Eric Elnes: The Gift of Uncertainty


Religion does us a disservice when it seeks to remove uncertainty from life. Have you ever noticed how the more certainty a religion claims to deliver, the more frenzied and hysterical are its adherents? The fact of the matter is that life is messy and no amount of doctrine or dogma changes this. Faith built upon certainty is a house of cards that falls apart when the "unshakable foundation" shifts even slightly.

Curiously, all of the great heroes of the Bible without exception lived in the midst of high uncertainty. Whether you look at Moses, Abraham, Esther, or King David in the Hebrew scriptures, or Peter, Paul, or even Jesus in the New Testament, there is no evidence to suggest that faith exempted them from uncertainty and struggle. In fact, the only people who consider certainty and absence of struggle to be a high value in the Bible are the villains. From the serpent in the garden of Eden enticing the original couple with the absolute knowledge of good and evil, to Pontius Pilate who crucified Jesus in exchange for assurance of remaining in power a little longer, the Jewish and Christian scriptures continually portray certainty as highly overrated.

Imagine going to a movie that's totally predictable. Do you give high marks to films where the protagonists are certain about the future and know exactly how to respond in every situation? These are the films that score 20 out of 100 in the Rotten Tomatoes ratings. We become especially interested when people are faced with difficult challenges and are forced to make choices when neither we, nor they, can predict the outcome. Uncertainty keeps us engaged.

Yet I confess that if I had the opportunity to write the screenplay of my own life it would go something like this: Every book I wrote - like my just-released Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) where I write about the Gift of Uncertainty - would become a New York Times Bestseller; every interview or speaking engagement would move my audience to tears; my wife would laugh at all my jokes; and our daughters would think I'm the coolest dad who ever walked the earth. Yet I would never pay a dime to watch such a film, not even of my own life. So if I wouldn't want to watch this film, why would I want to live this life?

Certainty is not only boring. It can be dangerous. Certainty entices us to believe the stories we keep telling ourselves about who we are and how life works. They're the stories we accept as established fact without ever bothering to verify their accuracy. Uncertainty serves as a gift when it confronts us with information that could not possibly be true if our internal stories are correct. [Jesus: "Yes, a Samaritan can be 'good'!"] Uncertainty causes us to reexamine these stories, questioning their underlying assumptions, often breaking them apart in such a way that allows a new, larger, more compelling narrative to be revealed that allows us to live and move freely within.

Last year, my commitment to embracing the gift of uncertainty, and that of my 1,500-member congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, was tested to the limit when we were invited to become the Christian partner in Omaha's unique Tri-Faith Initiative.2015-11-02-1446470350-2053618-TRIFAITHLOGO_TAG_VF.jpgThe Tri-Faith Initiative is made up of three Abrahamic faith groups (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) who have chosen to be in relationship together as neighbors on one campus, committed to practicing respect, acceptance and trust. To our knowledge, the Tri-Faith Initiative is the only undertaking of its kind where congregations from these three faith traditions are co-locating their existing congregations and building new facilities on a shared campus (But its a big world out there; the Tri-Faith Initiative celebrates and supports interfaith work that is practiced all around the globe, including the shared facility envisioned by House of One in Berlin.)

For the better part of a year, my congregation wrestled with the invitation, praying for God's guidance and studying the implications from every angle imaginable. At times we argued, even fought over our differences. In the middle of our stewardship drive, 100 families withheld their pledges in protest over our deliberations. At times, it was not clear whether we would withstand the turmoil introduced by the Tri-Faith invitation. Adding to these pressures, we were attacked repeatedly by a fundamentalist Christian organization in Omaha that felt threatened by the Tri-Faith Initiative and tried to sow further seeds of discontent in our congregation to sway the vote.

In the end, however, we discovered that our congregation was not as attached as we thought we were to the perceived certainty and stability that comes with doing "business as usual" in the same location. We surprised ourselves - and the world - by voting overwhelmingly in favor of the move. By stepping into the Great Unknown we traded certainty for trust. Trust in a God who journeys with us when we respond to an intuition of our Calling; who breaks open the stories that confine us in order to set us within a larger narrative; a God who steps into our lives to help us craft a daring adventure, not a cut-rate film.

Happily, after we made this pivotal choice, many members who voted against joining the Tri-Faith ended up reversing their decision. They concluded that living the Tri-Faith story would be far more interesting than missing it.

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