President Obama's convictions: Finding the falsehoods in our truths

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President Obama

Faith, religious faith, involves an odd combination of humility and confidence. It’s not one or the other, but both.

One of my favorite theologians, H. Richard Niebuhr, got at this perplexing challenge when he urged, “Take your stand — and pray for forgiveness.” We must, at times, take a stand, a position. And yet, as we do so, we must also remain aware of our own limits, of our own capacity for self-deception.

In our own hyper-polarized times this is a tough message for people to get. We prefer to pick our side and not question or doubt its rectitude. But the awkwardness of this message makes it only more important.

In his remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama leaned, as is appropriate for such an occasion, toward humility and self-awareness. And he did not really say anything new, nor anything he has not said before.

But that’s okay. Some things need repeating.

The core theme of the President’s message was that all religions (and by extension all nations) have a shadow side.

All religions, including the one the President and I share — Christianity — have in their history episodes and eras of moral failure. The President referenced the Crusades and Inquisition, slavery and Jim Crow. He balanced this by speaking of the great good, the great compassion and courage, which Christians and people of all faiths have also demonstrated. I want to think the latter outweigh the former. Some days I’m not sure.

These themes of self-doubt and self-examination are really at the heart of the Bible itself. A remarkable amount of its texts are taken up with the challenges to, even condemnation of, religion.

Almost all the Biblical prophets, from Isaiah to Zechariah, announce God’s judgment on the insiders and the “good” people, on Israel. In the New Testament Jesus’ main challenge is to his own people for their failures and blindness, even as they are sure of their own superior virtue. The great Protestant Reformation leader, John Calvin, sounded that same note teaching that confession (of sin) begins with the house and people of God.

One wonders if some Christians — some of the President’s outraged critics — are incapable of connecting the dots? In the Bible, Israel’s prophets reserved their harshest criticism for Israel, ergo Christian leaders will also challenge their own people and point out the short-coming of their own religion and its institutions, as well as of their own nation.

“The starting point of faith,” said the President in this spirit, “is some doubt.”

Still, different people hear different things when “doubt” is invoked.

A good friend of mine teaches at the Evangelical Christian school here in town, Seattle Pacific. In passing one day he remarked, “Doubt is not good.” I was shocked. “What do you mean by that?” I asked.

What he meant, as I understood his explanation, is that is it not wise to doubt the core assurances of the faith — the grace of God, the faithfulness of God (even when we have been faithless), the saving work of Christ.

For him, doubt of faith’s essentials was a slippery slope, the end of which was having no firm ground to stand upon at all. That’s the other side of the coin, the importance of assurance, of confidence, of standing your ground.

The combination of humble doubt and confident assurance is not easily resolved or lived.

Niebuhr again: “We must fight their falsehood with our truth, but we must also fight the falsehood in our truth.”

That is asking a lot. And yet it needs to be asked of us. And the President did.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.