The certainty of uncertainty

Into the unknown

Epiphany 2011

Matthew 2:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God in whom our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Amen.

David Jenkins, formerly Bishop of Durham, gave a series of lectures in the late sixties on the nature of Jesus and the nature of humanity. In setting the scene he says in part: “The act of faith is not consciously or explicitly a Christian one. It simply involves a readiness to believe that there are areas of human experience and avenues of human knowing which are worth exploring with openness, perseverance and hope.  We do not have to know in advance what we have to be open to, nor what we are persevering for, nor what we have hope of. But we have to believe that openness, perseverance and hope are proper and, indeed, demanding possibilities for human beings and we have to act on this belief. Such action will demand patience.  We shall have to be patient in pursuing investigations far enough to allow the course of the investigation to disclose whether or not it is fruitful.”[1]

Too often the word “faith”, especially in the religious context, has been employed to suggest unquestioning belief in something that is otherwise unbelievable or irrational. When a person doesn’t understand something – in particular with regard to religious belief, they are often told that they must simply take it on faith. Such a presumption has the dual effect of dismissing as unimportant a person’s inquiry or concern and also of denying, and ultimately destroying, the curiosity which gave rise to the question. It assumes that the journey’s end is fixed and constant and that one can get there only with closed eyes and mind shut.

It is true that there is a great deal within the realm of Christian belief which is, at first glance, incomprehensible and that there are some things which we take as truths or which we believe to be true on the basis of experience or on the testimony of others. That does not mean that, as a matter of faith, we should put to one side all manner of inquiry, for faith that does not retain an openness to possibility is not faith at all. “Faith” which assumes the status of certainty is no longer faith, but a stagnant confidence in a state of affairs created entirely by human imagination.

The idea of faith as exploration is a useful one. Faith is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end and even the end is vague and un-definable. The end of faith is not able to be neatly packaged and defined but remains a mystery to be discovered and unfolded. In faith, we approach our goal not knowing what it really is, but trusting that we will discover what we seek when finally we reach our journey’s end.

Faith then is not an end but a beginning. It derives from a sense that there is something more to life than what we see around us. It emerges from dissatisfaction with the material world and a restless yearning for a deeper and more meaningful existence. Faith is an openness to new experiences and to new ways of being. It is a willingness to be led by the spirit into new dimensions of existence and new ways of knowing. Faith is not a rigid conformity to the known but an exploration of that which is, as yet, unknown. It is an adventure which leads us through the vicissitudes of life until we come at last into the presence of God.

Today we celebrate the coming of the magi – those mysterious characters who follow a star to find a king. In taking the star as their guide, they were able to suspend, at least for a time, their need for certainty and assurance. On the basis of very scanty information, they were willing to step outside all that was familiar to seek out something about which they had only a very little real knowledge or information. Their curiosity, their willingness to look beyond the surface, their openness to new experiences, their ability to allow themselves to be led and their refusal to be waylaid brought them at last into the very presence of God.

Their ability to be open to the experience and their trust in the journey rather than in its outcome, meant that even when their journey did not end where they expected – in a palace, surrounded by wealth and power -they did not lose confidence but simply sought more information before setting out again. They did not begin with pre-conceived ideas, but rather, sensing that something important lay ahead, they kept on searching until they had discovered what and where it was. They were not disheartened or surprised when they found that which they sought in the most humble of circumstances, nor did they think their journey wasted or their gifts unnecessary. The end was simply as they found it, not as they had imagined it to be.

The journey of faith is somewhat similar to the journey of the magi. Beyond a few generalized hopes and expectations, we have no definitive road map and no absolute certainty as to what lies at the end of the journey. Though we have our scriptures and the words of the wise who have gone before us, we like the magi must day after day step out in the faith that there is more to life than we can see and more to death than the grave.

If the nature of God is always just beyond our reach, then the nature of faith is to retain an expectant openness to what God might reveal to us, a hopeful eagerness to learn more, a courageous willingness to let go of the need for absolute certainty and an ability to live with the tension of incompleteness. To do otherwise is to reduce God and Christianity to a set of reproducible formulae, to confine God to what is known and knowable, to remove the spiritual dimension from faith and to be content with only that which can be seen and felt and described.

Our journey of faith is an exploration of the unknown, a quest for meaning and a longing for God. If we have the confidence to let go of certainty and to embrace the uncertainty of the journey, we like the magi, will come at last to the only place in which we are truly at home – safe in the eternal presence of God.

[1] Jenkins, David E. The Glory of Man. London:SCM Press Ltd, 1967, 15.


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