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Please note: this is from the 2003 8 Points version not our current 2011 version.

We will be updating this study guide soon!

By calling ourselves progressive,we mean that we are Christians who find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, in the questions than in the answers.

Theologian, Gordon Kaufman, of Harvard University argues in his book, In Face of Mystery that people of faith must give up (repent) our claims to knowledge and certainty. He writes “If we try to overcome and control the mystery within which we live-through, for example our supposed religious knowledge and practices-we sin against God, for with this stance we are in fact trying to make ourselves the ultimate disposers of our lives and destiny (pg 57).

We live in turbulent times and historians and sociologists have demonstrated that turbulent times often foster fervent religious expressions. We humans naturally hunger for absolutes. We crave the final answers. We want to believe that someday we will understand everything. We search for the ultimate explanation. Certainty feels comforting in uncomfortable times. And yet most of us know that there are few certainties in life beyond the knowledge of our death. So where is our “faith” in all of this? For one thing the word faith assumes an unknown. The word assumes that there is a mystery. We can choose to ignore the mysteries that confront us or we can create our own realities.

I.I. Mitroff and W. Bennis, two sociologists wrote a book in 1989 called The Unreality Industry. They suggest that the fundamental dialectic of our times is between reality and unreality, especially now that we have power to influence and create both. The reason we are creating “substitute realities” they argue, is that the world has become so complex that “no one person or institution can fully understand or control it.”

“If humans cannot control the realities with which they are faced, then they will invent unrealities over which they can maintain the illusion of control.”


The question is, they write, do we have the courage to face directly and honestly the complex realities we are capable of creating and discovering or will we turn away from reality and invest our energy increasingly in the denial of reality?

In the Christian tradition, all too often the word faith has been used to explain away something that no longer makes sense. For example, “If the earth is only six thousand years old, how could there have been dinosaurs?” Answer: “We must have faith.” One challenge that modern Christians have is that the word faith is often confused with the word belief. Probably no one explains the difference better than Zen philosopher, the late Alan Watts;

“Belief…is the insistence that the truth is what one would ‘lief’ or (will or) wish to be…Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith let’s go…faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

It may give comfort to some to assume that with “correct” reading of their Bible they can find the ultimate answers. But modern scholarship has demonstrated that our beloved scriptures are culturally and socially bound to an era. We now “know” that the earth is not flat and that it is wrong to own another human being, for example even though our scripture might suggest something different. But the scriptures have provided a powerful tool for humanity throughout their long history when they have been used to provide the ultimate questions. It can be easily argued that the human struggle with those questions, especially those about our treatment of others, has had an incredibly positive influence on the human condition throughout history. 

According to the gospels, Jesus rarely gave a straight answer to a straight question.  Instead he responded with another question or told a puzzling story.  At the risk of disappointing his questioners, Jesus put them in a position of having to think for themselves.  Rather than offer his disciples answers to life’s most perplexing problems, Jesus introduced them to deeper and deeper levels of ambiguity.  Matthew’s collection of Jesus’s aphorisms, known as the Sermon on the Mount, shows how Jesus confronted his disciples with contradictions.  He told them that nothing in the law could be changed, not the tiniest letter or the stroke of a letter.  Nevertheless, he also taught them to question some of the most basic principles of the law, such as the rules concerning murder, adultery, retribution, alms giving, and prayer.  Jesus would not provide absolute answers because answers, by providing false confidence and security, become barriers to an awareness of God.  Answers become substitutes for God.  The task Jesus bequeathed to the church was providing a context in which those who would follow him can find the courage to pursue their questions.

1.      What makes the search for meaning and purpose in today’s world an important undertaking?

2.      In what ways does “absolute certainty” keep us separated from God and our neighbors?

3.      Do you believe it takes more faith to live in ambiguity or more faith to believe in a dogmatic faith?  Why?

4.      How might the words of these two scholars Mitroff and Bennis apply to religions of our day?

“If humans cannot control the realities with which they are faced, then they will invent unrealities over which they can maintain the illusion of control.”