Hazel McHaffie


The Sin of Certainty

I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood lately in my reflections on my sister’s life.  One important element in that upbringing was faith. We were brought up to espouse a fairly narrow set of doctrines, and to live within pretty rigid boundaries. This gave us a very firm set of moral values but, I now think, shrank God to a size our finite minds could comprehend.

In my adult life I’ve unravelled all this and now have a very different understanding of what’s important, and what holds up in the face of the challenges and tragedies that come our way in our day to day existence. And perhaps it’s this journey that inclined me towards a book by Peter Enns called The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust more than our ‘Correct’ Beliefs.

Peter Enns is an American Biblical scholar and theologian, and he has a delightfully readable, self-deprecating style of writing. He, too, grew up within a narrow set of beliefs, and indeed, was so wedded to his particular brand of Christianity that he studied theology and taught it with absolute confidence for decades. But gradually life knocked holes in his certainty about what was right, and this book explains why his outlook is now much changed.

You need to read the book to appreciate the evolution of this thinking, but suffice to say he asks how we can reconcile belief with the absurd reality of life? He doesn’t shy away from the big fundamental issues like:
– the collision of the Bible and science
– the portrayal of God as violent, vengeful, blood-thirsty, immoral, mean, and petty in the Bible
– the problem of injustice and suffering
– the issue of many faiths and denominations
– the problem of Christians treating each other badly
… and so on.
Questions that will resonate with many of us, I think.

And Enns concludes that there is no way our human minds can come up with all the answers. Far from being encapsulated in a creed, God is shrouded in mystery. Rather than relying on our own intellectual capacity to explain and believe, he concludes, we need to learn to trust. Trust in a God who is infinitely bigger and more awesome and more loving than anything our finite minds can conceive of. And trust regardless of what  challenges come our way. Trust anyway.  What’s more, he discovers, letting go of certainty can lead to us being much nicer people! And hey, I’m all for moving towards a world populated by nicer people.

Maybe my purpose on earth isn’t to be the thought police first and love others after all their ideas line up as they should. Maybe my first order of business is to risk my own sense of certainty about God and love others where and how they are no matter how they do on my theology exam.

I’ve hopefully learned (feel free to keep me honest here, people) that being right and winning isn’t the endgame here. Loving as God loves is.

He has replaced the old arrogant way of buttoning everything up, with a different way of re-imagining thinking about God and faith. A seven point plan:
1. Embrace modern understanding.
2. Accept we can’t get our minds around God.
3. Let go of certainty.
4. Adjust our expectations about what the Bible can deliver.
5. Be aware of God-moments.
6. Realise God is not a crutch.
7. Accept that struggling with faith is normal.

Right book, right place, right time.

Curiously, it’s one of the few books I’ve read twice!



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Absolute Proof

It was an article in the daily newspaper that first alerted me to the publication of this unusual book:  Absolute Proof by internationally bestselling crime writer, Peter James. It’s noteworthy that, back in 1989, James was not the success he is today, neither had he shown any great interest in religion, when, out of the blue, he received a phone call from an elderly gentleman claiming to have been given irrefutable evidence of God’s existence, and saying that Peter James was the man to help him get it taken seriously. That call was the start of a 29 year exploration into exactly what the consequences of such proof might be. It fed into James’ personal obsession with why we’re here, what happens after death, what is good/evil, and his innate passion for the subject drove him to pursue the idea. The end result is a 560 page novel which challenges and informs, troubles and intrigues, in equal measure. And I was delighted to receive a hot-off-the-press hardback copy from DJ as an unexpected gift!

Theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, who died in 1274, said that ‘To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible,’ and I suspect the beliefs and opinions of each reader will influence how they approach and interpret this tale, but knowing its origins does give it some added mystery and appeal. And the author himself declares that writing the book left him believing in an ‘informed intelligent design’ of some kind.

So, to the story-line. Ross Hunter is no stranger to weird or terrifying experiences. He’s an investigative journalist who likes to push his own limits, dig deep in the murk. But even he is taken aback when Dr Harry Cook – former RAF officer and retired professor of history of art – contacts him, saying he’s recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence. He’s been advised that Ross is the man to get it taken seriously. Ringing bells so far?

Intrigued, Ross meets the man. Dr Cook seems utterly and touchingly sincere; he really believes that together they can save the world. What’s more he brings with him three persuasive inducements: a written text from God, running to 1,247 pages; messages from Nicky, Ross’ dead twin brother, that not another living soul could possibly know; and three compass coordinates. These coordinates are the locations for three lost religious treasures: the Holy Grail; the DNA of the Lord Jesus Christ; and something related to the Second Coming … So far, so Dan Brown, huh? But religious advisors tell Ross that it would take more than three compass coordinates to prove God exists. What would it take? A miracle which defies the laws of physics, beyond human replication, seen by all the world. Furthermore the advice comes with a dire warning: anyone finding such proof would be in grave danger of being assassinated so high are the stakes for both religious and political leaders.

Naturally enough, given that this is a Peter James’ creation, there are several unscrupulous groups of people who will stop at nothing to get their hands on these invaluable objects. And also as you’d expect, all the ingredients of a crime thriller are there …
– a vast cast of characters – aesthetes and penitents, ruthless businessmen and serious scientists, atheists and devout believers
– complicated backstories which gradually unravel
– dark secrets, disturbances or psychological damage in the past histories
– a secret people will kill for
– mortal danger, chases, threats, murders
– all the unprovability of faith and religion pitted against science and medicine, economics and mathematics
– a smattering of drug dealing, sexual depravity, extortion, blackmail, addiction, greed.

The long list of acknowledgements pays tribute to the thoroughness of almost three decades of research, and the detailed insights into the Bible as well as scientific thought and understanding are indeed impressive. And yet, James leaves room for something in between – ?coincidences – ? ‘God’s calling cards‘ as Einstein put it. And when you’re hunting down the Son of God, anticipating his impact on the world today, that seems entirely feasible and appropriate!

The caller who planted the seeds of an idea in Peter James’ mind back in the 1980s said that God was very concerned about the state of the world, and mankind needed to have its faith in him reaffirmed. Plenty of people today would agree. Whether this book would contribute to that high aim is more debatable.

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