Never Having to Say You’re Certain

by Becky De Oliveira

My husband Japhet and I host a podcast called Daily Walk. It’s a pretty simple format: we read the portion of Scripture we’re focusing on for the week in one of several translations and then discuss a question related to the text. We’ve been slowly making our way through the book of Romans, and there have been some interesting discussions along the way.

Romans 13 was a recent focus. This is the chapter in which Paul discusses submitting to authority. People have very different ideas about how to interpret this counsel—and these appear to correlate to how they feel about the authorities who are currently, well, in positions of authority. Many people who cite this chapter with great enthusiasm might have been less enthusiastic, say, three years ago.

Naturally, much of our discussion centered around the recent arguments over authority in our church and even the nature of truth itself. I am not one who believes that truth is whatever you want it to be—although I could argue that very few people fit into that category, really. The ones who do can be properly termed “liars.” No, the naysayers who poke fun at the people they label “liberals”—the word used clearly as a pejorative that ignores the many positive traits associated with this approach to life—who believe that truth is relative are mostly creating a straw man argument.

There is obviously objective truth; facts cannot be altered just to suit the individual. London is the capital of the United Kingdom. It isn’t Birmingham. Fair enough. But things get significantly stickier when we start to consider facts that affect people, which is in many cases the only way in which they are relevant. Take the question of whether peanuts are poisonous. Not to me they aren’t! I eat peanut butter pretty much every day. Not sure I could live without it. The “truth” about peanut butter, for me, is that it is a delicious and highly nutritious food, one that I would almost certainly choose if I had to be trapped on a desert island for the rest of my life. Of course, peanuts are not a suitable food for many other people who suffer from such severe peanut allergies that a mere whiff from an open jar of peanuts can require the use of an EpiPen.

So what is the “truth” about peanuts? They are a legume, classified as Arachis hypogaea. They are grown and used all over the world, often even to fight malnutrition in developing countries. And yet some 0.6% of people in the U.S. alone suffer from severe allergic reactions to them. So what are they? Good or bad? The truth about peanuts probably depends very much on the truth about you.

Aren’t there a great many things that can be looked at in this way?

Earlier this week, a casual friend in another part of the world contacted me after having listened to my peanut argument on the podcast. She and her family are being ostracized in their local church because of the stances they take on certain issues: the role of women in the church, the role of LGBTQ people, etc. The usual. The pastor went so far as to preach a sermon that was clearly about them in which he stated that “the shaking” was taking place and that they (being obviously wrong) were prime examples of this. I hear these kinds of arguments often: some “truth” is cited that everyone must agree with, and if they don’t agree they aren’t just wrong but toxic and evil and dangerous.

I was struck first by the sheer confidence of such a pronouncement. You have to be pretty sure you’re 100% correct to get up in front of a crowd of people and denounce a fellow child of God. How can you ever be certain that you are not the one being shaken? The first rule of life is that you must always remember that you might be the one who is dead wrong. About something, about everything. It’s possible. Even probable. Right now, sitting wherever you are and reading this, you are wrong about something. Right now, sitting at my desk, I am a wrong about something. Take what I say with a pinch of salt.

I currently study statistics (which I love!) and I saw a t-shirt recently that read “Statistics means never having to say you’re certain.” Some people might find this frustrating, but I really like this aspect of the discipline. It’s a good reminder of the deep complexity of the world in which we live, which does not give itself up to easy answers. The lack of certainty does not mean, as some people might think, that you abandon all attempts to find truth or meaning. You absolutely do both of these things, and you use evidence to build conclusions about what you think the truth is. But you always remember that while you are maybe 95% or even 99% certain, you are not—and never can be—100% certain.

I appreciate the portion of Romans 14, where, in The Message, believers are compared with guests at a dinner: “God, after all, invited them both to the table. Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.”

 

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado, studying research methods. She also has several jobs in teaching, writing, editing, graphic design, consulting, and podcasting. She does special projects for the Pacific Union Conference. This blog was originally published in Mountain Views, the quarterly journal of the Rocky Mountain Conference.

2018-12-04T11:34:20+00:00