Uncertainty in theology

by Frances Young

I guess we’re not very good at confessing uncertainty, but I was challenged to address the theme at a Science and Faith weekend.

I began with the recently circulating film, Silence – a dramatic realisation of a novel I’d read years before, by a Japanese Christian author who imaginately retells a true story.[1]

It’s 1643 and two Portuguese Jesuits set out for Japan, a place where Christians are savagely persecuted, to search for their former teacher and mentor who had disappeared. There were rumours he’d apostatized. The priests are hidden by Christian peasants and watch their sufferings; the main character is betrayed, imprisoned, and prepares to die as martyr.

The ‘Silence’ is the silence of God. Desperate prayers are repeated:  ‘Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent?’ (p. 153) “… you never break the silence,” he says. “You should not be silent for ever”.’ (p. 172) ‘The sea was silent as if exhausted, and God, too, continued to be silent.’ (p.  210)

The novel thus captures that sense of God’s absence which has been the 20th century experience. ‘If I were God, I wouldn’t let my children do to each other what they do,’ said a Professor of Jewish descent. Uncertainty is everywhere.

That God is Creator and sustainer of all that exists is fundamental to Christian theology, but the kind of creationism some defend is not, nor indeed the claims of intelligent design as usually enunciated. God is not to be conceived as a craftsman, needing some kind of material to make things out of. God created everything other than God out of nothing. And for anything other than God to exist the infinite God has to withdraw (Simone Weil wrote, ‘Creation is an act of abandonment’). The absolute otherness of God is fundamental, and the reason why there are no knock-down philosophical proofs. It is also the reason for the apparent absence of God.

Religious language must always be a sign, a symbol, a metaphor – that’s why the name of God is unutterable in the Jewish tradition. Religious epistemology involves profound agnosticism, but it is an agnosticism with a particular stance – neither indifference, nor intellectual superiority. Rather a profound intellectual humility before the known unknown.  Without doubt,  every concept of God, every linguistic description, becomes an idol, a projection, a reduction of God to a mere item in the universe.

Thus, uncertainty lies at heart of Christian theology.

Human nature craves certainty, control and closure.  That’s why it’s so easy for religion to breed dogmatism,  intolerance, etc., and it’s why fundamentalism resorts to literalism. The need for control is precisely why it’s necessary to establish the principle of uncertainty at the heart of theology.

Let’s go back to Silence.  The book/film is not  only a profound commentary on the absence of God, but also on the nature of love.

He had not been able to save the Christian [peasants]… His pity for them had been overwhelming; but pity was not action. It was not love. Pity, like passion, was no more than a kind of instinct. (p. 219)

Cross-examined and held in solitary confinement,  he identifies with Christ:’ My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Yet gradually he becomes more and more uncertain. The Inquisitor says, ‘you came to this country to lay down your life for them. But in fact they are laying down their lives for you.’ (p. 220) His old teacher challenges him: ‘You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say you will apostatize … they will be saved from suffering…  Is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here … certainly Christ would have apostatized for them… For love Christ would have apostatized.’ (pp. 168-9). So he apostatizes and lives uncertainly with the terrible guilt of betrayal.

You can never be certain – all you can do is let go of the need for control, and TRUST. For trust in a moral and spiritual reality vastly bigger than yourself, beyond yourself, a reality capable of creation and re-creation, of blessing beyond anything we can ask or think – that’s what faith is.

[1] Shusaku Endo, Silence (Japanese, 1967; Penguin, 1988).

2 thoughts on “Uncertainty in theology”

  1. Hi Francis,
    Sorry but I cannot go along with this God abandonment theme. For me God is always with us, even in the worst of times. He cannot intervene directly as that would interfere with self will, we would just be puppets in a God play. He is there when people answer the call of his Spirit, whether they believe or not. I think especially of Bob Geldorf or Oscar Schlinder. I see God there in our emergency services, in NGOs, in doctors & nurses, those who feed the hungry or work for peace. God is there always, as Wesley last words, ” Best of all is, God is with us.”
    Secondly, I cannot agree with you on the words of Jesus on the cross. I have heard the same over Holy week by others. How can Christ feel abandoned by himself? Unless we do not believe in the Trinity. Jesus would know the scriptures & seeing the scene before him, the abuse, the rolling of dice, it would remind him of Psalm 22, which ends in hope. Isn’t the cross hope in a hopeless situation? Jesus said to the disciples, “I will be with to end of the age,” Quite right.


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