Saturday, June 30, 2012

Two Forms of Certainty

Here is another excerpt from Richard Holloway's scathingly honest memoir:

The ordained state seemed to represent for others two forms of certainty I did not possess. Moral certainty was the more embarrassing one to cope with. I hated being thought of as a moral policeman keeping an eye on humanity's Ps and Qs. Part of this was embarrassment at the knowledge of my own weakness. Because I was a priest, it was assumed that I was a fully fashioned moral individual of steadfast and immovable rectitude. Maybe clergy ought to be like that. Incorruptible policemen. How could I explain that what attracted me to Jesus was his acceptance of those who saw themselves as failures rather than moral successes? There was a subversive tradition in Christianity that claimed it was sinners who got Jesus, people who couldn't mind their Ps and Qs, not the righteous. It was the hopeless prodigal who understood, not his upright and disciplined big brother. Where to start trying to explain all that? But the dissonance went even deeper. It may have been fear of being found out myself, but I actually felt a strong revulsion against the morality-policing aspect of religion that was such a strong element in the Scottish tradition. I was attracted to the prophetic voice of faith that spoke against structural or institutional sin and the way the powerful ordered the world to suit themselves. I hated the prurient kind of religion that pried into personal weaknesses and took pleasure in exposing them. Yes, to the eyes of many, the ordained ministry was freighted with this reputation, which was why people felt they had to guard their reactions when they were around us. No wonder clergy sometimes fell into the trap of overcompensating for this misunderstanding by embarrassing demonstrationss of their worldliness and humanity.. The whole business was so tainted with false expectations that only the saintly seemed impervious to the treacherous currents that pulled us along. And I was no saint.
If moral expectations were the more painful projections to deal with, theological expectations were intellectually more frustrating to handle. The inner disconnect between the Church's official theology and my own version of Christianity was one I did not fully comprehend at first. As a boy in the Vale, intoxicated by movies and the longings the hills had provoked in me, I had been propelled into religion in search  of a great love to which I could give myself away. I was in pursuit of an object ever flying from desire, but I had stumbled into a complex institutional reality whose own relation with that object was highly ambivalent. The ambivalence lay in the difference betwen the modes of pursuit and possession. The romantic is always in pursuit, while the realist wants to possess. All institutions over-claim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religious institutions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights to them. They segue from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging. Which is what people want. They don't want to spend years wandering in the wilderness of doubt. They want the promised land of certainty and religious realists are quick to provide it for them. The erection of infallible systems of belief is a well-understood device to still humanity's fear of being lost in life's dark wood without a compass. "Supreme conviction is a self-cure for infestation of doubts." That is why David Hume noted that, while errors in philosophy were only ridiculous, errors in religion were dangerous. They were dangerous because when supreme conviction is threatened it turns nasty.


  1. Hi Ross,

    Wow, that's a great quote from Richard Holloway. Impressive writing. I need to learn more about his work.

    Like you, I've been lapsed for a long time, even longer than you. I'm glad I found your blog, and hope you'll be posting again soon.

    Have a good one!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Phil. I wonder why you lapsed and why you remain apart from the Church. I have pretty much given up on the RC Church, esp. here in Vancouver as the archdiocese is ultraconservative, and have started attending an Anglican church where I hope to become an active member of the community.