I’ve said before that there are a few things I think about regularly. You could call them mantras, or metaphorical rosary beads, or river teeth, in David James Duncan-speak, “hard, cross-grained whorls of human experience that remain inexplicably lodged” in me. I’ve been writing for the post calvin for long enough that it operates as almost a record of those things, and some of them I’ve returned to again and again, especially in the last twelve months: “there is no safety” (Marilynne Robinson); “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” (my old professor, John). I encountered a new candidate this week, courtesy of Owen Wilson in the Disney+ series Loki (I know, but one of the ways I occupied myself during the most recent apocalypse was watching all the Marvel stuff I’d never seen, and I’m not a quitter). Mobius rebuts Loki’s skepticism about his explanation of the universe: “If you think too hard about where any of us came from, who we truly are, it sounds kinda ridiculous.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about certainty. And death. Which also comes about, in part, because as part of my dissertation prep I’ve been spending a lot of time investigating ex- and post-evangelical online spaces, including podcasts, where people talk a lot about hell and the rapture and “End Times Anxiety” as things they had to wrestle through as they reconsidered the tenets of their faith. My reaction to these podcasts is often very strong and also somewhat opaque to me; I find it hard to develop the analytical distance at which I would prefer to consider these media artifacts. I find the line between righteous anger and hostility very thin, sometimes, in many of them. And it seems to me that that, too, is about certainty, and the tyranny of it.
I am grateful for many aspects of my upbringing (thanks, Mom and Dad); I am perhaps most grateful for the diversity of Christian traditions to which I was exposed. I went to Hungarian Reformed and Romanian Orthodox services, attended an Anglican church full of Canadian Mennonites, spent summers in Presbyterian and evangelical vacation Bible schools; I encountered and was loved by people who were Baptist and Methodist and Lutheran and Pentecostal. As an adult, I spent time with Sudanese and Egyptian Anglicans and Coptic Orthodox communities. I learned a great deal about doctrinal issues within Protestantism, but I generally learned about them as conversations the Church has been having for centuries rather than issues our own particular denomination had resolved. There seemed to be many open questions and many cultural specificities to our practices and ideas about the Divine. I am grateful for this particularly because it is a resource for me when I encounter absolute certainty among people who claim Christianity and those who do not.
I have noticed that much of the suffering voiced on these podcasts—the devastating experiences with bad theology and cruel leaders and crushing rejection that guests and hosts lament together—emerges from an evangelical community’s absolute certainty that there is only one way to know God or to follow God. I have also noticed that many of the formerly evangelical folks on these podcasts express the same certainty. The premise seems to be that there is indeed only one way, and it must explain everything or it explains nothing. An evangelical church taught me that the Bible is inerrant, and because I have learned that is not historically accurate, it cannot be in any sense true and therefore must be rejected. Because this tradition has perpetuated evil, all organized religion is beyond redemption; it is not and cannot be a source of freedom or sincere hope. And so the one-to-one correspondence between “Christianity in all times and all places” and “the specific strain of white American evangelicalism with which I have experience” remains unchallenged.
I am still in the Church, and I must remember not to let my defensiveness move me to dismiss the experiences of people who are not. They have their reasons, and many are devastatingly compelling. I also don’t need to defend God, or the church, which is a fool’s errand, really, and my irritation is better directed at those who have caused pain rather than those who are struggling to heal, insofar as those parties can be cleanly separated. I am saddened, though, to see everywhere that the love of certainty is so persistent: unwavering acceptance or total rejection, the idea that the lines can be cleanly drawn between who is righteous and who is not, that we can know absolutely what’s true of God and what isn’t, and so often in order to justify ourselves.
The death part comes back into play here, because of the End Times stuff on the podcasts, and because it resists certainty so profoundly. Really we have no idea! And anyone who says they know exactly and for sure what lies beyond the grave is lying, if only to their own self, which (to be fair) we are all quite prone to do, particularly in order to quell our own anxieties about not knowing exactly what will happen to us when we die. On one of these shows, in an episode discussing the finale of The Good Place, a Christian writer and therapist invoked an idea from orthodox traditions: that indeed we cannot know, which requires us to trust that God is love.
I paused the audio to write that down.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.