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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Truth stranger than fiction

Normally I stay clear of religion and politics in my blog, but this week I just can’t ignore the craziness bombarding us. There comes a time when staying within the safe and respectable writerly world, simply won’t do.

We’re rather inured to improbable happenings on our screens in dramas, aren’t we? Professors of neurosurgery who beat the living daylights out of a colleague who taunts them, and then walk straight into theatre and perform some intricate ground-breaking surgery on a patient to widespread acclaim. High ranking detectives who get suspects into quiet corners and extract information by foul means. All without repercussions. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. And yet, reviewers are wont to criticise authors quite harshly if their characters don’t ring true; a person in that position in those circumstances just wouldn’t behave like this, wouldn’t say that.

Well, if I were to include in my novels some of the real-life activities in the news recently, I’d be accused of writing unbelievable fiction too. Or dubious hyperbole, at the very least. I ask you.

Mature (in years) men, MEPs, indeed, brawling … abroad  … when they are supposed to be representing their country …?

High ranking ministers promoting harsh discriminatory ideas completely opposed to views they themselves expressed as their deeply-held beliefs when they were lower down the food chain … ?

A last-lap US presidential nominee, bidding to lead the largest and most powerful free country in the world, who has already openly scorned many minority groups (eg muslims, immigrants), now admitting he has sexually abused women …, seeing them as the entitlement of any ‘alpha male’ … especially ‘a star’ …?

Hugely important questions about Brexit being decided by a tiny cabal with neither MPs or the people having a say …?

Large numbers of high-earning BBC employees being accused of dodging taxes …?

Hmmm. Looking at this list I note they’re all except one about politicians. Houses of ParliamentOK, I could develop that theme but it could get nasty, so instead I’ll share my thinking about the matter of credulity.

Decent civilised people living in decent civilised communities tend to assume the integrity and honesty of public and professional figures. We want to trust doctors, lawyers, policemen, teachers, clergy, royals, social workers … we want our children to be able to trust them. But coming on top of all the scandals exposed by the media in recent years, these current horrors challenge our credulity. Can this really be happening? How is it possible? The more I thought about this, though, the more I realised that this is the stuff of thrillers. When apparently trustworthy people step outside the boundaries of the acceptable and believable. Unreliable narrators, unscrupulous colleagues, immoral perpetrators.

Shutter IslandFor example, this week I watched the film Shutter Island, a disturbing glimpse inside the world of insanity. US marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) is sent to Boston’s high security prison for the criminally insane, on a remote hurricane-blasted island, to investigate the disappearance of a female murderess. Daniels himself has a traumatic past having witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities at Dachau and lived through his wife’s murder. But on the island he is determined to gain access to the ward where the most dangerous patients are housed, a ward in a lighthouse to which the medical team are denying him entry. It’s a film that challenges received wisdom, professional facades, and the limits of humanity. What is believable? Can I trust what I’m seeing and hearing?

Nor is it just thrillers that do this. I’ve also been reading All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a beautifully written, haunting novel about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphan German boy, Werner, whose paths cross in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It’s by no means a thriller, but inevitably there are troubling scenes that make us question just how far humans can sink and still retain their humanity. Happenings which Marie-Laure’s great uncle says ‘sound like something a sixth-former would make up.’ In other words, unbelievable. But of course we today know about the atrocities of that era, and much as we might inwardly recoil and think, Surely not, we know these things were real and do/did happen. They become utterly credible in a spine chilling kind of way.

Spine chilling. Now that’s what I’m pondering in my own writing at the moment. I’ve always worked consciously to make my characters believable. For each book I’ve asked a raft of experts as well as discerning readers, to check the manuscript for credibility before it goes for publication. But I’m starting to wonder if any of us can predict how low human beings can sink, or how unlikely any extreme behaviours really are. And now that I’m experimenting with thriller-writing, perhaps I can push the boundaries further in my writing about a young mother who exhibits pathological behaviour, without being condemned by the literary critics. Certainly I need to keep pushing that ‘What if’ button. See how far I can go.



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