Thursday, April 10, 2014

For Sure

"Certainty is the enemy of faith."

I'm sure someone else has said that before, but it's a quote I like to use. It's a bit counter-intuitive, at least to those of us who've grown up in evangelical Christianity. Certainty is a pretty big part of the deal. You must be certain in order to really have faith.

Etymologically, though, faith and certainty are mutually exclusive. Faith is something you believe in without concrete proof; certainty is, obviously, being sure of something. There is a sense in which we can be certain about things for which we have no proof - in a sense, this is exactly how it works in evangelicalism - there may be some mystical-spiritual connection that enforces certainty despite the lack of evidence.

This is comforting and can be life changing. It's also just as easily a psychological defense mechanism to reinforce our preferences over our critical thinking skills. We could just be fooling ourselves. It's the constant battle for those of us who believe that God does, from time to time, direct us in one way or another - there is real doubt whether we're just telling ourselves something or if God is "speaking."

There's that doubt again. It seems to pop up in uncomfortable places. How do I really know if what I think is really what I should be thinking? Do I have enough certainty to act on my beliefs?

I saw an interesting quote this week from Greg Boyd, a pastor, thinker, and writer who is, for the most part, pretty evangelical (I think he's a Lutheran, but, you know, we'll forgive him that).

t’s no secret that, at least in America, evangelical Christians sort of have a reputation of being narrow-minded and intolerant... There are a number of plausible explanations for this, but I believe one of the main reasons has to do with the widespread assumption that a person’s faith is as strong as they are certain. Imagine a Christian I’ll call Bob. Like most other conservative Christians, Bob believes that he is saved by believing the doctrines that are “necessary for salvation.” And, like most others, Bob assumes that his faith is as strong as he is free of doubt. It’s apparent that for Christians like Bob, one’s sense of security is anchored in their level of confidence that their beliefs are correct. If Bob were to lose confidence or change his mind about any of these things, his salvation, as well as his acceptance as a fellow “saved” believer in his church, would at least be thrown into question, if not absolutely denied. Not only this, but Bob’s sense of identity, purpose, and well-being is wrapped up in his remaining convinced his beliefs are correct. With so much at stake, how open do you really think Bob would be to seriously studying books and dialoguing with people who might pose strong challenges to his core convictions? And how capable do you suppose Bob would be at objectively assessing the merits of points of view that disagree with his own, were he to somehow muster the courage to examine them?

This is exploring the process of incorporation into the Christian community that many have been re-examining of late. Traditionally, the pattern has been "behave, believe, belong," people should "stop sinning" and act properly as part of a congregation, then through participating in worship and Christian life they will come to believe and ultimately, then, are eligible for full inclusion, belonging.

Lately, though, many have been proposing that this process is reversed from proper order. People should be fully included and immersed in the community - loved and accepted - before all else. Upon receiving and experiencing this acceptance they come to believe that the Jesus way is the right way to live: they believe. This belief then begins to impact their behavior and changes are made to align their actions with their beliefs.

Boyd hits on the main problem with the traditional pattern above. If a Christian has doubts (or if they fail to live up to expected practices, to behave properly) they are assumed to no longer belong. This leads to all sorts of secrets and lies - where people claim to be living rightly or believing rightly when they're really struggling with actions and doubts they don't necessarily want. The pattern of acceptance and belonging keep them from getting the support of the community they most desperately need.

The larger part of this is probably the behave aspect. There are a lot of "secret sins" running around the Church because we're afraid we won't belong if they come to light.

That's a topic for another day, though. Doubt is what interests me today. The idea that what we believe might not be true is a scary one, even moreso when your religious community is based on belief. I've written about doubt before (I may have even stolen the opening quote subconsciously from Peter Rollins).

Rollins often says many religious people have only doubts - they believe because people around them or their leaders believe - it's more a faith commitment based on the certainty of others. If a pastor were to address a congregation and admit to real, serious doubts in many cases it would tear the congregation apart because it's so difficult for people to actually believe.

Yet, often, our whole system is based upon belief.

I am a big proponent of doubt. In a few weeks (the week following Easter) I'll be revisiting a sermon on the second half of John 20 - this is where we get the story of "doubting Thomas." For many, the lesson of this passage is, "don't doubt; believe." I take a different tact. I really believe this passage reassures us that God is big enough to handle our doubts. God doesn't need us to believe to be God. That, in itself is immensely comforting. Our faith does not rest on our certainty.

In reality, belief and certainty are two very different things. Belief I might equate more to faith: something you chose, for any number of reasons, to shape your life around. You don't need to be certain to believe, in fact, it may just be frustrating to try and do both.

There is one other issue that makes this easier for some and more difficult for others. I am a part of a generation that just isn't certain about anything. Post-modernity, or perhaps the reaction to modernity, has thoroughly immersed itself in the flaws of bias and perspective and epistemology. We know what we know and we believe what we believe, but there's just no way to know if we're right. I can't help but doubt. I can't imagine anything in the world that I could possibly be certain about - at least more than in one particular moment. Previous generations were different and responded differently. This makes for some troubling interactions as we try to play out our relationships with one another. It's especially uneasy when these two groups coexist in the Church.

I responded to the Boyd quote above in this way:

I've come to believe certainty is the enemy of faith. Doubt is really important. Even with out most deeply held beliefs, if we're not in doubt, despite our commitment to them, then there may be something wrong.

I believe Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, but I'm not at all certain of it. I think the implications of such reality are important and unique and therefore I'm willing to commit to the idea with my whole being. I am convinced life without this belief and commitment (in the resurrection of Christ) is just not worth living. But I'm not certain about it. I doubt it all the time. I don't generally act upon those doubts - that's a choice - but they're quite alive and well on a regular basis.

There's nothing wrong with doubt. In fact, I'd argue, there's something very wrong with certainty. In the end, if we're absolutely certain about something, we end up defending our own certainty and not the idea about which we're so seriously certain. It's sort of like those people who always have to be right, those people who find an excuse for anything just to avoid admitting a mistake.

But that's me, and I may be wrong.

It's not that certainty is malicious, but it tends to distract us from more important matters. It keeps us from growing, from learning. In the end, if God is indeed God, our faith will survive - perhaps in spite of our doubts, but maybe, just maybe, because of them.

1 comment:

Kameron said...

I like the view you have on doubt, faith, and certainty. It does seem that they can't exist together, as we experience them we can have a new look on what's going on. I to have struggled with doubts and have found that it is through my beliefs that hold me strong. Doubts can make us question but maybe that's why we have them to reaffirm our faith. One of my friends (Michael) wrote an article about doubts that I think you could relate to. You can find it here.
thank you let me know what you think.