Reply to the dangers of certainty

Letter from Brenda Watson (reply to Lewis Stretch)

from Signs of the Times, No. 26 - Jul 2007

May I respond to the letter on 'The Meanings Of Certainty' from Lewis Stretch in the January Signs of the Times?

He makes an important point in distinguishing between absolute certainty and 'sufficient certainty to justify action'. The latter is not incorrigible but is yet both essential and unavoidable in everyday living.

One of the great weaknesses of the presumed detached academic approach is that it can result in inaction. Such inaction is never neutral but in practice favours points of view put forward and acted on by people who lack such inhibition. This is why narrowly-focussed people of limited sensitivity tend to be far more successful in wielding power and influence than those who are much wiser and more thoughtful. The latter easily appear, and often actually are, impotent in action.

To be clear about this may help to allay the fears of those Christians who see a liberal approach to faith in Christ as vague and inadequate for a lively lived commitment. Without an 'as-if-we-are right' kind of certainty on certain matters we are paralysed either to act or discuss, or indeed to admit that we were once wrong.

So does the following make sense?

Acknowledging that we have no absolute certainty involves: a) an on-going commitment to search for truth; b) being prepared to listen carefully and respectfully to others, especially those who differ from us; c) acting on the best we think we know now but being open to fresh evidence and perspectives as they present themselves; d) being humble enough to admit our creaturely status and that we cannot be omniscient as God is.

On the criticism Lewis Stretch makes in his last paragraph of grouping together the issues of the ordination of women and of homosexuality, I think he is overlooking an important distinction in types of historical interpretation. There is in the Gospels, as he says, a great deal of positive evidence that Jesus regarded women as basically equal with men, and therefore not innately incapable of leadership roles. But there is no mention of Jesus's attitude towards homosexuality. To say that Jesus insisted that 'the only legitimate form of sexual activity was that between a man and a woman in a committed relationship' rests on lack of evidence for the crucial use of the word 'only'.

Brenda Watson