May 2004 St John's Eagle
The Cruelest Illusion" - By John Harcourt
illusion is the belief that we are right beyond any shadow of doubting,
that our most cherished convictions are guaranteed by divine authority.
Others may be perplexed by uncertainties, may flounder in the morasses
of ambiguity. But, by the grace of God, we know.
for the illusion of certainty may vary. For some, it is the infallible
teaching of a church leader or of a group of leaders gathered together
in a council. For others, it is "tradition" quod semper et
ubique et ad omnibus, what has been taught at all times and in all places
and by everyone — a test that no religious belief can ever
hope to pass. Or it may be an inerrant Book, every verse of which has
been directly dictated by the deity. In any case, we need not trouble
ourselves with anxious and futile questioning, as do those who do not
share our faith:
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!
only to refer to our infallible authority, receive the definitive answer,
and get on with the business of living.
sense of possessing, beyond any possibility of error, of The Answer
rests on precarious foundations. The community of True Believers to
which we may belong can confer a powerful sense of solidarity that reinforces
the faith of the individual member. once we have joined the group, once
we have made the initial commitment, everything else falls neatly into
catch lies exactly there. The initial decision has to be made by the
individual, in the radical loneliness of the private self. I must decide
to accept a leader as infallible, a tradition as authentic, a Book that
contains no error. Even if I say that the decision was so overwhelming,
so much an overriding intervention of the divine, I must, by myself,
consent to accept this experience of certainty as a valid one.
so consenting, as in all human decision, I may be wrong.
say that without certainties, we cannot make our way confidently in
this world. The true believer can only pity those who must wrestle with
merely "relative" truths. Yet, I find it perfectly possible
to take stands, to act on principle, without any ultimate guarantee
that I am right. Many others seem to have no difficulty living with
a candid acknowledgement of possible error. God alone is absolute; our
thoughts are only relative to our time and place, to our personal adequacy
or inadequacy, to the built in limitations of all finite knowing.
this much can be said. Those who accept the risks of faith decisions
are less likely to force their conclusions on others, to censure, ban,
and excommunicate, to torture and kill in the name of God's truth, to
declare crusades and holy wars, to issue edicts mandating death to those
who do not agree with us. Humbly to accept the limitations of our knowledge
is to be freed from the cruelest of illusions.
Cromwell's exhortation to the elders of the Church of Scotland is worth
remembering: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider
that you may be mistaken".
Harcourt is the Charles A. Dana Professor of
English Emeritus at Ithaca College.