My wife and I happily flew to Sacramento last week to attend our younger son David’s graduation from UC Davis. We had booked a few rooms at the more than 500 room Hyatt Regency Hotel adjacent to the Sacramento Convention Center, settled in for a weekend of celebration when suddenly the hotel filled up with hundreds of folks wearing “Safeguard Your Heart” name-tags.
It was a blistering hot at 105 plus degrees, but the men and boys wore suits, white shirts and ties and the women and girls were formally dressed in skirts and pant suits all weekend long. The children were neatly clad and scrubbed. Everyone appeared consistently happy and content.
On the elevator I asked a young man, “What is the name of your group?”
“We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses!”
As it happened, thousands of an estimated 5.7 million American Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to Sacramento for their annual national conference.
Though I had met some of these folks over the years when they would come to my door to teach and preach to me, I really knew little about their beliefs and practices. After sharing a hotel with so many happy followers, however, I became curious. Here is some of what I learned plus my thoughts about the meaning of their seeming “happiness” and sense of certainty in their faith.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are unlike most Christian denominations. They follow first century New Testament texts, reject the doctrines of the trinity and immortality of the soul, and do not observe Christmas or Easter because they are post-testament holidays. They do not celebrate birthdays or observe national holidays claiming that such phenomena are inspired by Satan to draw unsuspecting Christians away from the True faith.
Jehovah’s Witnesses read the Bible literally, but at times also symbolically. They place their emphasis on God rather than Jesus Christ, and believe that Jesus is the only direct creation of God as his “only begotten son.” Everything else was created through the Christ.
They believe that the end of days is fast approaching and only those will be resurrected who follow the “true faith.” Every other religion is false.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are morally conservative and politically non-aligned. They stay clear of politics, forbid sexual relations outside of marriage, consider homosexuality a grave sin, and equate abortion with murder. They eschew gambling, drunkenness, illegal drugs, and tobacco. They teach that the Bible requires true Christians to be kind, good, mild, humble, subservient, and reasonable. They refer to their body of beliefs as “the truth” and see themselves to be “in the truth.”
Their families are patriarchal and their denomination is autocratically led by an all-male religious leadership that maintains discipline, demands obedience, compels commitment, forbids independent thinking, and insists on conformity. Those who violate communal belief and behavioral norms risk “disfellowship” and “shunning.” However, if an individual is judged adequately repentant, he/she can be reinstated.
One has to ask why would so many people would subject themselves to such dogma and strict doctrine?
Kathryn Schultz, in her book, Being Wrong, describes the basic human need that yearns for this kind of a lifestyle. She says that
“…[certainty] feels good. It gives us the comforting illusion that our environment is stable and knowable, and that therefore we are safe within it. Just as important, it makes us feel informed, intelligent, and powerful. When we are certain, we are lords of our maps: the outer limits of our knowledge and the outer limits of the world are one and the same…Seen in this light, our dislike of doubt is a kind of emotional agoraphobia. Uncertainty leaves us stranded in a universe that is too big, too open, too ill-defined…facing our own private uncertainty can … compel us to face the existence of uncertainty in general – the unconsoling fact that nothing in the world can be perfectly known by any mere mortal, and that therefore we can’t shield ourselves and our loved ones from error, accident, and disaster.”
Rabbi Leonard Beerman offered these thoughts on the occasion of his 90th birthday last year:
“I live with uncertainty and doubt. But what I have learned is that doubt may be the most civilizing force we have available to us, for it is doubt that protects us from the arrogance of utter rightness, from the barbarism of blind loyalties, all of which threaten the human possibility.”
To those who conclude that doubt and faith are incompatible, consider the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
Oh – by the way, our son’s graduation was a peak moment in our lives, and I feel a measure of certainty when I say that Satan had nothing to do with it!
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