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Wild Goose Festival
Courtney Perry/© Wild Goose Festival
Wild Goose Festival

Certain about uncertainty

Religion | The unguided pilgrimage of today’s emergent church will not have a pleasant destination

Issue: "Bright or rotten idea?," Oct. 5, 2013

When the Apostle Paul found himself in Athens, he was distressed by the multiplicity of idols on display. The Athenians were eager to recognize all possible deities—even an “unknown god”—while offering sincere devotion to none of them. They liked nothing better, Luke says, than to pick over trendy ideas on Mars Hill without coming to firm conclusions.

The Wild Goose Festival is an echo of Mars Hill tucked away in the 21st century, a gathering of gentle spirits in the hills of North Carolina for four days of music and spontaneous dancing, talks, and panel discussions. Attended by “recovering fundamentalists, mainliners, evangelicals, agnostics, neo-pagan-Christians, ‘nones,’ spiritual-but-not-religious, and everything in between” (according to blogger Brandon Robertson), the guiding lights are mostly from the emergent church movement. At this year’s Wild Goose—supposedly the old Celtic term for Holy Spirit— a good time was had by all. What better fun than grooving “on the forefront of a radical re-imagining of Christianity”?

It’s actually radical reimagining number 1,638 (more or less), for Christianity is always being reimagined by dreamers as diverse as Arius in A.D. 325 and Joseph Smith in 1820. It is always “emerging” to meet the peculiar challenges of each new age.

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In our age, recovering fundies, mainliners, neo-pagans, etc. have been examining traditional Christianity and believe it needs to stop being so darn sure of itself. “Thus says the Lord” is unnecessary baggage that the church had better drop if it wants to survive for another century. “Certainty is the enemy of truth,” says Frank Schaeffer, currently demonstrating Newton’s third law of motion* against his venerated father. “If people were certain, there’d be no science because people would say, ‘Well, we know everything’. … Same in marriage—nothing to learn, nothing to explore. Same in parenthood, and of course for our idea of God. ...”

And of course, for our idea of truth, which has emerged to mean something other than objective principles drawn from the way things really are. Emergent Christians celebrate a god whose dimensions are too vast to pack into a rigid set of doctrines. At the same time they are pretty sure that God would approve same-sex marriage and deplore this summer’s Supreme Court decision on voting rights. One might even say they are certain of it.

Human reason always builds on a platform of presuppositions: ideas or principles that reason accepts as self-evidently true. Accordingly, Frank Schaeffer, after knocking down a simplistic paradigm of Christian certainty, offers a simplistic paradigm of his own: “Create beauty, give love, find peace.” But while we occupy ourselves with these gentle abstractions, what’s to stop someone motivated by rock-solid certainty about their own power to stomp in and smash it all to bits?

Ask Friedrich Nietzsche. “Convictions are a more dangerous enemy of truth than lies,” he wrote, in a collection of aphorisms titled Human, All Too Human. Truth, for him, was not a positive statement but an evaluation of what might be left of humanity once the “God-hypothesis” had been sifted out of it: a naked “will to power” that could, with any luck, be directed toward creative and positive endeavors.

Today’s enemies of certainty add God back into the equation while hoping for a similar evolutionary leap. But all unguided pilgrimage and process seems to lead in a circular path right back to the heart, where lurks, God tells us, only deception. Most spiritual pilgrims may be people of good will who want everybody to be happy. But a lack of certainty can also be a lack of determination, grit, and moral courage, turning wild geese into sitting ducks when tyrants arise who are too sure of themselves.

“What is truth?” asked Pilate, unaware that he was looking right at it. Our confidence must be grounded in Christ, built on what we know of him from his own word. This kind of certainty is no enemy of truth—but remember, that truth will always make enemies.

*For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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