This I Believe–and that’s not a good thing

This I Believe–and that’s not a good thing January 9, 2024

A number of years ago, at the end of a presentation to fellow resident scholars at an ecumenical institute where I was spending a sabbatical semester, someone exasperatedly asked “Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty in order to be Christian?” I responded (as philosophers) with a question of my own: “I don’t know. Do I?” Snarkiness aside, the question of belief and certainty continues to obsess me well over a decade since that exchange.

One of the consistent messages that I seek to convey to my students every semester in every class has to do with the impermanence of belief and the fragility of certainty. Christian Wiman describes a talk he gave recently that sounds a lot like what I want my students to become comfortable with:

The lecture was on the line between belief and unbelief, how there is no line, really, how to be devout means to be at risk, to live with the understanding that all one’s assumptions might be overturned in the blink of an eye.

If we pay attention to multifarious uncertainies of our lives, our experiences, and of the world around us, it should not surprise us that our certainties and our beliefs are as ephemeral as mist. And yet this does surprise us.

I have found over the years that my classroom attempts to establish the importance of embracing uncertainty, doubt, and the provisional nature of just about everything runs immediately into a firewall that human beings come naturally equipped with—the need to make everything cohere and fit together in categories with well-defined and recognizable boundaries. In a recent interview in The New Yorker, British comedian Leo Reich describes his stand-up routines with this in mind.

Part of the feeling I am trying to express in the show is an inability to line up all my atomized beliefs in a row on specific issues and to say, “This coalesces into one coherent perspective.” . . . But a hundred things are often true at the same time—a hundred deeply contradictory things.

Why is it so important that a person show how her or his beliefs “coalesce into one coherent perspective”? Why are we so quick to criticize others for apparent inconsistencies when we know at our core that consistency is an impossible demand on both others and ourselves?

As in many areas of growth, it may be that our commitment to certainty and coherence in the face of a world that provides neither is a necessary stage in the process of intellectual and psychological growth, a stage that, although crucial important in its time and place, we should mature beyond. At least Christian Wiman thinks this is the case.

One of the most difficult things to outgrow is the need for, the belief in, permanent things . . . One of the ways that humans developed, it turns out, has been an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the limitations of human development. The need for certainties, for “belief,” is a symptom of intellectual adolescence, and it can afflict a culture as well as an individual consciousness.

Wiman notes that an overreliance on reason, what he calls “the idolatry of logic,” has led to some remarkable discoveries as well as some “pretty strange noodlings.” Isaac Newton, for instance, both was at the epicenter of spectacular discoveries and, using the same rational tools of logic, thousands of pages of speculation seeking to determine from the Book of Revelation the precise timing of the rapture. We would do best to follow the example of Aristotle, who argued that one can expect only the amount of certainty that is appropriate to the subject matter. As John Polkinghorne, both a physicist and an Anglican priest, suggests: “No greater clarity should be sought than reality permits..”

For people of faith, the tension between wanting to and being unable to believe with certainty arises most sharply when we turn our attention toward what is greater than ourselves. We both pay lip service to the ineffable and unknowable nature of God and seek to use our limited resources and tools to reduce the divine to categories we are comfortable with. As Christian Wiman says, “Grace is absolutely beyond all human capacity, one thinker after another will say, and then they begin furiously reasoning their way toward it.” Which brings me back to where I started this essay—my colleague’s wondering whether a Christian doesn’t have to believe something with certainty in order to be a Christian.

It’s an important question and deserves to be answered more seriously than I did the first time those many years ago. Take, for instance, what most would agree is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith, something anyone claiming to be a Christian should be willing to affirm with conviction: Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine. I believe that to be true—and as soon as I say that, I run out of words. Despite the millions of words that have been written and the thousands (perhaps millions) of lives that have been sacrificed in the effort to establish the infallible truth of this claim, it doesn’t lend itself to logical analysis or categorization. Simply saying it requires making a claim that involves incompatible categories, a “category error” as philosophers like to say.

And yet, as I’ve said and written many times, the incarnation is the central truth of my faith—it is what keeps me in the camp of faith. When I say that I believe it is true, I am not primarily making a rational or logical claim. I am instead expressing my willingness to embrace a story, a mystery so profound that it transcends human language. One of the reasons I love Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead, a novel that I will have the privilege to engage students with this semester for the first time in several years, is because Reverand Ames expresses these matters profoundly.

I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things . . . So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

Amen to that. And amen, also, to this from Christian Wiman:

This I believe: that we—priests and penitents, geneticists and journalists, physicists and philosophers—all need to outgrow our need to say, “This I believe.”

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