Certainty at the Cost of God
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 3:1-17
If you hang around me long enough, you’ll eventually hear me boldly proclaim that the Enlightenment ruined everything. Because, yes, it is a statement I make pretty regularly.
For those of you a few years away from your most recent history class, the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, was a time from the 17th to the 19th centuries when particularly Europeans started to prioritize thinking over emotions, proving things scientifically over believing things because the Church said so.
And I’m not saying those things are inherently bad. They’re not. The Enlightenment started partly as a response to the Church claiming more and more worldly power for itself. Through “divinely appointed” monarchs. Through huge and devastating wars. In the 17th century, eight million people died in Europe during the Thirty Years War, which was basically a fight between Catholics and Protestants—which was a war over whose belief was “correct,” which means it was also a war to establish which side would have political power.
People were kind of sick of the Church using religion as a bludgeon. They started to associate the rituals and sacraments of the church with the power it sought. They started holding the mystery of faith responsible for the hardship around them.
So the people, the thinkers, the philosophers of that time started looking for certainty, for fact, for capital-R Reason where they once turned to the mystery of God. Only what could be experienced, observed, and measured was “real.” Only what could be scientifically proven was “true.” Faith failed those tests.
But obviously Christianity didn’t go away. The Catholic Church as an institution doubled down on orthodoxy to counter Enlightenment thought. “This is what you’re supposed to believe because we said so.”
But the Protestants did a few different things.
The Deists accepted that God existed but that they didn’t need the Bible to understand God. Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible in which he cut out everything but the Gospels and then cut anything supernatural out of those—the miracles, angels, the resurrection. We see these legacies lived out in religious humanism and Unitarian Universalism.
But other Protestants did something else. Something interesting. Something that would change the way Bible-reading Christians thought about faith forever. They chose to incorporate Enlightenment methods into their ways of understanding of scripture. They sought to prove scripture scientifically. They sought to make the Bible a rule book. They sought to bring empirical certainty to the mystery of faith.
We see this in lots of different ways. Like the Creation Museum in Kentucky which seeks to prove that the creation happened in six days, literally the way it is described in Genesis. Or that a flood literally wiped out the whole world except for Noah, his family, and all those pairs of living creatures. They do mental gymnastics to twist science to their theology.
We see it in the ways many Christians look so desperately for certainty in the Bible, making it a rulebook of things that will get you into heaven and things that will get you into hell.
We even see it in the ways we may compartmentalize our own faith, the ways we don’t discuss faith outside of church or the privacy of our homes.
These are all legacies of the Enlightenment.
So when I say “the Enlightenment ruined everything,” I’m not talking about how it paved the way for greater and greater scientific discovery, or even how it stripped political power from the Church—I think those things are pretty great, actually.
I’m talking about how the Enlightenment diminished our capacity for sitting with uncertainty. For inhabiting nuance. For allowing ourselves to feel what we feel without needing to prove it or even to understand it. For leaning on love.
So now, finally, I get to the lessons for today. Because listen, 17th century Europeans weren’t the first to want certainty. They weren’t the first to want to make their faith literal, factual. Nicodemus beat them to that sixteen centuries earlier.
Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
And Nicodemus is like, “wait, how can we be born again when we’ve already been born? Can we physically go back into the womb and come out again?”
And Jesus is like, “oh dear.” And then he becomes a poet. “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus isn’t talking about provable facts. Jesus isn’t talking about one action that will give us God’s stamp of approval, the currency that will buy us eternal life. Jesus isn’t talking about a way of knowing, he’s talking about a way of being.
I want to emphasize this, because I know this particular passage can make some of us feel a certain sort of way. It brings to mind phrases like “Being born again,” “Being saved.”
And the next thing Jesus says is the most famous of all verses.
“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Earlier, we talked about the Church using faith as a bludgeon, and I think this verse has also been wielded as bludgeons in our own time to sort out who’s a “real” believer and who isn’t. When John 3:16 is used as a weapon, the emphasis tends to fall on “everyone who believes” rather than “for God so loved the world.”
For some, belief is more important than love.
Because, let’s be real, what the heck is love? You can’t measure it. You can’t distill it in a tube and analyze its effectiveness.
It’s so much easier to lean on belief, because with belief you can lay out ground rules. You can pick and choose verses in the Bible that serve as a litmus test for proving belief. You can adopt the truths of science and explain it factually.
You can’t prove love. You kind of know it when you feel it, but it’s not anything you can quite put your finger on. I love my wife, but I can’t put a number or percentage to it. I love music, but what does that even mean? And I certainly love this community, but the only way you can really know that is by what I do.
Love is borne out in many small actions over time. In the course of our faith’s story, we see it in a God who loved us into creation. The Hebrew Bible is the story of God’s people doing all they can to separate themselves from God, and God doing everything God can to bring them back. God sent us prophets to help us understand that love is about what we do with our lives, how we treat others. And then God sent us Jesus, a piece of God’s self, so that we might know God’s love in human flesh.
Our faith isn’t about whether we believe these things in some “correct” way. It’s about how we live this love God keeps trying to teach us over and over and over again.
One of the Wendell Berry poems we'll read this week for our community Lenten practice goes like this:
Eternity is not infinity.
It is not a long time.
It does not begin at the end of time.
It does not run parallel to time.
In its entirety it always was.
In its entirety it will always be.
It is entirely present always.
Eternity, I think, can make us uncomfortable. The vastness and uncertainty of eternity makes us want to grab at it, freeze it—with rules, with “right” ways of being. When Jesus mentioned eternity, that’s what Nicodemus did. Catholic monarchs did it in the 17th century. Then the Protestants who rebelled against them. Then a lot of our Christian ancestors decided the Enlightenment was “right” and taught us to read our scriptures by freezing them, by resisting the eternity that runs through the Bible.
And when I’m talking about eternity, I’m talking about God. And when I’m talking about God, I’m talking about love. Our faith calls us to resist the need for certainty whenever it comes at the cost of God, at the cost of love.
This Lent, whatever your practice is, I hope that it is an exploration of eternity, an exploration of love.