to gather here in religious community and together ponder the Great Mystery.  After all, that is what religion is about.  Amen.

1David Gibson, Religion News Service, Oct. 10, 2013.

2Brian Swimme, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996, p. 9.  3Swimme, p. 101.




About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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