On Certainty and Charity
I am a Christian. I have enough faith in things unseen that I can call myself certain about my beliefs. Put another way, I believe in what I believe. However, I try not to let my certainty interfere with my charity. To me this is a simple matter of striving to be more like Christ. Jesus commanded us to be charitable with others when he taught us the greatest commandment, but never did he command us to be certain. Therefore charity must always take precedence over certainty.
I live in a post-Christian America. I share this nation with many people who do not hold the same beliefs as me. Many of the people I interact with on a daily basis hold to beliefs that contradict my own, and they hold on to these beliefs with the same certainty that I hold on to mine. How then should I respond? I show them what I believe with my words and actions and I defend my beliefs if inquired of them.
Do I attack their beliefs? No. I realize that my beliefs became certain because the Holy Spirit affirmed them to me, not because I was swayed by cleaver arguments on my previous thoughts. I cannot compel the Holy Spirit to do the same for these people anymore than I can command God to make me wealthy. I also remember that it was God’s grace that illuminated his ways to me, not my own work, so I cannot blame any other person for not yet seeing God the way I do. Most importantly, Jesus told me to love them and teach them, not to argue with them weary them.
For a lot of its history, Christianity has been a minority religion. It is only fairly recently that Protestantism (the tradition that I belong to) has held sway over so much of the world and culture. To see how a Christian lives as a minority in a pluralistic world, we have to look back to a time when Christianity was not the religion that dominated the world. Philip Jenkin’s book, The Lost History of Christianity, gives us a glimpse into that world. One person the reader encounters in his book is Timothy of the East. Timothy lived during the rise and domination of Islam in the Middle East. He worked in the Muslim Caliph’s court in Baghdad, as did many Christians. One day the Caliph asked Timothy about his Christian beliefs and how he could live and work for a society of another faith. Timothy, with great insight and tremendous courage told the prince a parable.
We are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house, a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of the people, all become aware of its existence, everyone would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but everyone will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those people who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch their hand towards the light, which alone can show what everyone has in hand. The one who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.
Timothy was certain of his beliefs, but he could understand why others believed differently. He understood the reality that not everyone could possibly be right, but that until the light came, there was no sense in compelling certainty. He did not hide his “pearl,” but spoke about it with the princes of land, leaving to God and them whether they would accept his claim to have the true treasure. With his story, Timothy displayed both the certainty and charity that Jesus expected of his followers, and understanding and living this parable would be of great benefit to Jesus’ followers today.