Christian certitude: A disaster waiting to happen

Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true? Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth.

– George MacDonald

 

In my spiritual memoir, Water To Wine, part of the story I tell involves my own journey away from cheap certitude toward an authentic faith. It is a phenomenon of modernity that certitude (mental assent toward something as an absolute empirical fact) has become confused with faith (an orientation of the soul toward God in the form of deep trust).

Privileging empiricism above faith as the final arbiter of truth is antithetical to Christianity. Click To Tweet

That this phenomenon is prevalent among certain streams of Christians is strangely ironic since this involves genuflecting at the altar of empiricism and privileging knowledge over faith. Privileging empiricism above faith as the final arbiter of truth is a hallmark of modernity, but it is also antithetical to Christianity.

Certitude is a poor substitute for authentic faith. But certitude is popular; it’s popular because it’s easy. No wrestling with doubt, no dark night of the soul, no costly agonizing over the matter, no testing yourself with hard questions. Just accept a secondhand assumption or a majority opinion or a popular sentiment as the final word and settle into certainty.

Certitude is easy…until it’s impossible. And, that’s why certitude is so often a disaster waiting to happen. The empty slogan “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is cheap certitude, not genuine faith.

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The cost of real faith

Real faith will cost you. Real faith is forged in the fiery theodicy of Job’s bitter trial where every assumption of the goodness of God is put to the test. Real faith is found during the forty-day wilderness temptation where the first question from the tempter is, “Are you sure?” Real faith reaches the apex of “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” only after the agonizing cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We have to wrestle with doubt to arrive at real faith. Certitude can’t be bothered with all that. Real faith has room for doubt — understanding that the effort to believe is the very thing that makes doubt possible. Real faith is not afraid of doubt, but the faux faith of certitude is afraid of its own shadow.

We have to wrestle with doubt to arrive at real faith. Click To Tweet

I have no idea how to arrive at real faith without a journey involving doubt. The mistake of pop apologetics — the silly kind that looks for an ancient boat on a Turkish mountaintop or Egyptian chariots on the bottom of the Red Sea — is that it is an attempt to do away with the need for faith altogether!

The Noah’s Ark hunters want to “prove” God so that faith will be unnecessary. But God does not traffic in the empirically verifiable. God refuses to prove himself and perform circus tricks at our behest in order to obliterate doubt. Frederick Buechner says it this way:

“Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

The problem with the kind of certitude found in fundamentalist biblicism is that it truly is a disaster waiting to happen. You’re just one new atheist argument away from abandoning Christianity altogether. Yes, this happens!

When a pastor in my city trained in fundamentalist biblicism encountered a crisis of faith — and we all do! — he was completely ill-equipped to deal with it. After a lonely year-long struggle with doubt he finally announced to his congregation on the Sunday after Easter that he had become an atheist and was leaving the ministry.

At first glance it might appear that the move from fundamentalism to atheism is a tremendous leap of faith, but this may not necessarily be so. Fundamentalism and atheism are two sides of the same thin empiricist coin. And, it’s why certitude is a disaster waiting to happen.

The sin of certainty

This is why I’m so enthusiastic about Peter Enns’ new book The Sin of Certainty. I read it recently while on a family reunion houseboat vacation. It’s excellent!

Peter Enns is a biblical scholar who has been on a fascinating journey from faith as a knowledge set to faith as trust in God. Of course, a journey like that often involves a “dark night of the soul” — and Peter does a marvelous job telling his own “dark night of the soul” story in an honest and transparent way. To understand what Peter means by “the sin of certainty” here is an excerpt from his book:

“Certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs. … It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others. … A faith like that is stressful and tedious to maintain. Moving toward different ways of thinking, even just trying it on for a while to see how it fits, is perceived as a compromise to faith, or as giving up on faith altogether. But nothing could be further from the truth. Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith — these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, this is the problem. And that is what I mean by the ‘sin of certainty.’ … When we grab hold of ‘correct’ thinking for dear life, when we refuse to let go because we think that doing so means letting go of God, when we dig in our heels and stay firmly planted even when we sense that we need to let go and move on, at that point we are trusting our thoughts rather than God. We have turned away from God’s invitation to trust in order to cling to an idol.”

–The Sin of Certainty, pp. 18, 19

Certitude is idolatry of the mind and idols always fail. This is why knowledge-based certitude masquerading as faith is a disaster waiting to happen!

Faith in God is not a collection of unassailable “God-facts” held in our head that must be defended to the death, but childlike trust in the God whom Jesus taught us to call Father.

Or as Peter Enns says in The Sin of Certainty,

“This book is about thinking differently about faith, a faith that is not so much defined by what we believe but in whom we trust. In fact, in this book I argue that we have misunderstood faith as a what word rather than a who word — as primarily beliefs about rather than primarily as trust in. … A faith that rests on knowing, where you have to ‘know what you believe’ in order to have faith, is a disaster upon disaster waiting to happen. It values too highly our mental abilities. All it takes to ruin that kind of faith is a better argument. And there’s always a better argument out there somewhere.”

–p. 22

When we confuse faith with the correctness of our God-facts, we are a disaster waiting to happen. Certitude about God-facts is never how the Bible uses the word “faith.” Faith in God is trusting God.

When we confuse faith with the correctness of our God-facts, we are a disaster waiting to happen. Click To Tweet

When we trust God we give control over to God, which is, as Peter Enns says, “a more secure place for faith to rest than on the whims and moods of our own thinking.”

Amen.

If you have ever struggled with doubt or think you may, I really encourage you to read The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our “correct” beliefs.

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About the author

Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Brian and his wife, Peri, founded the church in 1981. Brian is also the author of several books, including, A Farewell To Mars, Beauty Will Save the World, Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness, Water to Wine and his latest, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. He also blogs at brianzahnd.com