Certainty and Skepticism

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20

I’ve been reflecting on what it is that seems to divide religious and political liberal and conservatives. These debates, discussions and disagreements seem to linger throughout history and remain a predictable part of the ongoing public discourse. If I had to sum up those quarrels it would that some see the world and the Divine with a lens of certainty and some with the lens of doubt. The former need a rock to stand on, they are not comfortable with shifting answers and want a definite law or truth or value that is never-changing and always true. They see change in value as inherently destabilizing and indicative of selfishness and moral decay. Those in the latter group view everything with skepticism and doubt. They know their history and know the change is constant, that over time some things we thought were constant turned out to be relics of the past. The litany of the examples speak for themselves; slavery, patriarchy, racism, colonialism, and a cosmic belief that our earth was flat, that the sun rotated around the earth.

And so you have it, on all matters of religious doctrine and political ideology you have these two sides challenging each other; those who believe in certainty pointing to the anarchy and moral ambiguity of a confused public and the skeptic pointing to the false god of whatever law or truth we chose to invest our certainty in today. The former group do not believe human beings are capable or living in a constant state of change and deconstruction, that we need the law, flawed as it may be (more self-aware certainty types will admit that many laws do in fact change) to provide a kind of “guard rails” to our human character, that includes a tendency to sin. These folks will say that like human parents, flawed as they are, there is a need for concrete do’s and don’ts, otherwise we risk moral anarchy.

But those on the doubt side of this debate rightly point out that these laws, temporary or permanent as they may be, almost always seem to favour those with power and privilege. They skepticism is based on the assumption that the powerful often dress up their privilege as truth and enshrine with political and religious absolutes, making any effort to question it akin to heresy or being unpatriotic. Again the evidence of this analysis is not slim, history is riddled with examples of white privileged men writing the rules, enforcing the rules and defending the rules as “eternally true”.

I think Jesus had it right, he was truth and his presence was the beginning of God’s New Jerusalem coming to be. He spoke of law as necessary but of himself as the fulfillment of the law. Some point to this text in Matthew as an example of how the law cannot be changed. However, skeptics can take heart in another Gospel text.

Jesus said to them, The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. Mark 2:27

Jesus had deliberately changed the law. This law, that the Sabbath was such that nothing happened on those days, was undone by Jesus in favour of a deeper law, the hungry needed to be fed.

Jesus left the law in place, told us that that law was important but would challenge it, upend it, change it, when this law was contrary to the Spirit of this New Jerusalem that he came to embody and live out. Surely the Church, who are called to witness to Jesus and live his Good news, can do no less. We have a law and often this law provides stability, an anchor to a society in need of constants. But dare not make an idol of these laws, they are human interpretations and therefore need constant and vigilant monitoring, if not some careful deconstruction.

As an old friend once told me, “Kevin, there are stories and there are stories. Knowing the difference between them ones we keep and the ones we let go is what we call wisdom.” Amen to that.