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Fear, Freedom and the Problem with Certainty

I am increasingly aware that behind so many of the debates that happen on this blog (and most others) and behind most of the theological and administrative hand-wringing that is, I guess, an irreducible part of Adventist life, is fear. Fear of the other, fear of a loss of identity, fear of a loss of “ground” that has been gained over many years through difficult debates. This fear is not the exclusive provenance of the conservative part of the church, though, by definition, conservatives are “conserving” the past and by their own admission are fearful or anxious that the traditional ways are being lost. Believe it or not, I am sympathetic with their concern. Liberals or progressives or [insert favorite euphemism here] are also fearful; fearful of a new inquisition or retrenching, or being excluded or whatever. Suffice it to say, there is enough fear to go around.

But while so much of church life is motivated by fear, the Bible has nothing good to say about fear. Indeed, the critique of fear is harsh and unequivocal. Consider John.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him…. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love (1 John 4:16, 18).

All this fear is killing us. It is pushing us further and further from the center of our faith, which is Christ. Nothing good can come from a theology based on fear, or a whole system of ecclesiology and evangelism that is rooted in a narrative about fear (ex. We are good and pure; God’s chosen people. They are evil and out to get us. If we don’t draw clear lines between us and them our purity will be compromised and our truth diluted until there is no difference between us and them).

Now let’s be honest. Our world is far from an unmitigated paradise. There are many things worth being afraid of. There is something precious that must be maintained and preserved and cherished through belonging to particular groups with a particular calling. I am not interested in a bland relativism. But if we believe we have some truth to preserve and share with the world, I do not think fear is the thing that will take us to our desired goal. Giving up on fear does not mean we give in to relativism or turn our back on important or life giving truths. The problem is that we have been relating to the world out of fear for so long that we hardly know any other way to be distinct and particular in the world. And arrogance is not that other way. Withdrawal into closed groups and arrogant assaults on the world are just two sides of the coin. When we are afraid we can hide or lash out. We can build walls and from behind those walls fire artillery at the enemy, or we can, like the school bully, hide our fear behind a perverse bravado that denies our true experience.

So what is the alternative? John says, at the risk of sounding naïve, I suppose, that love is the answer. “Perfect love casts out fear.” Fear keeps us locked in a prison of our own creation. But Jesus calls us to freedom.

Jean Vanier, in his remarkable little book, Becoming Human, says that all conflicts between groups (whether national, ethnic or religious, whether global or local in scale) have three elements in common. First, “the certitude that our group is morally superior, possibly even chosen by God.” The second element is a “refusal or incapacity to see or admit to any possible errors or faults in our group.” Thirdly, a refusal to believe that any other group possesses the truth or has anything valuable to contribute.

“Society and cultures are, then, divided into the “good” and the “bad”; the good attributing to themselves the mission to save, to heal, to bring peace to a wicked world, according to their own terms and under their controlling power” (47).

Sound familiar? Vanier rightly labels all such movements as ideologies. And

“ideologues, by their nature, are not open to new ideas or even to debate; they refuse to accept or listen to anyone else’s reality. They refuse to admit any possibility of error or even criticism of their system; they are closed up in their set of ideas, theories, and values.”

“We human beings have a great facility for living illusions, for protecting our self-image with power, for justifying it all by thinking we are the favoured ones of God” (48).

Vanier says the path to freedom from this kind of ideological tyranny is recognition of our common humanity, a lowering of our walls, humble admission of our own limitations and a “weakening in our own certitudes and identity.” This, he says, “seems for many to be dangerous. It not only means that we have to lose some of our power, privilege and self-image, but also that we have to look at the shadow side in ourselves, the brokenness, and even evil in our own hearts and culture; it implies moving into a certain insecurity” (49).

This is a difficult challenge. What I understand Vanier to be saying is that we need to do the opposite of what feels right. When we feel fearful and threatened, rather than build ideological walls around ourselves and assert our “rightness” with new stridency, we must intentionally weaken our own certitudes. We must weaken our identity.

Many will tell you that the Adventist Church has an identity problem. I agree. Underneath most debates is a desperate desire to find and assert our identity (just scroll back through the posts here over the past couple of weeks), like an adolescent trying to find herself. The problem is that we’ve been in this adolescent phase, as a church, for going on 100 years, by my rough estimation.

But this asserting of identity or stiffening of ideology is precisely the wrong impulse, I think. It is the world’s way of survival by domination. God’s way – the way of the cross – is victory through suffering, strength through weakness, power through service, finding life by losing it. In the kingdom of God, the weak are strong and the losers win. But we have become so enchanted of worldly power and domination that we often miss the Biblical narrative completely and speak in terms of world domination. We misread the Biblical text, just as other religious groups do, as favoring us, at the expense of others. When we do admit weakness it is usually a tactic to endear others to us so that later we can assert that we’re really right after fall; right, in fact, because we were willing to admit weakness.

All of this posturing is part of our false self. We can see it when we encounter an insecure individual, puffing his chest up and acting strong. We can see that he is really a scared little boy inside; deeply insecure. We have a harder time seeing it when we’re looking at groups of people who manifest the same insecurities, especially when the group is our group.

I’ll let Vanier have the last word:

This freedom that comes through the death of the false self is the acceptance of ourselves just as we are. It is also the acceptance of the world as it is together with the will to struggle to make the world a better place for us to live. This freedom means we do not weep for the past and long to walk backwards. It is not to shout out against the decadence or chaos of our times, nor to close ourselves off in sectarian groups, filled with fear. It is not to cry out, ‘Tragedy, the end of the world has come!’ or to be paralyzed by today’s injustices. Nor is it to believe naively that at last humanity is being liberated, and that all will be well. To be free is to see new truths emerging in the chaos, to see the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos. It is to see the emergence of new and positive realities from behind the certitudes and prejudices of yesterday (121-122).

May God give us the eyes to see His kingdom coming.

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