Claims of (un)certainty
He leans across the table when he asks me, right there over the hush puppies and fried cheese curds. “When I read how Jesus lived and what he taught, I can get behind that,” his eyes are serious and deep, almost pleading, “but what about the rest of it? The claims of certainty about things that cannot be certain. Heaven and hell, resurrection, life after death. How do you deal with all of that?”
Jazz music is playing in the background. We love this New Orleans style restaurant, with its alligator décor and its cozy lighting, and this is our first double date with friends we don’t know well yet. Sometimes I’d like to have the option not to wear my Christianity like a scarlet letter, but as long as the whole “what do you do?” question remains acceptable small talk, I think it’s going to be unavoidable.
How do you explain words like “seminary” and “minister” without talking about religion?
So I tell him how I deal with it, with all the claims of certainty about the uncertain. Or, at least I fumble through some kind of answer. I tell him he’s not alone, that all kinds of Christians too are wrestling with these very questions. That, for me, it’s about resting in the mystery and not making the mystery into answers.
Creeds without checklists
There’s no checklist, I say, at least not one that anyone would actually be able to live up to.
This is how my creed would start, I tell him.
I would say: Love?
And we would all answer: Love!
I would say: Is it complicated?
And we would all answer: It’s complicated.
I say: Life is good?
We say: Life is good.
I: Is it complicated?
We: It’s complicated.
He nods, yes yes I can believe in that. Love and goodness and complicated mystery. Questions without answers, community without checklists.
I tell him about Peter walking out to Jesus across the water because he believes so hard that he can’t not be part of the miracle. But then, the storm is enough to make him doubt what he’s already experiencing and he sinks, hands out toward God: “Save me!”
I tell him about the father in Mark, desperate for healing for his child who’s already dead, who utters the deepest words of truth imaginable: “I do believe, help me my unbelief.”
Is there ever not both, I wonder. Is there ever belief without unbelief, walking on water without sinking into doubt? I imagine myself like Peter, somewhere between walking and swimming, blind either to the fearsome storm around me or to my own extraordinary capability.
It is, indeed, complicated.
When the conversation lulls, we all lean back in our chairs simultaneously, as though on cue, and the moment feels pregnant with intimacy even though we are silent. We take a few breaths, pay the bill, gather our things.
“I’m impressed how long we were able to talk about religion without arguing,” he says, and we all laugh appreciatively.
I think to myself: Jesus never said his name wouldn’t be divisive, did he? But he did say his name was love. Complicated, mysterious, storm-stopping, water-walking love. In that creed I believe, help me my unbelief.