From the Rector

Parish Life


Sunday School

Previous Thoughts
of the Month


Sunday Schedules

Anglican Communion

Episcopal Church of the USA

Diocese of Central
New York

Anglicans Online

The Book of
Common Prayer

About Ithaca



Thought for the Month

From May 2004 St John's Eagle
“The Cruelest Illusion" -
By John Harcourt

The cruelest 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.

The basis 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!
George Meredith

We need only to refer to our infallible authority, receive the definitive answer, and get on with the business of living.

Yet, this 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 place.

But the 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.

And, in so consenting, as in all human decision, I may be wrong.

People 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.

At least 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.

Oliver 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".

Professor Harcourt is the Charles A. Dana Professor of
English Emeritus at Ithaca College.