Saturday, June 22, 2002

The Opposite of Faith is Certainty

The following is a talk presented to Grace Connection on June 22, 2002, by Heather Isaacs, then a graduate student at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

“The opposite of faith is certainty.” Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral on NPR last September. When I first heard these words last fall, I was midway through a very difficult semester in my first year at seminary. I was in a spiritual and intellectual freefall. All of my fundamental beliefs about God, the world, and myself had been wrecked. A friend of mine likened the first year of seminary as “spiritual bootcamp” where we were systematically broken down to our basic components only to be rebuilt. It did feel like that. Every day another ideological rug pulled out from underneath you. The funny thing was that I had come to seminary believing I had already had MY faith tested. But I had no idea what the year would bring. I had no idea that I was going to lose faith completely. So when I heard this statement: “The opposite of faith is certainty,” I felt this was the key to the start of my return to faith. I didn’t have to KNOW anything to believe. Coming from a tradition that likes to proof-text every doctrine I felt liberated from KNOWING.

But that hasn’t meant I wouldn’t like to know sometimes. Especially when I don’t have answers to questions that people I love are struggling with. Just recently, two friends on two separate occasions shared with me how alienated they feel within Adventism. Both of these friends were, like I was, raised in the church. We all attended PUC together. We each have aspirations of working for the denomination in our respective fields. But we each have had the common experience of feeling unwanted, unwelcome.

One friend commented on how lost she felt in the denomination. She described Adventism as an “entity” that was responsible for making her. And like Frankenstein, she has become a monster to her own creator. My other friend says that an Adventist education taught her to think for herself. But now that she can think for herself, she feels punished for stepping outside traditional Adventist boundaries.

As for myself, I have been searching for a community within Adventism where I would not have to explain my presence or defend my beliefs. One the best experiences of the past year was being in the midst of non-Adventists who did not agree with me theologically and yet never once feeling like a heretic or a freak. My teachers encouraged me to think critically for myself. And most often, I was prompted to share more of my own theology as I am currently the only Seventh-day Adventist at San Francisco Theological Seminary. In one year, I witnessed more women ministering from behind the pulpit than I had in my entire life.

I’ve learned what I love most about Adventism and what I have to let go in order to live out the faith that God sustains in me. And this puts me in the borderland. Where I don’t quite fit inside Adventism but I’m also not going anywhere else just yet.

I am frustrated by the number of people my age who are either no longer active in the church or so discontented that their activity brings them grief. But I am comforted by the knowledge that our experiences of religion are not entirely unique. The unresolved tension between personal and institutional identity is at the root of many faith crises. What makes the individual? What makes the institution? Who is the individual apart from the institution and vice versa? These questions were just as relevant to the writers of the biblical text as they are now for us.

I would like to spend some time today with a Bible story that doesn’t often get attention. Until this year, I hadn’t known the story was even IN the Bible. But reading it closely, I have found myself asking a number of questions that lead me to believe this passage, like many others, needs to be pulled back into the working canon.

Before we read the text, a little background.

In the world of ancient Israel before the Fall of Jerusalem in 587/86 B.C.E. the Temple built by Solomon was the center of the cosmos. There was no separation of church and state. Politics, economics, and religion were inseparable realities. We have little sense about what this would mean. The institution of our religion touches us tangentially in comparison to the religion of ancient Israel. The Medieval Church, the Puritan experiment, and certain Muslim countries today offer only partial comparisons but help modern Christians have a better sense of religious life in ancient Israel. I can imagine few scenarios where it would be harder for the individual to exist and to act independently in the midst of institutional life than the one presented by ancient Israel. For example, religious observance was characterized by a highly ritualized sacrificial system that required a constant flow of resources. If you weren’t part of the priestly class responsible for burning the sacrifices, you were most likely part of the peasantry working to provide animals for the sacrifices. Everyone was involved in the work of the Temple.

Although the Temple signified the heart of Israel, contact with surrounding nations like Assyria and Egypt often included the adoption of other gods and rituals and the setting up of rival shrines. But the biblical writers were very clear about the nature of religious faith and national success. If Israel observed the covenant with Yahweh, Yahweh would defend and strengthen Israel for all history. If Israel broke the covenant, Yahweh would punish and destroy Israel. As we know, Israel was continually making and breaking covenantal agreements with Yahweh. By the time Josiah came to reign in the latter third of the 7th century, Israel had seen a string of monarchs who had abandoned the covenant with Yahweh. With the exception of a few kings like Joash and Hezekiah, the Bible records that Israel and Judah were habitually turning away from the law of God.

Josiah was enthroned as king of Judah when he was eight years old. 2 Chronicles 34 records that Josiah was 16 years old when he began “to seek the God of his father David” and 20 years old when he began his religious reforms, tearing down the Baal altars and Asherah poles that had permeated Judah. Even as a young man, Josiah was responsive to the covenant made by his foreparents to Yahweh. Several years later, Josiah initiated the restoration of the Temple, which appears to have fallen into disrepair after generations of negligence.

We’ll pick up the story of Josiah where he has ordered Shaphan, the scribe, to the Temple to settle some building accounts with Hilkiah, the high priest. When Shaphan arrives at the Temple, Hilkiah has found something very valuable...

Read 2 Kgs. 22:8-20 and 23:1-3 (also found in 2 Chron. 34).

The first question that comes to my mind when reading this passage is: What was the Book of Law that was found in the Temple and how did it get lost? Modern commentators who view this event as historical tend to agree that what was found in the Temple was actually an early form of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Mosaic Book of Law. How was such an important document lost then? Losing the Book of Law demonstrated how far removed Israel was from the religious heritage of their Israel’s foreparents.

The second question that I ask after reading the text is: How do we decide what something means? And once we know its meaning, what do we believe about it? In our church how do we decide what to believe or not believe? Is it a communal process dependent on members of the community or is it more selective and exclusive than that? During Josiah’s reign, The Book of Law was passed from high priest to royal scribe to king without full understanding of its meaning. So Josiah commanded a group of high ranking officials to “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found.” The five men went to speak to Huldah, a prophetess. Walter Brueggeman notes that it is important that a female prophet is recorded here and that the text makes no special fuss about it. As a rule, Israelite society was strongly patriarchal and excluded women from most positions of power and leadership. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of misogynistic images of violence towards women. The feminist theologian Mary Daly believes the Bible is not salvageable for any self-respecting woman because of its blatant patriarchal bias. And yet, in this instance, there appears to have been exceptions to the rule as Huldah demonstrates. When the Book of Law was rediscovered, men of God sincerely sought out the will of God and were subsequently able to recognize the gift of prophecy in a woman of God. Huldah was not only included in the community’s search for meaning, she clarified and directed the search as God led her. The search for God’s will in the life of the individual and the institution led the political and religious leaders of Judah onto a path that ran counter to the social norm. When I consider that I cannot remember a single sermon ever preached on this text, I have to wonder if it might be the problem that Huldah presents to our current social norm. Because when exceptions to the rule are possible, the rule is somehow undermined. Huldah challenges the argument that women do not belong in positions of leadership in the church. More importantly and broadly, the text asks us to open our minds and hearts to who God may utilize as our teachers and leaders.

And if we take a closer look at Huldah’s oracles, we see that the first concerns the fate of Jerusalem, foretelling the destruction of the Temple in a short time. The individuals who have aligned themselves with the corrupt institution will suffer as well, Huldah says. But in her oracle concerning Josiah, she speaks for the LORD telling Josiah through his representatives that, “because your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they would become a desolation and a curse, and you tore your clothes and wept before Me, I also have heard you.” Josiah would be spared the destruction of Jerusalem and die in a world where the Temple still stood at its center. A dubious blessing, admittedly. But what catches my attention here is the distinction between institution and individual. BOTH are accountable to God in the end. But the individual has the freedom to SHEMA, to hear, to obey, to repent, to grieve, to change. The hope then is that through the conversion of the individual heart the community will be changed, the institution will be reformed.

When Josiah heard the Word of God, he was ready to obey the Word of God. In Adventism, we have often interpreted the Word of God as the laws of God, the do’s and don’ts of God, the literal Word of God that cannot be challenged or reflected upon for cultural relevancy. But what do I think Josiah heard more than anything when Shaphan read Deuteronomy to him for the first time? What do I think made him tear his garments in an act of repentance and mourning? I believe its hidden in the text, in Ch. 23:3 where the words that have formed the cornerstone of Jewish faith for millennia, the SHEMA found in Deut. 6:4-9, are alluded to: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” In the Hebrew, the text more closely says, “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with All YOUR ALL.” This is the very text that Jesus quotes when the expert of the Law, a Pharisee, asks him which is the greatest commandment (Read Matt. 22:34-40).

Now, this passage out of 2 Kings is not perfectly parallel to our own situation. Primarily, I don’t believe God operates as a loanshark who is friendly to you as long as you keep up with the interest but is ready to break bones the moment you fall behind. I do think, however, this is an effective way of explaining why bad things happen in the world and perhaps the most easily accessible to the human experience of cause and effect.

The passage also falls short of an acceptable modern application because even though Huldah represents an exception to patriarchy, Josiah’s reforms never included an expansion of the exception. But then, maybe this does parallel Adventist experience—as a church we were willing to listen to one woman, one exception, because her visions were too loud and wonderful to ignore. As Josiah’s time had Huldah, ours had Ellen. Nevertheless, we found ways of containing their influence, of not speaking about the first and legitimizing the second in the church while keeping other women in the margins of church life. Rather, these women should be lifted as leaders of the Church and as examples to all women about the potential for their participation in their religious communities.

I don’t really have an answer for my friends or for myself about our participation in the Adventist community. This is the part of NOT knowing that I have grown most comfortable with. I think this is because I know that I am only accountable to God and that my church family is the entire body of Christ. Whether or not I belong to Adventism, I will always belong to God. And if the two paths of belonging were to diverge at some point, I know the path I would take.

A couple of days ago I looked up the rest of the interview on NPR that Alan Jones had participated in with other clerics from different faith traditions and I read the rest of what he said about faith which seems like an appropriate quote to approach the end with. He said, “I learned from my teacher that the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty, and that the kind of religion that proclaims certainty is in fact not religion at all, but pathology." Pathology may seem like a harsh word but it fits. Because the last thing we can afford as believers is stagnation or entropy. And being CERTAIN is the quickest way to atrophy the practice of faith. Indeed, I have learned for myself that the opposite of faith IS certainty. Therefore, a condition of faith is uncertainty. But a working uncertainty that is constantly searching out the face of God. Faith is open to change and through change NEW faith. Our hope for the denomination is the same hope we have for the world. That the Spirit of God can transform individual hearts to heal institutional wounds. If you do not know where you belong, begin here: Be faithful, not certain. Be open and vulnerable to the surprising work of the Spirit of God in your life as an individual and in the life of the institution. And LOVE the Lord your God with ALL your heart, and with all your soul, and with ALL your ALL.

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