The dangers of certainty

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy (reply by Lewis Stretch)

from Signs of the Times, No. 23 - Oct 2006

As the Anglican Communion continues to tear itself apart, one cause of dispute is the claim to certainty.

It baffles liberals. As long as we think we may be wrong, we accept that those who disagree with us may be at least partly right. We expect variations in belief and practice, and we take it that one of the arts of living together is to get along despite differences of opinion. It is when we think we know the truth with absolute certainty that the reasons for tolerating dissent evaporate. Despite the detailed theories of hermeneutics by evangelicals like Anthony Thiselton, the conviction that women or gays cannot be bishops is characterized in public debate by certainty-claiming decrees of the type 'Scripture tells us the answer, so that settles the matter'.

Certainty has a long and tragic history in western Christianity. In the early Middle Ages, when educational standards were low, it made sense to look back on the ancients as sources of truth which their own generation could not match. The bible needed to be interpreted, but they believed it contained truths more certain than any contemporary theories. This conservatism provided the background to the later debates about faith and reason, when church leaders often claimed that no amount of scientific research could provide knowledge with as much certainty as biblical texts. Eventually science and religion agreed to go their separate ways, permitting science to use reason but upholding the certainties of divine revelation in spiritual matters. Church leaders had to turn a blind eye to history, as they already had plenty of evidence that central doctrines like the atonement, incarnation and trinity had been bitterly debated over the early centuries, not handed down complete from on high; but they did so to preserve their claims to certainty.

The Reformation made certainty both impossible and essential. There was no longer a single church; competing authorities declared themselves the one true defender of divine revelation. European Christians, taught that eternal hell beckoned for those who did not belong to the true faith, had to make that all-important decision for themselves. Doctrinal certainty became a psychological necessity. Calvin offered the doctrine of assurance - God gives some individuals an inner sense of assurance that they are among the elect - but in reality not even he could provide the certainty needed.

Two alternative solutions developed. Early Enlightenment philosophers retained certainty but transferred it to reason. Descartes, Locke and others judged that in order to establish their alternative methods they needed to show that reason could equal divine revelation in producing certainty. Classically, Descartes gave us foundationalism: we begin with self-evident first principles, and logically deduce truths from them. Nineteenth century secular thought used the idea to invert medieval dualism: science produces facts - which we know - while religion only produces beliefs and opinions. This gave the cue for their religious counterparts to treat the bible as the self-evident first principle from which all truths can be deduced, thereby creating fundamentalism.

The other major reaction against excessive claims for divine revelation was to reject certainty. Richard Hooker argued not for the supremacy of reason instead of Scripture or tradition, but that all three are needed to balance each other. In this way he avoided foundationalism. He kept the search for knowledge open. Discovering truth is not a matter of beginning with some certainties and deducing others from them, but of allowing different authorities, each informative but fallible, to interact and produce insights, some of which may be genuinely new. What we know is uncertain and open-ended. Hooker therefore concluded that new practices in the church, and new doctrines, may sometimes be right. His system dominated Anglican theology for centuries.

Today, this Anglican system has an ally in secular thought. Scientists knew all along that they did not have the certainty which foundationalism offered. Philosophers took longer, but realized in the twentieth century that the only thing we can know with absolute certainty is the contents of our own minds. Far from beginning with first principles and deducing certainties from them, we begin as babies, experiencing and noticing, and we gradually build up our own unique picture of reality. As long as the parts cohere, the picture survives; when some element is challenged by new information, we make changes.

It seems ironic that now, as secular thought is increasingly recognizing that we do not have the certainty we used to expect - even, perhaps, in mathematics, let alone the sciences - certainty is being reaffirmed in the Church, with a revived neo-Calvinism threatening the more open-ended Anglican tradition. It seems as though claims to certainty, like condemnations of homosexuality, are increasingly encouraged by the Church just as they are increasingly rejected by society. Is this, one wonders, an indication that Anglicanism is redefining itself as a counter-cultural sect, responding to its declining influence by retreating into its own world, and cuddling up to its traditional doctrines, like comfort blankets, so as not to face up to its own failings?

There is something fundamentally irreligious about claiming certainty for one's views. All the world's religions teach standards of morality, and all theories of morality reject solipsism. We have to recognize that our mind is not the only one. Other people have minds, with opinions and feelings, like ours. As children we learn that when we poke a finger into somebody else's eye, it hurts them just as it would hurt us. Later we learn - or should - that when we feel absolutely certain that we know something, and other people feel equally certain that they know the opposite, we cannot take it for granted that our own sense of certainty trumps everybody else's.

Yet this is what, in practice, is being done in religious debate today. It was one thing for medieval Catholics to claim certainty for the Church's teaching, assuming that there was only one church and therefore only one route for divine revelation. It is quite another, in today's world full of competing religious theories, to claim one's own beliefs bear the stamp of divine certainty but those of others do not. How can certainty-mongers avoid the charge of solipsism? In practice, the usual method is to claim that their doctrine is the doctrine of the true church. So argue the opponents of women bishops and gay bishops. But there are too many claimants to the title of true church for the argument to convince. One suspects that that central moral doctrine of all religions, that we ought to recognize other people as basically like ourselves, is being undermined by the loudest religious voices in the West.

Once those claims to certainty become acceptable, the history of sectarian Calvinism illustrates all too well what happens. Every time powerful certainty-mongers disagree with each other there is another split and another new denomination. Those who demand certainty are granted bigotry.

So far Anglicanism has lived without certainty; we have been willing to worship together with people of diverse opinions. But if the Church of England does turn itself into a counter-cultural sect, as many of its leaders seem to want - or are willing to accept as the price of unity - this will be in store for us. In the short term the Church may retain more outward signs of success - money, church buildings, bishops. In the long term, though, it will lose more rapidly the status it is already losing with the ordinary unchurched - those who have some religious sense, like the church to be there, and remain our main source of potential new attenders. When its certainties are revealed, as they will be, as the prejudices of a passing age, it could end up being just one more outdated counter-cultural sect generally perceived as cranky. Despite the pressures and campaigns of the present day, Anglicanism would be well advised to continue recognizing its uncertainty, and with this, retain its open-endedness, inclusivity and willingness to change.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.