4 Trap Doors in the Ivory Tower

or

Created to Comprehend - Appendix 1

To expand on problems in the ditch of certainty, here are:


4 Trap Doors in the Ivory Tower

(1)

The Quest for a Feeling of Certainty Forces You Inside Yourself.

Certainty is an inner experience. It happens in our head. But what is it? It has been defined as “perfect knowledge,and “a doubtless mental state.” I like this definition best: Certainty is a sense of utmost conviction about a claim. By conviction we mean a feeling of confidence. Does the moon exist? Did humans land on the moon? Do aliens exist? Is there such a thing as puppies? How confident do you feel about these claims? If you feel exceedingly confident, so confident that you can possibly be more confident, then you could be said to be feeling certain.

When it comes to the Christian faith, there are many claims to consider:
God exists.
Jesus was a real person.
The Bible is without error.
God created the universe in 6 days.
People without faith go to hell.
God predestines everything, even evil.
Demons exist.
Jesus rose from the dead.
God has performed miracles on earth.
God answers prayers.
Jesus’ mother was a virgin.
Noah survived a worldwide flood. 
... and on and on and on....

Pretend for a moment that Christians agreed on these claims. These claims, and many, MANY more, are part of our faith. And if faith is a feeling of certainty, then one must feel certain on all of these claims. The problem is that there is not enough evidence to merit a feeling of certainty on any of these claims. But a feeling of certainty is required.  What to do?

Each claim has endless variables and implications that must be considered. Objectively, in the world outside of us, there is not enough justification for certainty. So certainty inevitably becomes an inner effort, a subjective game, where we attempt to pull things together, align the pieces, in just the right way until we feel it. Until we feel that internal state we call certainty (or at least something close to it). 

Facts, reason, and arguments are good, so far as they are supportive, so far as they endorse the right conclusion, so far as they lubricate the gears to produce the desired result. This entire "certainty campaign" compels us to "live in our head." We become thought-farmers working our crop, weeding out all damaging evidence, killing all threatening counter-arguments. We work our field until all that remains are those things that feed our cognitive confidences. It is exhausting work, because there are so many threats, so many dangerous pieces of evidence, so many compelling counter-arguments.  

Of course, anything that forces a believer to dwell excessively inside their own head should be seen immediately for what it is: a perversion. After all, the whole goal of Christian discipleship is for us to become other-oriented. So why would our concept of faith compel such overwhelming self-orientation? 

(2) 

The Quest for a Feeling of Certainty Demonizes New Learning

To the believer slogging through this ditch, the quest for certainty can feel like an admirable spiritual quest, or even the maturation of a deep inner life. But what it really becomes is a totally inward, self-focused campaign of self-delusion. Feelings of certainty that are conjured in this way are fragile. Every new viewpoint, every new scientific discovery, and every new piece of historical evidence becomes a dangerous threat. Nurturing the feeling of certainty inevitably fosters defensiveness and suspicion against new learning.

Screwy logic is also inevitable. There is so much at stake. The feeling of certainty takes so long to foster, and can be decimated in mere moments. So, like defensive drug addicts justifying their reckless chemical behaviors, the high of certainty must also be guarded. You’ll find believers endorsing a dazzling variety of goofy hypotheses (ie, God planted dinosaur bones in the ground and made them appear old) in the desperate attempt to make apparently lethal evidence cohere with what they think they are supposed to believe. Of course, it's so much easier to just avoid all new learning and to continually massage the same old familiar, comfortable beliefs and arguments.

As Greg Boyd puts it:
“[the quest for certainty] instills a phobia about learning. The reason why Christians come off as so narrow is they try to protect their sacred beliefs. They only want to hear what agrees with them and hang out with those who agree with them. Their life is structure around the rightness of their beliefs... If you’ve ever been around people living to prove that they are right, it’s not very pleasant. Invariably what ends up happening is that you begin to demonize those who disagree with you.”  -  from the sermon series "Wrestling with God" 

Greg Boyd Benefit of the Doubt

(3) 

Certainty Uproots Love Relationship

The most surprising thing about the God who loves us is that he is uncertain about us! He expects us to act in a particular way and is often surprised at how we actually act (Genesis 6:6, Isaiah 5:2). Even the great leaders of the faith, the very men whom God entered into covenant with (Abraham, Noah, Moses, etc) needed to be tested by God to help God measure the trustworthiness of each candidate (for instance, Genesis 22). God is uncertain about us. For what reason do we think we ought to be certain about God? 

Of course, God does know with certainty that we exist, while we are not certain that he exists. There is much to be said about this unfortunate fact (and will be said in future sections). For now let me just point out that we do not have to assume that this reality is the way it is supposed to be. Being certain of God's existence could be very good.  

But relational certainty is often bad. As Boyd puts it: "what kind of relationship doesn't allow doubt? What kind of relationship doesn't allow questioning and challenging?" We've all seen pathological relationships where one partner wants to know everything about the other. We've all cringed at overbearing, intrusive lovers who track their partner's every move. "Where were you? Why are you late? Who have you been talking to? Why didn't you tell me you were going to do that?" Such cognitive control impinges on the freedom of our lover. In order for love, the sort of love God wants for us, to flourish, each lover must be free. In order to be free, they must be trusted. 

Indeed, such pathological control often comes from some deep source brokenness, which results in a pervasive lack of trust. But the love that God desires for us to dwell in is not like this. His love is a love based on trust, not certainty. To certainty-seekers the enemy is doubt. But to God-seekers doubt is welcome; doubt is embraced. In fact, it turns out, as Boyd says: "when you wrestle with doubts, when you wrestle with God, it is a sign that you have faith.

The mechanics of how all of this works will be discussed in future sections. But the key point here is that certainty is not an important part of our relationship with God, and may even inhibit our relationship with God. 

Of course, we must know about God before we can trust God. We must question. We must learn. We must responsibly pursue whether we ought to make a commitment to this God - and this will involve much reasoning and argumentation. But it should not involve any expectations of certainty.   

(4)

Certainty is an Illusion

The real bad news, though, is that, for the most important things in life, certainty is, at best, an illusion. There are a disappointingly scant amount of beliefs that lend themselves to certainty (think: 2 + 2 = 4, "I exist," etc), and those things are not that useful (and even the certainty of those things can be questioned!). 

There is much to say about the impossibility of certainty. Too much. Instead, I will again affirm the insights of Daniel Taylor. As Taylor points out, what people really want, especially believers, is to know truth. We form beliefs about what we think is true. Certainty is this entirely other thing that is attached to these beliefs:
"The truth, which I affirm by faith in response to evidence, is that the essential Christian claims are actually so. The illusion is that I can be certain that they are so."  
Certainty is a measurement of the confidence we have in something else. The something else is our beliefs about truth. This distinction is important because, even if certainty were possible (which it isn't), certainty is still not really the thing we are looking for. What we really want is truth. And truth about a relational being can only be gained within a relationship with that being. There is a narrow limit to what I can learn about Abraham Lincoln by reading a biography about him, and I can only learn so much about God by theologizing about him. By design, reason will only get us so far. To get more truth about God (or a person) we must enter a committed relationship with them. By design, revelation breaks down in response to demands for certainty.


  • CATEGORY: theology for your God-shaped hole

  • 09-15-2013

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