Certainty is a Myth

Certainty is a Myth April 11, 2018

Bruce Gerencser recently wrote a blog post about the place of belief in Evangelicalism. While I often appreciate what Bruce writes, I must object to his characterization of faith as by definition meaning believing without evidence, and more specifically believing what the Bible says about people and events even when we have no corroborating evidence. That is, to be sure, one possible meaning of “faith,” and one that is particularly widespread in our time, especially among conservative Evangelicals, which is what Bruce used to be. But within the Bible, faith does not mean believing the Bible, nor even (for the most part) believing that things happened or that certain dogmas are correct. Faith is trust in God for things that are not yet seen because they lie in the future. And as Hebrews 11 makes abundantly clear, the element of trust in God is the key part, since the individuals listed also had faith or hope about things that would happen and which did not!

On this subject see also the recent post by Michael Pahl in which he wrote:

Let’s be honest: certainty is a myth. Or better, true certainty is the sole prerogative of God, the All-Seeing and All-Knowing One. Mere mortals must content themselves with a conviction coming from faith. While the fruits of human certainty and conviction can sometimes look the same, there is a subtle difference between the two, a subtle difference that makes a world of difference.

Certainty claims an unbroken connection with the divine perspective; it says, “I know because God knows.” Conviction acknowledges the fallibility and finiteness that mark our humanity; it says, “I know only in part, I see only through a dark glass.” Certainty says, “I have faith, which is as good as sight.” Conviction says, “I have faith, despite my lack of sight.” Certainty says, “There is no other way for anyone to explain the evidence.” Conviction says, “There is no other way for me to explain what I’ve experienced.” Certainty says, “I know and therefore everyone should act.” Conviction says, “I believe and therefore I act, and I act alongside others of similar conviction.” At its worst, certainty can lead to a knowledge that merely puffs itself up. At its best, conviction can lead to a love that builds others up.

It is this “conviction,” as I’ve called it, that characterizes authentic Christian faith—whether that of the “doubtless faithful” who seem to live free from difficult questions, or that of the “faithful doubters” haunted by these questions throughout their lives.

While the Church needs the “doubtless faithful,” it also needs its “faithful doubters.” They are the ones who are suspicious of well-worn human rituals and wary of the latest trends and fads; with guidance they can properly scrutinize these for adherence to genuinely Christian convictions. They are the ones who are unconvinced by simplistic answers to complex questions; with encouragement they may seek more nuanced solutions which are paradoxically both less and more satisfying. These “faithful doubters” may find themselves on the fringes of mainstream Christianity, at times even missing out on the full blessings of community life. But the Church needs people on the boundaries, engaging our culture with authentic questions and conversation while also calling the Church to an ever deeper and more authentic faith and life.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Thanks for this, James.

    That craving for certainty (or assumption of having certainty) seems to be something lodged pretty deeply within us. I often wonder if the various large worldview changes people undergo sometimes have less to do with a careful considerations of the merits of the change and more about the allure of the potential offer of greater certainty.

    But if it is a craving within us, certainly it is a purposeful one. That craving has led us to all kinds of knowledge, discoveries, and advancements. Why the passion for scholarship if we don’t feel like we can actually come closer to knowing? But just like any beneficial characteristic humans have, it can also become a dysfunction unchecked. Assuming we have certainty or doing whatever we need to do to feel more certain leads to a lot of damaging behavior.

    • Fantastic question! My own answer is that the humility described should not lead to despair any more than the quest for knowledge should lead to dogmatic overconfidence. In between there is a space in which we can both seek to understand as much as we can, while recognizing that we can never know it all and will inevitably be wrong about things. It is like the quest for ethical perfection – it should neither lead us to pretend that we have attained it, nor to abandon the effort because of our inevitable failures and shortcomings.

      • John MacDonald

        In our quest for ethical action, there is never enough time, information, precedence, etc., but we make a Leap of Faith when we act, understanding the fruits/consequences of this action may be things we never intended.

  • KateGladstone

    So, “certainty is a myth” … are you certain about that?

  • Nick G

    Or better, true certainty is the sole prerogative of God, the All-Seeing and All-Knowing One.

    I cannot see how justified absolute certainty could be available to human beings (although KateGladstone rightly points out the self-refuting quality of any claim to be sure of this!). But I cannot see how it could be available to any being. Even if you think you see and know everything, how could you know you’re not being fooled, or fooling yourself? IOW, is omniscience even logically possible?

  • Joshua Hauck-Whealton

    “Let’s be honest: certainty is a myth. Or better, true certainty is the sole prerogative of God, the All-Seeing and All-Knowing One.”

    I guess this is what Richard Popkin calls fideism, “sceptics with regard to the possibility of our attaining knowledge by rational means, without our possessing some basic truths known by faith (i.e., truths based on no rational evidence whatsoever).”

    Basically, if to know something requires 100% confidence in that knowledge, then we know nothing. But we can know that God is real, singular, and all-knowing.