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Certainty as Unfaithfulness

2009 October 4
by Julie Clawson

During Sunday school this morning at church, we discussed the testing of Jesus in the desert. At one point we divided into groups and were told to reflect on the tests and discuss what modern day equivalents might be. My group was given the third test as presented in Luke –

Luke 4: 9-12
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
” ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

As we discussed the passage one of the ideas that emerged was that our need for certainty in our faith is in fact a means of testing God. Jesus, of course, could have easily done what Satan suggested and proven to the people of Jerusalem that he was indeed the son of God with angels at his bidding. Having that evidence, providing that proof – might yes have gained him followers, but they wouldn’t have had faith. They would have had knowledge of who he was, but wouldn’t have had to choose to place their faith in who he claimed to be.

In the Bible we are often presented with those who offer such tests to God. Gideon lays out the fleece to God multiple times – he wants tangible proof that it isn’t foolish to follow God. Moses tries to gain the power of God’s name through a sly question. Thomas asks to see Jesus’ wounds. And God responds with what each of them needed. But at the same time, in scripture we hear the call to be responsible for our faith. To choose to follow out of love not out of secure certainty. To exercise our faith without holding God to one test or another.

This isn’t about not having a rational faith or whether or not Absolute Truth exists, it’s about believing in something bigger than ourselves without having to confine it to the smallness of our imaginations. It’s about telling God that we are okay not controlling her and that we will trust her even though we are consumed with questions and doubt. That, like Jesus, we will not settle for the easy path where faith can be reduced to a magic trick or scientific explanation or historical argument. Those things are fascinating and helpful in discovering more about our faith, but really miss the point as foundations for faith. To demand certainty is to test God. Perhaps the strongest faith is to embrace the messiness of doubt, to wrestle with the hard questions, and to choose to follow Jesus every day anyway.

I’ve developed enough in my faith that I no longer see doubt as a sin or defect. But I’m beginning to wonder if I should start seeing certainty in that light – as a roadblock to true faith and an unfaithful testing of God.


21 Responses leave one →
  1. October 4, 2009

    Great thoughts.

    I’ve always pulled out my hair when people cite Gideon’s fleece as an endorsement of our need for certainty. I’ve always read it as a *critique* of our desire for certainty.

    ..just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s being commended by the writers of the Bible.

  2. October 5, 2009

    I read a quote from St. Isaac the Syrian a couple of days ago.

    “Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth . . . once he has truly learnt [what truth is really like], he will cease from zealousness on its behalf.”

    Knowing that my zealotry is often a symptom of my discomfort with doubt (if I can get others to believe it then it must be true), I understand the quote to mean, among other things, that part of knowing real truth is knowing that doubt is natural and being comfortable holding the paradox in equilibrium.

    Interestingly, I just wrote my own blog post on the subject.

  3. Karl permalink
    October 5, 2009

    Julie, I think there’s a lot in what you say. I wonder though, if there aren’t at least some things God wants us to be certain about. Like, it’s wrong to exploit the poor. Or, that we shouldn’t put pursuit of our own comfort and security ahead of loving others. If God gave Israel the Shema – “Hear, O Israel . . .” and instructed them to tell their children and grandchildren the stories of his interaction with them and promises to their ancestors, it seems like he wanted them to be certain of at least that much.

    But I’d agree with you that our desire to nail down all the details and be certain about all things from A to Z based more on logical inferences than on the direct word of God, is most definitely a problem. And I like what you said about faith in the midst of doubt being a higher, rather than a lower, form of faith than cocksure certainty.

  4. October 5, 2009

    I wonder though, if there aren’t at least some things God wants us to be certain about. Like, it’s wrong to exploit the poor. Or, that we shouldn’t put pursuit of our own comfort and security ahead of loving others. If God gave Israel the Shema – “Hear, O Israel . . .” and instructed them to tell their children and grandchildren the stories of his interaction with them and promises to their ancestors, it seems like he wanted them to be certain of at least that much.

    No, those things are likewise issues that have to accepted on faith, perhaps especially so. There is no evidentialist proof that can lead one to absolute certainty regarding the existence or oneness of God, or of our obligation to the other. Both of these are at the heart of what it means to make a leap of faith despite our uncertainty.

  5. Karl permalink
    October 5, 2009

    We’ve had this communication problem before, Mike. If you define certainty that narrowly then sure, one can’t be certain of anything. Since it was Julie’s post, I assumed she was using certainty in the more colloquial sense of “confidence,” the sense of treating a proposition or belief as something that one can rest in and on and live by and treat as settled without needing to be riddled with angst and doubt about it on a daily basis. Many of my postmodern friends get irritated not just at modernistic certainty, but at anything approaching a settled confidence.

    There’s a wide range of possibilities in between some theoretical, evidentialist absolute proof on one hand, and total lack of confidence in the trustworthiness and reliability of a given belief, on the other. I don’t think God wants people to be at either extreme end of that spectrum, but I do think there are things about which God tells us we can be (and God wants us to be) confident – things where we can be pretty far down on the certainty end of the spectrum. Maybe we can be confident only because we have chosen to have faith in God through a Kierkegaardian leap, but once so choosing, it seems that kind of confidence is permitted and even expected on a good many issues.

    Think of your own daughter. Do you want her to be riddled with doubts about whether you love her or not – to be unsure about whether you will one day intentionally abandon her in the grocery store? Or do you want her to be able to rest in your love and treat it as settled – to be “certain” of your love for her not in some modernistic rationalist proof-sense, but in terms of a deep sense of rest in her soul? Would you rather keep reminding her that she can’t even take something as basic as her parents’ love for her as a given, that as sure as it seems, even that might be an illusion and she might find herself to have been mistaken? I think God as a perfect parent, has places where he allows and encourages his children to rest without doubt in what he has told them is so – even though he doesn’t condemn them harshly when they forget, and are afraid they’ve been abandoned in the grocery store.

  6. October 5, 2009

    The way I was using the word certainty implied a bit more than confidence. We can be confident that God loves us or that we should help the oppressed, but that still takes faith. I recall at points in my life listening to sermons that said if we are not 100% certain about Jesus or the Bible then there is no point in being a Christian. That’s what I have problems with. Needing to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus rose from the dead isn’t faith. I am not 100% sure and never will be, but I believe anyway. And I am not wrestling with all of this stuff all of the time. But I’ve been in the churches where evidence and proof and 100% certainty are the measure of “faith.” I just had a radio interview about my book where the guy argued that since a person can never be 100% certain that every single thing they do, eat or buy is free from injustice then we shouldn’t bother doing anything at all. That’s a cop out to me and that’s not real faith. It takes more faith to believe amidst doubt just like it takes more strength and faith to seek justice even when one may never see any results.

  7. Karl permalink
    October 5, 2009

    I agree with what you say in #6 Julie. It’s a shame some people are too threatened to acknowledge the need for faith exercised in the midst of doubt. If you are saying that lack of certainty doesn’t imply lack of confidence, then I think we agree.

    I don’t think most people think in philosophical categories when they use terms like certainty though. If you or Mike told the average person that you don’t think one can be certain that it’s evil to molest a child, or that you can’t personally be certain genocide or human sex trafficking is wrong, or even that you can’t be certain God loves you – I think they’d look at you a bit oddly. If you’re just being honest and that opens the door for a conversation about modern vs. postmodern epistemology and what you mean by “certainty” then that’s well and good. But I don’t blame or condemn people who think they CAN and should be certain of those and other things, in the colloquial, common-use sense of the word “certain.”

    The closed-to-all-uncertainty attitudes you are talking about within many conservative church circles are a problem for sure, and an unfortunate barrier to faith for many people.

  8. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    October 5, 2009

    As an atheist, I read your religious posts with interest, but don’t usually comment on them, since I think this forum is really not intended for Christian vs. atheist debates. Still, I wonder if you or your readers would be willing to explain a little why the sort of faith you describe in your post—i.e. faith without evidence—is a desirable or virtuous thing.

    I understand that it’s appropriate and correct to trust someone who has earned that trust. For example, I trust my wife, and don’t demand proof for every claim that she makes. But this isn’t faith without evidence; it’s appropriate and rational for me to trust the claims she makes now, because my past experiences with her have shown her to be trustworthy. But in the case of Jesus and the people of Jerusalem, the first question they have to have is whether he really is the son of God. Why is it desirable or virtuous for the people of Jerusalem to make a decison on this factual matter without strong evidence? If a person takes other factual matters on faith—e.g. whether a car is working before she buys it, or whether a pool of water is sufficiently deep before diving—that’s generally not regarded as virtuous. It’s regarded as reasonable, and indeed wise, to test drive a car, or inspect the depth of the pool. So why would it be bad for a Jerusalem inhabitant to want to tangible proof that Jesus is the son of God before believing? I’ve never really understood this, and while I have heard various theistic answers before, I’d be genuinely interested in any explanations you or your readers have.

  9. John Munzer permalink
    October 5, 2009

    I agree with you, Julie. Still, sometimes I wish to God that He/She would give us a damn fleece once in a while. Humans aren’t built to be comfortable with uncertainty. It’s necessary in order for there to be any kind of freedom… but it’s definitely uncomfortable. I can sympathize with the people who preached those sermons because they need certainty so bad that they won’t – can’t – listen to anything that would erode it. I don’t agree with them, but I feel where they’re coming from.
    So, from either angle, I guess I could use more faith. :)

  10. Karl permalink
    October 6, 2009

    AH, that’s a reasonable question. I don’t know whether Julie or Mike would agree with this, but as one of her readers, I’ll offer these two short posts from Dr. John Stackhouse’s blog, on “Why Christianity is Believable”

    I give these as an indicator of my thinking on the topic, an example of how and why I think my belief in Christianity is, like your belief in your wife’s claims, warranted by evidence and experience. As with your wife, the evidence isn’t so ironclad as to amount to absolute proof, not enough to allow total logical/philosophical certainty. But it’s not just a totally irrational leap in the absence of any reason for taking that leap, either.

    Again, I offer these for informational purposes, not to start an atheist v. Christian argument with you.

  11. Karl permalink
    October 6, 2009

    I should have added, AH, that those 2 posts by Stackhouse are only the beginning of a discussion he is hosting on his blog and don’t by themselves, give all of his answers to the question of why he thinks belief is reasonable. But they give an indication of his thought process. It’s somewhere in between the extremes of “we can know nothing so let’s take a blind leap of faith” on the one hand, and “we can know and prove Christianity is true with 100% certainty” on the other. He’s in neither such place. He doesn’t condemn doubt or uncertainty, but he believes, like you with your wife, that there are solid reasons that warrant taking the step to faith.

  12. John Munzer permalink
    October 6, 2009

    Autumnal –

    The one answer that ever made sense to me is:
    so you are free to BE an atheist.
    A relationship with a God is different than a relationship with your wife. If you’re convinced that your wife exists, loves you, and wants certain things from you, you are free to reject all that because you’re equals. But if you’re convinced that a God exists, loves you, and wants certain things from you, you pretty much don’t have a choice but to listen – because it’s a GOD speaking. Who the hell am I to argue with infinite wisdom, infinite power, when it gives a direct order?
    So, if there is a God, and if that God loves people, it makes sense that He/She would love us enough to give us a choice about whether or not to obey Him/Her. That means He/She will not give ironclad, indisputable evidence. (Though one can consider that the entire physical universe – and the fact that the odds against intelligent life coming into being by chance are infinity to one against – are evidence. But obviously, not beyond dispute.)
    As I said above, I don’t always like it. But it does mean that humans can believe, and do, whatever we damn well please. If there is a God, it’s pretty cool of Him/Her to refrain from acting like I would with absolute power. Me, I’d be issuing commands and thunderbolts every five minutes just ’cause I could. Presumably, infinite wisdom would have more maturity than that.

  13. October 6, 2009

    AH – thanks for being part of the conversation and for listening in on our quirky christian conversation.

    As to your question, I think Karl touched on it above – its all about balance. I don’t think any of us would say there is no rational evidence for our faith. We don’t believe that some guys just made up a story and we choose to believe in it – we believe that we are part of a historical story of faith. That said, since the modern era (and mostly in response to scientific objectivism which has its own problems) Christians have shifted from basing their faith on belief and love of God to basing it on whether or not it can be proved. So there are tons of books about say “The Case for the Creator” or “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” For many in the churches I grew up in, one then has faith in a collection of evidences or in certain logical arguments and not in God himself. Sure it would be good for the citizens of Jerusalem to understand about Jesus before following them, but if their heart intent was to trust in the proof and not Jesus himself, what’s the point? Jesus said on other occasions that doing miracles would be pointless in certain crowds because all the people cared about was the entertainment and not the core of faith itself. And I’m sure as an atheist you’ve encountered the Christians that think they can argue you into the faith if they can only convince you of the evidence. It is that sort of faith (and its extreme coercion techniques) that I have issues with and what I speak out against in regard to certainty. Not that faith isn’t rational or without evidence, but that it should never be reduced to external proofs. Those proofs can always change, are generally pretty weak, and are subject to interpretation. If I base my entire faith on a flimsy idea like say young earth creation, one of these days I will lose my faith when confronted with the facts of geology (that is if I allow myself to encounter counter-evidence).

    A great movie that illustrates this is the first movie of The Decalogue series Polish series that address each of the 10 Commandments in modern day settings). For the “No god before God” one sees the story of an atheist father who scoffs at religion and worships science. Each day he makes calculations based on the weather and tells his son whether it is safe to skate on the pond or not. Well, one day his son falls in and drowns and the man’s god of certainty comes crumbling down. It was good to make those calculations each day, but to place one’s absolute trust in certainty when certainty can in truth never be had is false worship.

    Anyway, I think I’ve rambled enough.

  14. October 6, 2009

    It was good to make those calculations each day, but to place one’s absolute trust in certainty when certainty can in truth never be had is false worship.

    I’d affirm what Julie and Karl both said about both the value and limits of “evidence”. And I’d add that it’s not just about religious matters that we can never have absolute certainty. This is true of all human knowledge. A “leap of faith” (not a “blind” leap, but a leap nonetheless) is necessary for pretty much anything of significance that we believe, since evidence can only ever get us so far and can never provide us with a final “proof”. The movie Julie references is a perfect example – it doesn’t matter if one’s god is GOD, or if it is one’s own rational capacity, either way, we don’t really have “certainty”, and if we pretend that we do, we’re just fooling ourselves.

  15. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    October 7, 2009

    Thanks, Karl, John, Julie, Mike, that helps me understand better what you mean by “faith.” I understand you all to be saying that this faith is an appropriate response when you have a fair amount of evidence for something, but not 100% proof (which no one ever has anyway). If I could ask for a clarification on how much “final ground” the faith part covers: Is it more like (1) The evidence for [religious belief here] is as strong as the evidence that a normal prudent person would require for making a major decision (e.g. buying a house, or getting married), and the faith comes in by accepting that that evidence is not as strong as 100%, or (2) The evidence for [religious belief here], while significant and convincing, is somewhat less strong than the evidence that a normal prudent person would require more making a major decision, and the faith comes in in bridging that gap. It seems to me that Karl, and perhaps all of you, are saying that the situation is (1), which makes sense (although obviously I assess the evidence differently), but then I find it a little confusing that it’s called “faith,” since I would just call that good judgment.

    Thanks, Julie, for the reminder to add The Decalogue to my Netflix queue. BTW, the atheist scientist in me has to point out that someone who worships science is supposed to pray daily to the deity of error bars. :)

  16. Karl permalink
    October 7, 2009

    AH, that’s another good and fair question. Answering just for myself, I would say that sometimes it seems like my faith is in your category (1) while at other times it feels like a very weak category (2) – and other times, it even feels like less than that – holding on in spite of emotions, or circumstances, or in the face of doubt and uncertainty.

    C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”

    Some here would probably question the role Lewis assigns to reason in that quote. I might change it to say “things your reason and heart once accepted” in order to take into account the relational/emotional component – again with the analogy of trusting a spouse in marriage and choosing to remain faithful even when things get rocky and you wonder “what the F was I thinking marrying this person; can I continue to believe in his/her love and in the existence of this relationship?”

    I doubt that many people *come* to the point of having faith without feeling fairly close to your category (1) about their reasons for stepping/leaping into faith – even if for some it’s more of an emotional “knowing” or trusting, than an intellectual “figuring out” (much like other relational decisions we make in life – with friends, spouses, etc.). But those are just my personal thoughts. Others here may answer your question differently.

  17. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    October 8, 2009

    Thanks, Karl, that helps me to understand. I appreciate the explanation(s).

  18. John Munzer permalink
    October 8, 2009

    The difficult thing about explaining why I’m a Christian, to someone who isn’t, is this: Christianity asks certain behaviors of me – love a God I can’t see, love a neighbor I can see (even when I don’t want to), pray, go to church, feed hungry people, etc. When I engage in those behaviors, they change me (not as fast as I’d like, but change me) into a different person than I was before. The more I engage in those behaviors, the more I become the kind of person who WANTS to engage in those behaviors. But if I’d never engaged in those behaviors, I wouldn’t have had those changes happen. In other words, you can’t fully understand the experience unless you’ve had it, no matter how eloquently someone else describes it.
    To use the marriage analogy yet again, you might as well ask me to logically explain why I love and trust my wife. I could give you SOME articulate reasons, and those would make some sense, but they wouldn’t tell the whole story. It’s the experience of spending time with my wife, and loving her, that makes me love her more. Again, you can’t fully understand the experience unless you’ve had it, no matter how eloquently someone else describes it.
    So, if you find that it’s difficult to relate to the idea of having faith without having solid evidence… it’s because it’s not the kind of thing that can be understood by looking at evidence. It’s the kind of thing that has to be lived to be understood. (And even then, only dimly understood in many ways).

  19. October 9, 2009

    Well said John. And I like the way your describe Christianity more as a set of practices, than as merely a system of beliefs. That is how I think of it too.

  20. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    October 10, 2009

    John, that sounds right. Perhaps I should have said “that helps me to understand better.” I don’t really think I can fully understand a foreign system of beliefs and practices, but I can understand it better than I do now, which is always nice.

  21. Mick permalink
    October 10, 2009

    “When I engage in those behaviors, they change me (not as fast as I’d like, but change me) into a different person than I was before.”

    Well said John . The older I get the more I see the importance of works , helping the poor, those in need. The example of Thomas need ing prrof after he walked with Christ three years shows our inability at times to be 100 percent about anything .

    I did not understand the female gender being assigned to God, I take it was not meant to be derogatory amd something out of another culture . Good comments by the particpants on Faith . I enjoyed reading them .

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