On Certainty

Sunday 2nd July 2017
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
1 Samuel 28.3-19
Luke 17.20-37

It is tempting on such occasions as this to depart from theology and enter the realm of philosophy to try to define the meaning of the term certainty. The problem can be summed up in the famous paradox: "The only thing that is certain is uncertainty" which is a neat linguistic statement signifying nothing. We can be certain that the future is uncertain but how that uncertainty will manifest itself is beyond our computation, so the nature of the certainty in the proposition is an abstract theoretical idea not related to the concreteness of the predictions it makes.

Don't worry, I'm going to stop there, simply making the point that as a pattern recognising species we are obsessed with certainty; we invented the whole subject of mathematics to achieve a high level of internally consistent numeric certainty; we constructed atomic physics such that we could predict the existence of certain elements before we actually found them; and we design all kinds of systems to limit uncertainty, in good causes like fire prevention or in bad causes like exercising dictatorial control over other people.

Now we might all laugh knowingly about the absurdities of Mystic Meg or about daily horoscopes in our newspapers but astrology and the use of mediums played a powerful part in the political histories of Ancient Greece and Persia, and Rome and, even though it should not have done so, in Israel; and although we consider ourselves now to be far beyond that superstition, we have simply substituted our understanding of human wisdom to try to keep control of events. We might stick a pin in a list of horses or study the form book in great detail but it doesn't make much difference in the end. And consider, for a moment, the wisdom of the pundits before our most recent General Election, the American Presidential Election and the EU Referendum last year.

To give him his due, Saul did try to get some sense out of The Lord but when he was ignored he resorted to a medium to raise Samuel who confirmed the bad news which Saul knew in his heart anyway. The bloody, bitter end was very near.

In our rather more enigmatic New Testament reading the problem is the same b but this time it comes in the form of questions about the coming of the kingdom. The great advantage of knowing when the new order will begin is that you can get ready for it in a not dissimilar fashion to the way in which the older we get the more anxious we are to file our insurance policy with the almighty.

But there is, I think, a serious flaw in the way Luke reports this episode and that is the large part played by pragmatism, a feature shared with the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Be watchful because you never know when you will be overwhelmed by the future hardly states a high ideal and it tends to push us towards a transactional way of looking at our relationship with God.

The critical point, however, is that certainty is an illusion. Over time the certainties of philosophy, authority, geography, medicine and even physics have been overthrown by discoveries and paradigm shifts. To put it into a crisp formulation by the great mathematician Kurt Gödel: the more complete a theorem the less applicable it is.

Which leads us, as it should, to the centrality of Christian hope, the most neglected of Saint Paul's great trio but the aspect of our Christian lives which is most required at the moment and which we should carry like a light in a darkening world. If we look around us we see despair and bewilderment, we perceive the shallowness of human wisdom and human promise of happiness, we flounder when we are asked about the cause of human misfortune and unhappiness; but to all these our response should not be a set of intricate, philosophical arguments but a plain, simple statement of hope.

The promise to put right what is wrong in our world comes from God made man in Jesus, a God who has never and, on the evidence, will never break his promises. That is why I object to theologians who classify "hope" as something that we might ardently pray for but which corresponds to the ordinary use of the word "hope" as in: "I hope the weather is fine tomorrow." The fulfilment of our hope, the good news we carry in the world, is as certain as any article of our faith based on the earthly history of Jesus.

Charity is easy to describe though difficult to live up to; faith can be extremely divisive but we can get to grips with the issues it raises; but hope is the casualty of our introversion. As we learned from the aftermath of Grenfell Tower, you don't have to be a Christian to perform deeds of charity; and as we know from the last 100 years of our history an obsession with the minutiae of theological disputes on faith simply splits us into ever smaller factions; but what people want from us is neither a moral lecture on the Christian superiority in the sphere of charity not Christian superiority in the matter of faith; what people want from us is hope and that is what we should give them by proclaiming the Good News.

Sadly, we have made things more difficult for ourselves and for the world by under-valuing hope while claiming an illusory certainty in the nature of faith and a dangerous conviction that we are the purveyors of charity. We are all sinners and we will all be saved. What more can we want?