The Ditches of Faith


Created to Comprehend - Part 1

Ditch 1: The Ditch of Certainty

The core belief that draws believers into the ditch of certainty is: 

faith = inner certainty 

Faith, in this ditch, is understood to be a type of total confidence about God; a state of zero doubt. The definition seems reinforced by certain bible passages. For instance, James 1:6 appears to proclaim "faith=certainty" as the standard:  
“...when you ask you must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”
This leads to an immediate crisis: If I have any doubt I am like a fickle wave! Therefore, I must have total certainty! And so begins the anxious campaign to eliminate all doubt. So begins the exhausting inner struggle to push the needle on our faith-o-meter higher. 

The Faith-o-meter. How much faith do you have?
The Brilliant "Faith-O-Meter:" From Woodland Hills Church. See here

Problems with the Ditch of Certainty:

Total doubtlessness is not actually possible about most things, though. So the goal of certainty inevitably devolves into something less ambitious (and less rational), like: to avoid the “feeling” of doubt as best as we can. Believers in this ditch spill much ink writing out complicated arguments, and utter many cerebral phrases in eloquent (long-winded) debates, appearing to all to be exceedingly rational. But the reasoning is merely cognitive kindling to stoke the flames of their truly desired state: the feeling of certainty. Faith, then, becomes this inner game where we try to inflate our feeling confidence in our beliefs, while keeping any feelings of doubt from spoiling that confidence.

We exclude people who could help us grow: This feeling of certainty is fragile and must be treated with great care. It takes so much more than argumentation to maintain that precious feeling. For starters, it can really help to avoid any significant challenges to our beliefs; the feeling of certainty weakens around opposing viewpoints, but swells in proximity to others who share similar “answers.” Consensus is powerful. The greater the consensus on an issue the greater the feeling of certainty.  As Dan Taylor puts it:
“(the goal of certainty seekers) is... an unquestionable, undoubtable foundation on which to base all subsequent claims. ...(and) to promote this feeling of certainty, so they erect an elaborate system of apologetics, (with each person feeding off the certainty the other supposedly has).”
Daniel Taylor The Myth of Certainty

We demonize 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. There is so much at stake, and the feeling of certainty takes so long to foster - yet can be decimated in mere moments by some new piece of evidence or argumentation. Screwy logic is inevitable. You’ll find certainty-seekers endorsing a dazzling variety of goofy hypotheses ("God planted the dinosaur bones in the ground and made them appear old.").  

Of course, it's so much easier to avoid all new learning in the first place, and to simply 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 others who agree with them. Their life is structured 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

We are forced inside ourself: Because there is not enough external evidence to justify certainty, the mad quest for certainty eventually becomes an inner effort, a subjective game, where we attempt to align all the pieces in just the right way. 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. We inevitably live "in our head," trapped inside ourselves.  This inner focus should alarm us, as it is contrary to the other-oriented nature we are all called to manifest. 
How much certainty do we really want? 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 insane reason do we think we ought to be totally certain about God? 

This whole view of faith is broken (and the interpretation of James 1:6 is flawed). The ditch of certainty is a sticky trap that will ultimately limit our faith and diminish our spiritual vitality.

I will address the James text soon. For more discussion on the brokenness of this ditch (the ditch of certainty), see: 4 Trap Doors in the Ivory Tower.

Ditch 2: The Ditch of Mystery

The core belief that draws believers into the ditch of mystery is: 

faith = belief without knowledge 

The ditch of mystery is largely a reaction to the ditch of certainty. Mystery-seekers assume, rightly, that faith should be passionate and other oriented. Yet when they look at certainty-seekers they often see a dull and passionless faith, full of big words but empty of action, where community reinforces beliefs and barriers instead of challenging them. People are often in the ditch of mystery because they want nothing to do with any of this. 

Furthermore, mystery-seekers have different assumptions about reason and the knowability of God.  People in the ditch of mystery believe that we can know only very little about God, as we humans are so limited and God is so great. So, whereas certainty-seekers view doubt as the enemy, Mystery-seekers view reason and passionlessness as the enemy. 

This leads to a dilemma for those in the ditch of mystery: The fact is, we are called to believe in God (Hebrews 11:6). Yet, if we can not know enough to justify belief in God, and if God is so mysterious, then how can we have meaningful belief?  

Faith does not equal belief without knowledge

Faith saves the day. Faith fills that gap between the things we can know and what is required for belief. What is this "faith" that fills the gap? It is like passionate “willed belief” in just those places where we lack knowledge (which ends up being just about everything that relates to God). Faith, according to this ditch, is sort of a cognitive choice to believe despite the failure to justify that belief. It is a sort of "believe it anyway" commitment. 

So faith, in the ditch of mystery, is not the result of a line of reasoning, a collection of evidence, or a cunning argument. Faith is simply chosen. Evidence and argument are irrelevant. 

Faith fills our knowledge gaps. hashtag faith

Hebrews 11:1 even explicitly tells us that faith is about believing passionately things we can not understand:
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

Problems with the Ditch of Mystery:

Saying that God is “mystery” seems safe, and maybe even glorifying. But don’t be fooled. If God can not be known, then to “seek” God becomes nothing more than to realize and embrace “the mystery.” And although this sounds very religious, it is spiritually debilitating. Christians in the ditch of mystery end up proclaiming that Christian freedom has a lot to do with giving up (“letting go”) on trying to comprehend God. They eventually encourage us to accept our cognitive powerlessness and just be. "Let go and let God."

Not surprising, then, once a Christian experiences this “liberation,” the rest of their Christian walk becomes stagnant – there really is nothing else to know other than: "we can’t know."  End of story. End of journey. Meanwhile, as the rest of the world becomes progressively more intelligent and their intellectual needs progressively increase, God’s churches promote the same tired answers, the same tired “mystery,” and many disappointed seekers understandably seek elsewhere.

There is a major internal flaw with this perspective, though. We all agree that faith is good, and the more faith we have the better. But if faith is simply "belief without knowledge," then we're left with a curious truth: the smaller our knowledge is the more room there is for faith. That is, the less we know the more faith we can have. Or, to put it even more plainly: the less we know the better! But this is all backwards. We are called to seek God and to learn as much as we can about God. Any perspective that encourages us to know less should be immediately questioned and distrusted. 

As mystery increases so does faith. Gag

An Arbitrary Faith. Is faith something that you can “just have?” The just-do-it-ness of the phrase is troublesome. Faith must be justified or else it becomes arbitrary. If faith is something that I “just do,” then why not “just have faith” in Buddhism?  Or in Scientology? Or in Charlie Sheen? If faith is something that I just choose to do, then there really is no way to distinguish between these beliefs.

How God Responds to Doubt. Whereas the ditch of certainty demonized doubt, the ditch of mystery tends to glorify doubt, and looks unfavorably on those who seek real answers to their doubts. But many times in the bible God takes the doubts of seekers very seriously and is eager to offer answers. For instance, Thomas hears about the resurrection of Jesus but does not really believe it. He tells the disciples that he can not “just believe," but that he needs proof. When Thomas is greeted by Jesus, Jesus does NOT say “just have faith.”  Jesus extends his wounded hands and invites Thomas to dig his finger into the wound. Thomas complies, falls to his knees, and utters “My Lord and my God.” At that point Thomas really believed, and the transition from his doubt to his belief changed the entire orientation of his life in ways that “just have faith” could never do. (For more examples, see 4 Cliches that FAIL)

Which is the Smaller Box? You may have heard mystery-seekers say "you can't put God in your little boxes." Captured in the spirit of the statement is the reality that God is a dynamic living being who exists in a supernaturally profound way in which “words” can not communicate. Words, then, are like boxes that are too small to carry what we are attempting to carry. The problem, though, is that boxes are inevitable. Even to say “God exists” is to put God into a box. I doubt, however, that anybody would say that the statement “God exists” in any way “limits God.” In fact, the only box that might be inhibiting to God is to say that God can’t be put into our boxes. That would be the smallest box we could put God in, for then we would not be able to acknowledge his love, mercy, compassion, steadfastness, etc. 

The Bible is a Book of Boxes for God! In fact, the Bible is nothing less than a complicated testimony of God’s “boxes.” The Bible portrays God as being “slow to anger.” This is a box! God is “abounding in steadfast love.” [BOX!] God is forgiving. [BOX!] God is merciful. [BOX!] Everything about God in the Bible is a “box” that God embodies. The Bible is replete with boxes for God. Yet nowhere is it suggested that having God in these boxes is in any way inhibiting to his divine splendor and incomparable, transcendent holiness. In fact, perhaps the biggest flaw in the ditch of mystery, is that: the extent to which we can not comprehend God is the extent to which God is NOT revealed. If we can not comprehend God, then God is not revealed. And if God is not revealed, then the bible is not revelation.  

Opposite Ditches, Similar Problems:

Curiously, both ditches end up with the same problems (despite emphasizing opposite things). For certainty-seekers knowledge is a threat to faith, as any new piece of evidence, or argumentation, can shatter the arduously established belief structure. For mystery-seekers, since faith is understood to be "belief without knowledge," the more knowledge we have the less faith we can have - so knowledge becomes a literal threat to faith. Also for both ditches, faith somehow ends up becoming a feeling. For one it is a feeling of certainty. For the other, a feeling of passion. As the believer strives to foster these fragile feelings, they find themselves trapped in deep contemplation and preoccupation; both become subdued in isolating inner focus. 

Mystery and Certainty both end up in the same places

The "Road of Faith," we will see, does not share these problems, though:

Faith is neither certainty nor mystery

  • CATEGORY: theology for your God-shaped hole

  • 09-03-2013

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