The Problem with Certitude
As I've read and listened to Christian reaction in the wake of Obama's interview stating his personal opinion on same-sex marriage, I've been discouraged with the nature and tenor of the conversation itself. Specifically, I'm troubled by the way many Christians choose to take definitive and certain stances about complex issues, and the rhetoric they use to state and defend these positions, rhetoric that tends to divide rather than unite and close discussion rather than open it.
I'm interested in exploring what it is about the Christian religion, and perhaps more specifically, evangelicalism that results in such an approach.
I fully understand the attractions of certainty. From my study of C. S. Lewis I know that his popularity among evangelical Christians in the 1940s and 1950s was largely due to his style of certitude. Lewis was writing in a time where scientific discoveries and religious liberalism were challenging the assertions of orthodox Christianity. In a period of doubt and questioning, Lewis seemed to have a way of cutting through complex arguments and reaching a simple solution that was convincing to his readers.
But the style of certitude also has its problems, especially when addressing complex issues like same-sex marriage and homosexuality. For example, take Mitt Romney's commencement speech at fundamentalist, evangelical Liberty University. In the speech itself, Romney only addressed the issue once, but he addressed it in tones of certainty: "Marriage," he declared (to roaring applause), "is a relationship between one man and one woman." Here's what an audience member had to say in an NPR interview when asked about her position on same-sex marriage: "It's wrong. There's nothing else to say about it. It's in the Bible." This audience member's attitude was pretty close to the old bumper sticker: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it."
Some Christians use phrases like "The Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality is sinful." I want to respond: Is it really, really so clear as all that? Don't you want to open up some room for discussion here? Are you aware that some Christians who read the Bible arrive at a different place?
Instead of certainty, I want to argue for uncertainty. Instead of definitive positions, I wonder what would happen to the climate of discussion if more people said things like "I don't really know what I believe about this issue" or "I would like to hear more stories from my gay and lesbian friends before I develop my position." Or even, as President Obama said prior to his interview, "my position on this issue is evolving."
What I'm suggesting here is that there is a cultural tendency in evangelical Christianity that does not leave room for "evolving" positions, complexity, uncertainty, or doubt. Rather the assumption seems to be that every Christian should have a clearly defined position on every social issue and even that for some issues there’s only one acceptable position to take. I wonder if conservative Christians were more disturbed by Obama’s lack of certainty on the issue prior to the interview than they were by his stated opinion in the interview.
So here's my modest proposal. When discussing these controversial issues as Christians, can we exercise enough humility to temper our statements? Can we resist the temptations of certitude, realizing that it draws lines in the sand and reinforces stereotypes that non-Christians already carry about those of our ilk? Can we learn the use of conditional phrases like "Based on my understanding of scripture" or even "I might be wrong about this" or, God forbid, "my views on this are evolving"? Can we remember Anne Lamott’s friend, Father Tom, who suggests that the opposite of faith is certainty?
Doubt is not a four-letter word — even for Christians.
Gary L. Tandy is Professor of English and English Department Chair at George Fox University. He is the author of one book and several scholarly articles on the life and works of C. S. Lewis. He and his wife, Janet, live in Newberg, Oregon.