For many, certainty has gone the way of fairy tales. Like Robin Hood and Cinderella, certainty once intrigued us; it drew us into its wonder. It compelled, enraptured, and even produced a deep sense of peace. But now we know better. We know that we cannot really know. We have put away such childish things. Confidence has shot off like an arrow into the darkness; it has gone the way of glass slippers.
Not only has confidence departed, many would have us believe that claims to personal confidence about ultimate reality represent ill-informed (and embarrassing) carry-over from a prior age, when many of our predecessors believed that we could know certain truths certainly about God, self, the world and even the future.
Things have changed. We now know better. Sophistication requires ambiguity. Those of us who still long for confidence or, in fact, possess it, are roundly (confidently!) rebuked by talking heads such as Rob Bell, Peter Rollins, and Peter Enns. Certainty, we are told, is arrogant, naive, and even psychologically damaging. It exposes weakness, dishonesty, and fear; it counters faith!
The only certainty, in fact, is uncertainty. Matters of faith, morality, and destiny simply cast us into the cloudy soup of ambiguity. The sooner we acknowledge this ineradicable cognitive haze, the healthier we will be. And as Peter Rollins contends, the closer we are to appreciating the good news.1
But is that really the case? Does mature and honest apprehension of God, self, and the world lead only to unending questions? Can I never know anything for sure? Do the divergent opinions of world religions and disparate interpretive schemes of Christian faith drive only to skepticism? Has God left us with troubles, questions, and uncertainties and devoid of cogent and confident answers?
To all these questions, I reply, I think not. Or, better, I know not. God himself tells us otherwise. He has done so explicitly. Definitely. Decidedly.
In the next several Sine Qua Non articles, I wish to probe the question of certainty. To do so, we will draw from my booklet, entitled, How Can I Know For Sure?
(Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary Press/Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014).2
We begin with some nagging questions and then consider common proposals of philosophy and the religions of the world. In ensuing articles, we will consider what God himself says about confidence.
Life presses us with questions. It forces us to decision. Each moment. Every day. All of our lives.
What time should I get up in the morning? Which pair of socks best matches these pants? Yogurt or oatmeal or yogurt and oatmeal? Now, that’s a tough one. Oh, and should I leave the kitchen window open when I go to work? Though relatively uncomplicated, even these decisions produce palpable pain for some.
Other decisions up the ante. How can I fit exercise into my schedule? Should I drive or fly to Montreal? Android or I-Phone? Is this stock a good investment?
Again, difficult as they may be, these questions alight gently compared to matters of more consequence. What school should I attend? Which career should I pursue? Whom should I marry? How will I really know? Will I make the best decision? What if I don’t? Will I suffer early onset Alzheimer’s like my father? Will there be a cure in time for me? Will this Diet Coke give me cancer?
Now the pressure is on. With their gravity, these decisions at times drop on us like lead weights. They bruise us, brutalize us, and break us, even paralyzing us with fear. One life to live; so many questions and so much pressure.
If only it would stop there.
In the deeper recesses of our souls, we face lurking questions, whose answers matter in ways impossible to express. Yet their enormity swells in our souls and we know that we don’t have the built-in competencies to deliver a final answer. Certainly not with any confidence.
Even some remote questions thump our consciences. Is euthanasia legitimate mercy killing or does it actually kill the spirit of mercy? What should I do for the starving children in Darfur? Does it matter if I don’t really care?
Other questions strike chords of personal vulnerability. Will I face God one day? Does he care that I don’t care enough about the children in Darfur? Will he care that I had an abortion? Do the Ten Commandments command me? What about life after death? Or really, what about my life after death?
Ultimate questions with ultimate stakes. Some questions really matter and we really know it. Their burning prods press and unnerve us. Indecision over their relentless interrogation is itself a decision and merely perpetuates the pain, and despite our attempts to cool them off, these questions ruthlessly sting our hearts.
Is there any release valve for the pressure? Is there a way to know, to own, and to rest in real answers with genuine peace, confidence, and contentment? Can I know that I am ready to meet my Maker? Can I really know anything for sure?
What About Philosophy?
While philosophy has tried its hand at the ultimate questions, its inconsistent and dense conclusions would suggest the answer is no, I really cannot know for sure. Even a quick survey of philosophical systems and their intramural clashes discloses that philosophy’s cartography uncovers no hoped for treasure. At the end of the day there is the end of the day. And the unknown tomorrow still comes.
Trust in intellectual power (rationalism) leaves us scratching our heads, as our minds suffer insurmountable limitations. We come to the end of ourselves long before most wish to admit. Trust in experience (empiricism) leaves us lost because no one can experience everything, and even if we could, by what measure would we determine which experience answers the ultimate questions? Other philosophical frameworks also come up empty, because they fill our souls with gnawing uncertainty, construing an impassible chasm between reality (things as they are) and perception (things as I perceive them).
This is not to say that philosophy does not get certain things right. But even when philosophers climb to various vistas and glimpse selected dimensions of reality with some degree of clarity, other dimensions they miss altogether. In any case, by what standard is their analysis judged? Who decides what philosophers assess correctly and what they miss?
In the end, even on the highest peaks of human thought we never get beyond human thought.3 Philosophical inquiry left to its own devices births conclusions ranging only between skepticism and despair. When it comes to ultimate answers, philosophy renders its only shared conclusion: we do not and cannot really know. Any longed for hope agonizingly turns to hopelessness.
How About Religion?
Frankly, religion serves us no better. The sheer number of religions in the world makes determination of a single religion’s superiority a fool’s errand.4 Often religious identity is more a symptom of circumstances (where I live, who my parents are) than of penetrating conviction. The irony is, however, that religion has often been held with ferocious, even mindless tenacity. Nearly every religion has its fanatics.
Tempered by the lessons of comparative religions, the modern era offers a smorgasbord for religious consumers. Now many in the world have opportunity to pick their religion, with motivations for such decisions ranging from personal temperament to sheer pragmatism to moral sympathy. In all cases, they suffer the same limitations as the philosophers – never getting beyond human analysis for obtaining ultimate answers.
The bond of culture and religion further exposes the uncertainty associated with religious decisions: “To one degree or another, religious beliefs have determined the patterns and expectations of all cultures.”5 It is not surprising then to find that cultural and religious relativism dominate the contemporary landscape, with cultural anthropologists often calling us to esteem all religions and cultures equally. Yet the stubborn problem remains. Putting all cultures and all religions on identical footing, in fact, intensifies the agonizing ambiguity of the soul. Both religion and philosophy leave us with our heads banging against a wall.
So what then? Where do we turn? Or, more disturbingly, is there really anywhere to turn? Are we cast astray, left alone on the island of our own minds to brawl through life and hope for the best? Are we abandoned to mere fate? Do answers to ultimate questions derive from nothing more than resourcefulness, probability or luck?
1 In a future article, I intend to engage Peter Rollins’ thought in greater detail.
3 “The history of philosophy shows the futility of trying to find a solid basis for knowledge apart from the God of Scripture, whether through rationalism, empiricism, subjectivism, idealism, or some other method.” John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 318.
4We are using the term “religion” here in its broadest sense (all types of humanly constructed forms and patterns of worship), and shortly will distinguish the Christian faith as distinct from the world religions.
5Richard Pratt, He Gave Us Stories (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1990), 363.