Certainty: Faith’s Distraction

Certainty: Faith’s Distraction

I am not certain that God exists. That’s probably a shocking and disturbing thing to hear from a seminary student and ministry leader, but it’s true and I wish a lot more believers would be honest about not being certain either. I think our personal faiths and our ministries would be a lot more healthy and vibrant for it. I also think it would help us grow in our faith. Let me explain…

I’ve wrestled with the idea of the need for certainty for most of my life to some degree, probably because I am not the kind of person that just believes something because someone in power told me I should. In my late 20s I began systematically dismantling all the scaffolding of my evangelical heritage, taking a fresh look at each piece for coherence and value. Many things I put back into place much as they were, some I scrapped completely, and others got a face lift. One such piece was the idolatry of certainty (yes, I use that word intentionally).

Too often in Christian circles faith is equated with more certainty. More certainty means more faith. The truly mature do not doubt, or so the line goes. But that is a Western cultural perception that has everything to do with how much we live in our heads and intellectualize faith and very little to do with how Scripture describes the essence of a faithful life. Faith in Scripture is far more than just a rational exercise. It is more than knowing what we believe, and it is never described in terms of being intellectually convinced of something. I’d argue that belief doesn’t necessarily mean that faith exists at all. Even the demons believe. It isn’t that faith has nothing to do with right thinking. Absolutely, we should dig into Scripture to try to understand it. We should turn it backwards and forwards and upside down trying to glean all knowledge out of it. This is the fundamental meaning of loving God with our minds. But if that is all that there is to faith, it is a very anemic faith.

In my life, most of my growth in faith has come through the practice of loving God with my mind, until a couple of years ago when I was confronted with the reality that some things just cannot be resolved through study and exercises of the mind. Questions like:

Can the Bible be trusted? Is Jesus really God? Does God even exist?

Even allowing myself to ponder these questions left me feeling stupid and terrified until I realized that these doubts that had crept in were not a weakening of my faith, but have actually served to increase my faith radically even as I have been left without certainty of the answers.

If I am to be intellectually honest, God’s existence, the identity of Jesus, and the reliability of the Bible cannot be proven through logic and reason. The Bible is self-authoritative. That’s not logical. God is spirit. That’s by definition is un-provable. Jesus lived 2000 years ago and most of what he said about himself was not recorded (we just have the self-authoritative Bible to go on). That’s pretty shaky evidence. I DO think there is tremendous evidence for the historical reliability of the Bible and it’s preservation throughout the ages. And I DO find reasonable arguments regarding the existence of the Divine and the historicity of Jesus Christ. In the end, I don’t have airtight conclusions. I have only reasonable arguments, human experience, and… faith.

Faith is not just some flimsy wishful thinking. It’s not delusion wanting. The author of Hebrews gives the simple definition of faith being “the evidence of things hoped for.” Hope in English is synonymous with “want,” but in Greek there is far more to it. “Hope” in Greek means “to expect.” Our faith is not just about what we want, but what we expect to be true. Furthermore, according to James, faith is not real if it isn’t accompanied by physical evidence – he describes it as “works.”

Essentially, faith is the gap between certainty and hope. It is the proof of what we expect to be true, even when we are NOT certain. Faith is the evidence of expectation. It is the actions of a person’s life based on what they have committed to believing, based on what they expect to be true.

I am not certain, in the literal sense of the word, that Jesus is God, that the Bible is divinely inspired, or that God exists. I cannot prove it, so I can’t be certain and it’s ridiculous to spend anymore energy trying to intellectually chase certainty for these things. What I can do is choose to act as if there could not be any other possibility. I can choose to believe with the level of certainty that I have and act on those expectations, those hopes. My faith is exactly those actions that testify to my expectation that God is who he says he is, that Jesus was God with skin on, and the Bible is a reliable source of truth. My faith isn’t grown when I become more convinced that something is true. My faith is grown when I act on hope in defiance of the need for certainty. Faith is the evidence of things hoped for.

Someday I might die and turn to dust and nothing else happens. I can’t prove that it will go down that way or that it won’t. But I don’t expect that will be the case. I expect, I hope, that I will be ushered into God’s presence and enjoy life forever after with him. My relationship with God might be a complete psychological delusion, but I hope that it is not, and I will continue living and believing that it is only the appetizer of what forever will be like when all the barriers between my humanness and his eternal nature are gone. This is true faith. In giving up chasing certainty and instead chasing Jesus, my faith has become far more authentic, interactive, and alive.

6 thoughts on “Certainty: Faith’s Distraction

  1. There is an old story of a tight-rope walker who, in front of a large crowed, waked across a tight-rope between to sky-scrapers. The crowd cheered. He asked, “do you believe I can do this with a wheelbarrow?” They all said yes, and he proceeded to do it. Then he asked, “Do you believe I can do it with these stones in the wheelbarrow?” They all said yes, and he proceeded to do that. Finally, he asked, “Do you think I could carry a person across?” They all said yes. He then asked for a volunteer, but none were to be found. There is a big difference in accepting something as true and trustworthy, and trusting. And I think that is the point you are making. I hope I didn’t miss it.
    Hebrews 11:1, I think is often used as a verse to basically say turn off your brain and just have “blind” faith. Faith is, I think, most often understood is belief in something without proof. Now proof, it must be pointed out is almost always used incorrectly. Strictly speaking, it exists in only two disciplines, Mathematics and formal Logic. Outside of that, there is no proof. What is really meant is evidence, but there is a manipulative slide of hand here also because proof carries a connotation of certainty. And the weight of the connotation can deeply impact the discussion in either direction. But I really like your definition of hope, I might say confident expectation. Why confident? The word before means “substance and trust,” literally hypo (under), stasis (standing still), pointing perhaps to that which makes a person’s position, their foundation secures allowing them to be unmoved. That is what brings about the hope, the expectation.
    You, of course, know me, and you know that my calling is apologetics, which, though there is certainly the apologetic of life that must be seen, it is also handling rational objections and criticisms of Christianity through philosophy, history, science, etc. Where does such a calling fit into the perspective you are giving here? You and I have very different context in which we operate. On my side, I observe a church that has largely abandoned intellectuality and focuses almost exclusively on the existential, I might label it Idealistic Christian Romanticism. I think pendulum must not swing too far in either direction toward existentialism or intellectualism. Any -ism is generally bad in this regard. Ravi Zacharias has often said that, “God put enough of himself into this world to make belief in him a most rational thing, but he has left enough out that man cannot live by reason alone.”
    I would not use the word certain. I would venture to say that anyone who takes a position of certainty considerably diminishes the possibility of beneficial discourse. Francis Schaeffer, one of my favorite thinkers of the last century, always held the position, truly, that he might be wrong. And so when he engaged with skeptics and non-believers he earnestly wanted to hear what they had to say, because he truly believed it may be possible that information would be provided that would significantly challenge his position. He of course didn’t expect this. He said somewhere, and I cannot find the exact quote, that if Jesus was shown to be a fraud, and there was good evidence that Christianity were not true, Christians should be the first to step out of the que. One of my favorite quotes of his is,
    Christianity is realistic because it says that if there is no truth, there is also no hope; and there can be no truth if there is no adequate base. It is prepared to face the consequences of being proved false and say with Paul: If you find the body of Christ, the discussion is finished, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die. It leaves absolutely no room for a romantic answer.
    As you well know, the heart does one thing only, pump blood. So, it is used metaphorically in the greatest commandment. Do you think the distinction “mind” and “heart” is reason/intellect and will? Or do you think it is deeper or different from that. How ought I to engage with rational objections to Christianity, particularly honest ones-not just someone wanting an argument? How would you define faith? For me its belief, with reasonable confidence, then trusting with my life, top to bottom, in that belief as best I can. I fail miserably often. In terms of reaching out and evangelism, I don’t think there is one focus. Sometimes there is a more of a focus on appealing to the intellect, sometimes there is a more focused appeal to the “heart.” I think in both cases there is a receive component. That is, one can be convinced intellectually and not receive. One could also be moved emotionally, even have some experience, but still not receive. What do you think? One thing for sure, unhappily, this response is longer than the post. Sorry about that.

    1. Hi Forrest,
      Yes, even though we are coming from different angles, I think we end up in similar places. It’s funny how in your context in the South, you see a lack of intellectualism in the Church whereas my experience on the West Coast has been that there is little else. I think we are supposed to love God with heart, soul, AND mind. When we miss one of these, we lose a lot.

      I also do not think faith is blind. Faith is and should be REASONABLE. It is “the most rational thing” I can think of, but I have room for that along with admitted that it isn’t certain in the sense of being provable. I think it’s really hard for people to live with that. When things are uncertain, they are not controllable. That’s hard. We want to control.

      As I am wrestling through my own journey, I am intrigued by a lot of the literature regarding maturation stages in spirituality (check out Fowler’s stages of spiritual maturity). It’s very connected to our cognitive development. Human children are black and white creatures, they see things only in perfect boxes. The good guys OR the bag guys. As we age, some of us come to see that the boxes don’t always work. (I do believe that for some it’s just not something that bothers them. I know that not everyone lives in their heads like I do (lucky for them!) and it literally never occurs to them to need to dig through all the boxes.)

      “Boxes” aka systematic theology aka certainty is the stuff of religions, and it absolutely has its place. I’d say that it’s needed to keep us from chaos and to introduce us to God. But when we live in that kind of certainty seeking system, we are required to live with some level of cognitive dissonance whether we recognize it or not. And it’s this cognitive dissonance that I am looking at with this article. Intellectual honesty requires us to recognize that we cannot prove God exists even as we move toward him. But that is TERRIFYING for anyone to do, especially if they exist in a religious construction of reality. It threatens to tear apart their foundation. Everything I’ve read about this phase whatever the literature calls it describes it as a deeply unsettling and scary experience. I can affirm that has absolutely been the case for me.

      So when faced with the existence of cognitive dissonance in our faith construct, There are 4 responses Christians make:

      1) Most people won’t and don’t engage with the cognitive dissonance. They deny it exists and stay in their “boxes.” They basically turn and retreat and put all thoughts about it out of their heads.

      2) Other people move toward agnosticism, which is basically making a camp in the this place where they can’t go back and not see the things they know don’t fit the boxes, but don’t know how to move forward to something different. These people are stuck thinking they can’t move on without relief from the cognitive dissonance.

      3) People make new boxes. They switch religions or, more likely, become atheists. Atheism is as much a box construct as Christianity. Different boxes and an equal amount of cognitive dissonance.

      4) Fewer people (at least from what I’ve read) make peace with the cognitive dissonance. They learn to say that it exists but move beyond it. They don’t deny that paradox and incompleteness exists in Christian faith insofar as we can articulate the infinite, omnipresent, and omnipotent, but they stop feeling the need to unravel it and create new boxes. They become comfortable with “messy” and just let the boxes be what they are with the pieces that never quite fit inside and stop trying to make them.

      I can’t say that I am solidly a #4 person yet. There is a part of me that still yearns for the safety of the boxes, for a systematic faith that I can control because I can understand. But I am pretty convinced that there is no reality in that desire.

      Ironically, I read a Richard Rohr quote today about Francis of Assisi that I think is relevant and beautiful. Talking of Francis’ relationship with God: “The depth was an inner life where all shadow, mystery, and paradox were confronted, accepted, and forgiven—and God was encountered.” I really love this quote because that is where I feel I am sitting right now. There is shadow and mystery and paradox, and I am in the process of confronting it and accepting it and even forgiving it. And it is here that I am encountering God in a totally new way.

      But to get back to some theologians, I really like pretty much everything I have read from Brueggemann. Here’s his take: http://nextreformation.com/?p=238

      1. Nice! I enjoyed the article. It is funny because, I use to be “certain” on a particular…I guess you cold call it a doctrine. Rationally, I could see it operating only in the way that I thought because that was all that made sense to me. God showed up in kind of a Job moment. He pointed out that, basically, I was restricting God to the confines of my finite and faulty reason. I realized the point he was making and gave in to the mystery. Ultimately, if there is an infinite God, he cannot be grasped by finite minds, individually or collectively. Certainly seems to be a form of arrogance and pride, besides being logically problematic and maybe for that reason. Being reasonable confident is the position I take. But more is required as we say. If I have faith that all are created in the image of God and can expound on the logical and philosophical basis and the implications that follow, that’s great. Yet, if I don’t treat others as though they are created in the image of God, then there is a problem. It seems I have read something like this in I Corinthians 13:1-3. This is convicting and a call to the heart of God every day for me.

        I had this quote, again from Francis Schaeffer come on my feed this morning, which I thought poignant . ON DOCTRINAL FAITHFULNESS: “‘Do I fight merely for doctrinal faithfulness?’ This is like the wife who never sleeps with anybody else, but never shows love to her own husband. Is that a sufficient relationship in marriage? No, 10,000 times no. Yet if I am a Christian who speaks and acts for doctrinal faithfulness but do not show love to my divine Bridegroom [greatest commandment], I am in the same place as such a wife. What God wants from us is not only doctrinal faithfulness, but our love day by day. Not in theory, mind you, but in practice.” ~ Dr. Francis Schaeffer, The Church Before the Watching World

        1. 100% on board with you. Reasonably confident of my answers, but realizing that isn’t the point at all. I’d also add to the quote that love for Christ darn well better translate into love for neighbor or it doesn’t actually exist (which you implied in your first paragraph so I know we agree on that).

  2. This really resonates with me because if you are being honest with yourself you have to admit that we really don’t and can’t know for sure. The New Testament talks about the new believers hope in Jesus Christ not their certainty. Brene Brown speaks on one of her tapes that religion with her is not for the faint of heart (she’s Episcopalian) and that she really only believes 50% of it. And she doesn’t sound cocky when she says it, she sounds funny and honest. Brene wonders how believers have gone from faith and mystery to I’m right and you’re wrong. abouhttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/brene-brown-church_us_56200e7be4b069b4e1fb6e7a

    1. I love Brene Brown! I think it comes down to how Western culture has falsely equated belief with certainty. I don’t think that is biblical and honestly, it’s nonsensical. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s… certainty! If we go only on what we know for certain, there is no room for faith. Faith is what exists where intellectual certainty does not. Thanks for the link, Paula, I will check it out.

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