IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD
From popes, to presidents, to people, most of us look for strong anchors while the world tosses us to and fro. I have no problem with the desire for certainty in life; I would love to nail down many of the vexing problems that I face. I would love to live in of world with simple, easy answers to even the most complex problems. However, that isn't the world in which we live.
My concern with our quest for those simple, easy answers to life's troubling questions is that we often get the wrong answers. There must be a better means of acquiring truth than our oft knee-jerk response of merely circling the wagons and standing foursquare with the past. In the past few years, we have seen both secular and religious leaders affirm this tried and true technique while they reject critical thinking.
This knee-jerk reaction of leaders seems to be mirrored by the masses who want to find simplicity. While some retreat to the past, history and life march onward. This retreat back to a less complex time more often than not wraps itself in flags of nationalism and/or religion.
To illustrate: Gone are the 24/7 images on TV of Terri Schiavo and the religious right demanding some different judicial judgment than the countless previous ones. However, the questions of moral absolutes still swirl-what is life, what rights do we have to end life, and questions about quality of life? Even the new pope got into the act with a sermon prior to his election. "To have a clear faith according to the church's creed is today often labeled fundamentalism...A dictatorship of relativism is established that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."
While that belief is shared by many on the religious right of all branches of Christianity, the assumption is that any of these conservative branches has gotten it right in the past. While we all seem to want definite and unambiguous answers, the Christian churches' definite and unambiguous answers were often wrong. Any brief review of the times of absolute moral certainty often reveals major mistakes. After 350 years of definite and unambiguous teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding Galileo getting it wrong with his heretical theory that the earth revolved around the sun, Pope John Paul II apologized early in his papacy for this error. Galileo was correct when he said, "The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach how to go to heaven and not how go the heavens." One would have wished the church would have gotten that central message sooner.
The Protestant church hasn't faired any better. They had clear and absolute moral certainty that witches in Salem needed to be rooted out of society to protect the God-fearing citizens of that intolerant time.
The South had moral clarity and certainty on issues related to slavery. It was abundantly clear to any Christian that slaves weren't equal to whites and that freedoms accorded to whites didn't apply to slaves. More often than not, the Bible was used to proof text their racism. Both blacks and whites have paid for that gross error in discerning the Bible and the mind of God.
Then there was the Scopes' Monkey Trial and the question of evolution. It is clear to many how God created the universe--even if the Bible isn't. The Bible recorded to two different creation accounts-something that most fundamentalists don't know.
Our quest for moral absolutes in today's world deals with issues like equality of the sexes, gay marriage, when life begins, stem cell research, quality of life issues, etc. Perhaps, we should spend as much time dealing with finding the truth as we do in formulating moral absolutes. Easy answers to complex questions should always be viewed as suspect, because the conclusions are almost always erroneous. In addition, these moral certainties that prove to be mistaken aren't merely an exercise in finding truth, they affect people's lives.
I don't really care whether the religious right looks silly from an historical perspective as with Galileo, Darwin, Schiavo, etc. However, I do care a great deal that lives of people are adversely affected by their desire to simplify the complex into neat nonsensical pronouncements. The qualities of millions of people's lives down through the ages have been adversely affected by this type of intellectual dishonesty. If the Christian churches want to talk about sin, let them begin with the treatment of women, minorities, and gays.
We need to get honest with ourselves and others. While moral certainty may look admirable, it is only a virtue if what is believed to be certain is first correct. Being absolutely certain about an issue is not a virtue if the person is absolutely incorrect about that issue.
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 6/8/05.