The Search for Certainty
Text: John 3: 1-10
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
I don’t know how many of you remember a slapstick comedy movie that was released I think in the 1980’s called Airplane! If you remember the movie you may remember that it isn’t exactly church material, so I won’t be showing any clips from Airplane this morning, but there are several dialogue exchanges that are worth mentioning.
As I said, this particular film is what I would consider slapstick, or just silly comedy. There are a lot of jokes and just craziness throughout the entire film. One of the themes that runs from start to finish is a fairly constant misinterpretation of what has just been said. This is hard to explain, so I will just give you a couple of examples.
For example, one character says to another, “surely you can’t be serious?” To which the other character replies, “I am serious, and quit calling me Shirley.”
Or on another occasion, one character who is a doctor states “we need to get this man to a hospital!” Then an onlooker says, “a hospital? What is it?” and of course the doctor replies that “it is a big building with lots of beds and medical equipment in it, but that’s not important right now.” And so it goes, pretty much throughout the entire movie.
I mention this because if you stop and think about it for a minute, these kinds of misinterpretations of dialogue are grounded in a literal hearing of what has just been said. The mind isn’t allowed to fill in the blanks or contextualize a statement, the statement is taken at face value only. In the example of the onlooker responding with a surprised “a hospital?” and then followed by the question “what is it?” almost anyone would be able to decipher rather easily what the intent of that statement was.
First there is an expression of concern; “a hospital?” they are thinking to themselves this must be quite serious. Then an expression of inquiry; “what is it?” meaning they want to know what the ailment is that is so serious that it would require a trip to the hospital. Of course the literal interpretation hears the two inquiries as a single question and totally misses the point. In the case of Airplane or slapstick comedy, this can be sort of funny. When it happens in real life however the humor fades quickly.
The text I read a minute ago I think is an example of someone hearing the literal and as a result, completely missing the point. Here we have Jesus, the master storyteller, trying to give Nicodemus a metaphor which is concise and accurate in terms of what it means to follow Jesus. In a single sentence Jesus is able to communicate that when we follow Jesus, almost everything we have ever known, we need to forget. The way we used to think, the way we used to act, our priorities in life, the way we treat other people – all that has to be worked out again in the context of a new point of view. All the old habits, all the old ways of being and doing, even the old outdated religious customs and traditions need to be reworked. Following Jesus requires an entirely new paradigm, a whole new set of values.
Now rather than saying all of that, Jesus simply says that one must be born again, or be born from above as the text says. Nicodemus misses the point, hears the statement in a literal sense and asks how can someone old enter into their mother’s womb again?
So Jesus tries again. He tells Nicodemus that he’s missing the idea. He tells Nicodemus that what he’s talking about is being born of the flesh, like every one of us has been born. But what Jesus is talking about is being born of the spirit, which is a different thing. To which Nicodemus responds “how can this be?” He responds that way because he is still mired in the literal; he wants to understand from a position of what makes sense in the world.
I think at this point Jesus sort of gives up and tells him, “you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” I can just see Jesus shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders in frustration.
I would like to say that this story with Jesus and Nicodemus is an isolated event and it happened just that one time and no one ever made the same mistake again. Like I said, I would like to say that, but I can’t. Unfortunately it happens all the time.
So I have a theory around the thinking which drives some to only a literal interpretation of what they read or hear. It is my theory that the force which propels others toward a literal interpretation is essentially the fear of ambiguity or the fear of interpretation. Some are so afraid of getting it wrong, the only thing that brings them comfort is certainty. The only path to certainty is the path of the literal.
For example a few months ago an amusement park of sorts opened somewhere in Kentucky called the “Ark Experience”. This life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark is designed to help convince people that the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible is a factual account of what actually happened. If it were not so sad, I would think it was another attempt at comedy; instead of Airplane! The topic now becomes Ark!
Ultimately I think the fear of allowing story to be story and metaphor to be metaphor drives people to seek certainty where certainty cannot be found. I’m going to give you a quote that I have seen credited to both Anne Lamont and theologian Paul Tillich. Here is the quote for you to think about:
“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”
In the case of the Ark Experience, I can look past this and trust that most people of normal intelligence can decide for themselves what they want to believe about the story of Noah’s Ark. It is unlikely that anyone will get seriously hurt or killed as a result of the Ark Experience.
What we do need to realize, however, is that this same mind set, this same need for certainty and this same level of arrogance also fuels riots and demonstrations like we saw a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia. The very concept of white supremacy is grounded in the lack of confidence, a lack of self-worth and a lack of understanding with regard to the human condition. By claiming certainty in the superiority of one race over another, or one color over another, or one religion over another simply underscores the insecurity that ultimately drives the need for certainty. I would not hesitate to guess that many of those demonstrating with torches and swastikas and signs of white supremacy would also profess the Christian faith. If and when this is true, and I believe it is, the rest of us Christians have a problem.
We can debate the significance of the story of Noah’s Ark and search for facts if we choose and it remains relatively harmless. But it escalates into something far more evil, far more destructive and far more dangerous. To be certain of something bolsters the confidence to a point where common sense is no longer employed and human atrocities are simply passed over as a necessary sacrifice or collateral damage.
If we are truly followers of Christ we hold in our hearts a moral responsibility to not allow this to stand. We must speak and we must act. Even if we simply express our concerns in private to another friend, that is a start. We have been quiet too long and have allowed this certainty to creep into the main stream where it does not belong.
It is my belief the mindset of white supremacy or any other expression of extremism is ultimately traceable to a literal interpretation of a text or scripture or ideal. So when we see literalism in that context, we must call it out for what it actually is; the absence of faith. For the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.
Go in peace,