Probability might be the guide of life in the superficial eighteenth century, and for those who have inherited its traditions, but the men of the present times are in quest of certainty.Charles Augustus Briggs
One evening, on January 20, 1891, a man named Charles Augustus Briggs, a student of the Bible and committed evangelical Christian, gave an inaugural address at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The occasion was significant. Briggs had been appointed to the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology by the Board of Directors at Union Seminary on November 11, 1890. The professorship was new and had been endowed by the President of the Board of Directors, Charles Butler. Butler himself wished that Briggs would take up the appointment, referring to him as “one … who has been trained within [the Seminary’s] walls, and who, by his ripe scholarship and purity of character in the Christian faith and practice, has won the confidence and affection of his associate Professors, of this Board of Directors, and of the students who have come under his teaching during these years of faithful and devoted service.” Given the respect he commanded because of his longstanding devotion to the church and to the Bible, it was no surprise that the vote was unanimous. Briggs accepted the appointment on January 7, 1891, and arrangements were swiftly made for his inauguration.
On the night of that important occasion, standing in the Adam’s chapel before his colleagues and fellow believers, Briggs started out by making the declaration required of each faculty member: that the Scriptures were the “only infallible rule of faith and practice” and that he would not teach anything “subversive” of the Christian doctrines. After a member of the board introduced him to the crowd, Briggs began his address, setting out to “fully and frankly” disclose his views “with reference to those fundamental questions” underlying biblical theology.
Initially, his statements did not spark any controversy. Statements like, “Divine authority is the only authority to which man can yield implicit obedience, on which he can rest in loving certainty and build with joyous confidence” were met with happy agreement. However, as he went on, the substance of Briggs’ address shifted from a place where everyone in the room could nod in approval, to a veritable landmine of tension and dissension. What prompted such discomfort was when Briggs went on to be transparent about his beliefs:
“There are those who would refuse these Rationalists a place in the company of the faithful. But they forget that the essential thing is to find God and divine certainty, and if these men have found God without the mediation of Church and Bible, Church and Bible are means and not ends; they are avenues to God, but are not God.”
“The Reformers brought the Bible from its obscurity for a season, but their successors, the scholastics and ecclesiastics of Protestantism, pursued the old error and enveloped the Bible with creeds and ecclesiastical decisions, and dogmatic systems, and substituted for the authority of God the authority of a Protestant rule of faith. The Bible has been treated as if it were a baby, to be wrapped in swaddling-clothes, nursed, and carefully guarded, lest it should be injured by heretics and skeptics. It has been shut up in a fortress, and surrounded by breastworks and fortifications as extensive as those that envelope Cologne and Strasburg.”
“Upon the English Bible our religious life is founded. But the English Bible is a translation from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek originals. It is claimed for these originals by modern dogmaticians that they are verbally inspired. No such claim is found in the Bible itself, or in any of the creeds of Christendom. … The text of the Bible, in which these languages have been handed down, has shared the fortunes of other texts of other literature. We find there are errors of transmission.”
“It has been taught in recent years, and is still taught by some theologians, that one proved error destroys the authority of Scripture. I shall venture to affirm that, so far as I can see, there are errors in the Scriptures that no one has been able to explain away; and the theory that they were not in the original text is sheer assumption upon which no mind can rest with certainty.“
And on and on he went.
At the end of the evening, people were polite and congratulated Briggs on his new appointment, however, it was inevitable that his remarks would spark outrage. As news of Briggs’ address spread across the various churches, it was obvious to his conservative opponents within the Presbyterian denomination that something had to be done to discipline and silence him for pronouncing such odious beliefs. And so, on one afternoon in May 1893, Charles Augustus Briggs was put on trial for heresy by his own denomination in Washington, D.C.
I share this story of Charles Augustus Briggs with you because his story is the story of so many people who were brought up in the bosom of the church. Where at one time in our lives the church welcomed us because we shared exactly the same beliefs, the church cast us out (or made belonging an impossibility) when we started to question and re-examine those beliefs. Seen in this light, the church is really no different than any other social group. We, too, enforce conformity through callous means such as shame, exclusion, and exile. More often than not, this happens in the absence of trial proceedings like the one Briggs was subjected to, but we put people on trial nonetheless.
To journey through this life as a person of faith is not easy, but even more difficult when our own communities foster unsafe spaces for people to be honest about their journeys. One need only read the story of Charles Augustus Briggs or examine the conversations that take place on Twitter or Facebook to see how much mudslinging takes place when people are honest about where they stand, even among self-professed Christians. Whether honesty compels someone to share that they no longer want to be part of a particular denomination or that they are gay or that they can no longer accept that the Bible is inerrant — whatever it is that honesty compels someone to admit — the church needs to do a better job of creating safe spaces. Spaces where the immediate and instinctive response is not to condemn or criticize people into towing the line or into sameness, but to love, support, and respect them; in times of peace, when love comes easy, and in times of change, when love may be harder to give.
You would think that as Christians we would be above terrible and reprehensible behaviour, but we are not. Sadly, there are countless Charles Augustus Briggses (Jesus among them) who have been cast out by their communities, which begs the question: Why do we dig our heels in or attack others when it comes to the things that we believe? What compels people like the ones that put Briggs on trial to ostracize, condemn, and shame those who do not, or no longer share, the same convictions? My honest opinion on the matter is that we are all obsessed with being right and with certainty, and expect others to share our view of the truth. Chalk it up to sin or psychology or neurobiology, whatever it is, the way we relate to rightness has significant consequences for how we relate to people. In my view, any Christian who takes seriously the command of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves and to do unto others as you would have them do unto you should feel that this matters. It matters how much being right matters to us.
But never mind the detrimental effects that this predilection can have on religious discourse or family conversations at the dinner table or friendships or marriage; I find it baffling we can be so brazen when it comes to being certain we are right about our beliefs when none of us has overcome the blight of human fallibility. Last time I checked humans hadn’t gained the power of omniscience. In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schultz writes, “A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.” When it comes to being certain about our rightness, we are all like four year-olds insisting that Santa Claus is real.
But when in our history on this planet have we ever believed something that has escaped the revising or correcting pen of time? Just last year, scientists believed and confidently declared that the novel coronavirus was not airborne. Today, more and more scientists are (finally) coming to accept the reality that the virus is spread through the air and that this is its primary mode of transmission. For nearly two decades as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan believed that an economy left to correct itself, free from government regulation, gave rise to economic prosperity, and many hailed him as a “maestro” of the postwar U.S. economy. In October 2008, in the throes of the global financial crisis, Mr. Greenspan testified before a congressional committee that he found a “flaw” in his free market ideology and that he “made a mistake” in presuming that self-interested organizations such as banks were in the best position to protect shareholders and equity. For centuries, Christians used passages from the Bible to support the view that Blackness was the result of Noah’s curse on his son Ham in Genesis and that Black people, who were believed to be descendants of Ham, were, thereby, genetically inferior to whites and could rightfully be enslaved. By the early nineteenth century, more and more Christians were convinced that this was a very bad interpretation of a few texts in Genesis and that slavery was a sin. Better late than never.
If we are constantly revising and correcting and amending and changing, what then drives us to love being right and crave certainty so much? If you ask Kathryn Schulz, she’ll tell you it’s because we fear being wrong and have an aversion to uncertainty, and I would agree. We fear error because being wrong can be humiliating, upsetting, destabilizing, devastating, and make us wish we could disappear or that we never existed in the first place. Not surprisingly, this fear is what pushes us to become more obdurate, not less, about the things we believe when we find ourselves in a battle of convictions. (Years ago I got into an argument with my now brother-in-law about politics and knew he had made some really good points that rendered my position completely faulty, but because I could not stand the idea of being wrong, I kept on insisting that my view was absolutely the correct one. I hope you can relate.) Similarly, we are averse to uncertainty because it exposes us to a universe much too open, much too wide, and much too ill-defined for our liking. It’s like the moment before you have an experience that you’ve never had before, but you know you’re about to have it: it’s scary as hell. The fear of the unknown is real and palpable. No wonder that, in order to jettison that unwelcome feeling, we insist that our beliefs are right and solid.
However, what’s interesting to me (and Kathryn Schultz) is that, despite our fear of error, it is error, not rightness, that points us in the direction of what it means to be human and to be alive. Were it not for error, we would have no reason to revise or correct or amend or change what we believe about anything. We would never have learned that the novel coronavirus is airborne, or that unfettered markets can lead to irresponsible practices that conduce financial crisis, or that slavery is wrong. Were it not for error, what would point us in the direction of truth?
Let me come back to faith and the Bible. If there are truths behind a veil (or multiverse or tenth dimension or whatever you want to call it) that we cannot easily verify (such as the existence of God), what makes us think that we, on the other side of that veil, could never be wrong about what we believe is behind it? To say that the Bible has all the answers is not an answer because even if the Bible does contain or provide a gateway to the elusive truth, we can get the Bible wrong, too. (See the above regarding Christian views on slavery.) The thought may be frightening and unsettling because we want the assurance of knowing that we could never get the Bible wrong (not when we’ve got Jesus on our side), but time and time again, history has taught us that this is what is true about our experience as humans: We get things wrong; all the time. We are forever playing catch-up and guessing and approximating and taking incremental leaps of faith towards the truth, even though in that very same moment when we believe we are right and that we have arrived, we could be absolutely, totally, and completely wrong. Why does this happen? Why do we get things wrong with such regularity? According to the Apostle Paul, “where there is knowledge, it will vanish away” because we only “know in part” and we “see through a glass darkly.”
But being human and knowing in part because of it doesn’t have to be some lamentable reality. If God wanted people who were omniscient, we would be gods, too, but we are not. (If a god is created by another god is he still a god?) To say that sin is the reason why we err also doesn’t make make much sense because that would mean that if there was no sin we would never have erred, and to never err means we would have been omniscient (or at least something very close to it). So maybe we are exactly as we were meant to be: People designed to learn and grow through the misadventure of being wrong from time to time. Maybe part of being a human at one with God is knowing how to respond to error: with mercy, with grace, and with compassion, for ourselves and for others. Maybe sin isn’t merely error, but resisting change and being “stiff-necked” in the face of error; because having what the biblical writers would describe as “uncircumcised” (or what we would call inflexible) hearts and ears, causes separation, suffering, and death. Maybe living an abundant life means being open to growth and change; to being born again and again and again in the direction of Truth, Life, and Love. After all, how do we learn if we cannot be wrong? What is there to change or grow if there is no possibility for mistake and error or imperfection? In the words of the late Indian mystic Osho, “I love this world because it is imperfect. It is imperfect, and that’s why it is growing; if it was perfect it would have been dead. Growth is possible only if there is imperfection.”
I must admit that this topic is a source of fascination for me because our preoccupation with certainty and being right reveals so much about how little humility we can have, even as Christians – the very people one would expect to possess boundless levels of it. I have seen this in my own life, in my family, and in the larger body of Christ. It doesn’t take much in the way of a tense conversation to realize that the absence or insufficient supply of humility (and flexibility) leads to division and polarization. Consequently, the topic may be one I find fascinating, but it is far from abstract. In fact, for many, including myself, it is deeply personal.
Our preoccupation with certainty and being right also reveals a lot about what we think God is like and what he wants from us. Many Christians are afraid to believe a teaching or doctrine that is objectively incorrect (whatever that even means) because we have been taught that what we believe has eternal consequences. I can’t imagine how being taught this way can produce people who are at peace. (I know from personal experience that it does not.) If anything, it produces inflexible and anxious people who are consumed with getting it right so that they can avoid spiritual exile or God’s wrath or damnation (the very things we do to each other to enforce conformity). But not only that, perhaps more importantly, it produces people who believe that God could be as inflexible as they. Is God so inflexible that he would rather that I cut off a gay family member from my life rather than shelter them in a safe relationship with me? Who has loved their neighbour as themselves? The one who cuts their family off, or the one who provides them with a safe relationship?
I have to say that what I have learned over the years is that God seems to be far less interested in us “getting it right” than in us growing closer to the truth. People who are consumed with getting it right are very hard to teach because they tend to have preconceived notions of what they believe is right and they are not easily persuaded to change them. The verities of today are the verities of tomorrow. As a result, people in this category are suspicious, prone to legalism, and plagued by a deep-seated anxiety. These are people like the legal expert (likely a Jewish theologian) who tried to test Jesus about what he had to do to inherit eternal life and who was his neighbour. They think they already know, and have, all the answers. People who want to grow closer to the truth understand what it means to have faith as small as a mustard seed, and they appreciate that life is filled to the brim with imprecision and uncertainty that to err in what we believe is an incontrovertible inevitably. We are bound to get things wrong from time to time, with little things like what the weather will be like tomorrow and with the big things like what happens after we die. But – and I hope I have driven this point home effectively – this second category of people understand that there is nothing to fear in embracing the possibility of error because it is through this “poverty of spirit” – it is through holding our beliefs with open hands – that we are brought closer to truth. If Jesus is the Truth, as Christians believe, how does he draw you to himself when you are rigid and immovable?
Concomitantly, it is through this “poverty of spirit” that we experience the fullness of what it means to have faith. When we are humble and are open to questions, when we allow doubt to refine our truths-for-now, when we listen with sincerity to others who do not share our view of the truth and consider what they have to say with grace, we begin to understand that the deep and abiding presence of the ineffable, mysterious Divine is here: in living the questions. It is in being right and wrong for now. It is in the journey from here to there. It is in the humblest of statements: “I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Teach me.”
I imagine that when the legal expert in Luke asked Jesus who was his neighbour that he was sure that Jesus would give him an answer that was consistent with the prevailing beliefs at the time. Of course Jesus would tell him that his neighbour was a fellow Israelite! This is what the religious teachers had been teaching for hundreds of years! Who else could possibly be his neighbour? What a shock it must have been to hear Jesus’ parable unfold and learn that the hero, the quintessential neighbour, was a Samaritan (!) who helped a defenseless Jew. What a shock it must have been for this man to learn that God could consider someone outside of his social, religious, or political group – someone outside of God’s “chosen people” – to be his neighbour. If he were receptive at all to what Jesus was trying to tell him, this expert in the law might have asked himself how he could have been wrong the whole damn time. If he were wise, he would have looked to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach me. My heart is open.”
The internal work that has to take place in order to admit that we were wrong or that our knowledge is limited or imperfect is not easy. It is one of the most difficult things that mature humans must do. But that work is so essential and vital to living a life of integrity, to progress, and to creating safe spaces with our neighbours, both inside and outside the church. We all share a common experience: our fallibility. None of us is in any position to know everything and we can only do our best to listen to that still, small Voice calling us in the direction of Truth, Life, and Love, and to act accordingly.
This difficult internal work to which I refer is, of course, none other than what Brené Brown would call heart work. It is heart work because it is work that involves the stuff of what’s in here, the part of us that reveals whether we have, or are willing to have, a “poverty of spirit”; the part of us that reveals whether we can sit down with the Charles Augustus Briggses in our lives and listen and learn from them.
So, do we have the courage to stand in our fallibility with humility and with open hands? Are we brave enough to stumble on the way to truth? Can we live the questions without fear?
God, I hope so.
I really do.
James Kugel discusses the story of Charles Augustus Briggs in How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. You can read Briggs’ inaugural address here: *The Authority of Holy Scripture (squarespace.com)
An interesting read on the neurobiological reasons why we are preoccupied with certainty is Dr. Robert Burton’s book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.
The reference to Jesus’ command to love our neighbours as ourselves is in Mark, Chapter 12, verse 31.
The reference to Jesus’ command to do unto others what you would have them do unto you is in Matthew, Chapter 7, verse 12.
I cannot recommend Kathryn Schultz’ book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error enough. I wrote about how being wrong about what I believed spurred my own faith journey two years ago, before I ever picked up this book. It has been such a blessing to read. Please read it. In my view, it is probably one of the most important books you will ever read.
For a story on Alan Greenspan’s testimony before the House committee in October 2008, see NPR’s “Greenspan Admits Free Market Ideology Flawed”.
Ibram X. Kendi discusses the curse of Ham theory in his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
The Apostle Paul talks about knowledge passing away because we know in part and see through a glass darkly in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13. This chapter is also his treatise on what love is.
Although most Christians believe the Bible to be the Word of God, the fact is that the Bible is far from clear on many issues. Because the Bible doesn’t provide clarity on many things, it is nothing like an instruction manual or FAQ page. If it were, there wouldn’t be as many disagreements as there are among Christians and there wouldn’t be an astonishing 45,000 denominations. (Even now, I’m sure someone disagrees with me and believes that the Bible is very clear.) I don’t say this to tell you that we should discard the Bible. (I certainly don’t feel that way.) I say this to remind you that the biblical texts were written by fallible humans and that they have been, and are being, interpreted by humans that are just as fallible. Does this mean that it has no light to offer? Of course not. All this means is that we, just as the people who wrote these texts, perceive this light through a glass darkly.
Referring to the work of the philosopher Leo Keeler, Kathryn Schultz points out that Thomas Aquinas, one of the most influential Christian thinkers from the medieval period, thought that we are prone to error because we were cut off from divine truth after Adam and Eve sinned. In other words, we err because of sin.
The reference to “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised” hearts and ears is from Stephen’s (revealing) rebuke against the Jewish Sanhedrin (or council) in Acts, Chapter 7, where he said this before his stoning by the religious authorities: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” Stephen was another early Charles Augustus Briggs.
If you ask me, if God wanted us to get things right all the time, there would be no prospect of error in our lives. In any event, the concept of a God who would expect fallible creatures to be infallible just seems cruel to me. It would be like expecting my dog to sprout wings and fly.
The story of the legal expert and Jesus is in Luke, Chapter 10, verses 25 to 37.
The reference to faith as small as a mustard seed is from Matthew, Chapter 17, verse 20.
I have borrowed the term “poverty of spirit” from Richard Rohr in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, but the reference is from the first of the beatitudes in Matthew, Chapter 5, verse 3.
Brené Brown uses the term “heart work” in The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.
In this piece I am not suggesting that we cannot believe anything or know anything. We believe things all the time and there are many things we can know. I am merely pointing out that there are limitations to the human mind and, thereby, limitations to how we know and what we can know. These limitations apply to Christians and non-Christians alike, which is why we can get the Bible wrong, too. Because all humans are fallible, each of us must be willing to hold our beliefs not with closed fists but with open hands: to listen, to consider and evaluate, to rethink. Always.