The Folly of Certainty

The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.

Several years ago, I spoke at a weekend conference in Eastern Tennessee. Participants included youth and adults of all ages. During one of my talks, I spoke about the diversity of thought in my congregation from politics, to social issues, to theological beliefs. For example, I noted that people in my congregation had different and even conflicting theological views on homosexuality, the spiritual fate of Muslims, evolution, and abortion. However, I noted that in spite of our diversity we were one body, united in our common faith in Christ, which transcended our differences.

After the session was over, three teenagers from a religious-right church confronted me, obviously angry. They were appalled that a church could have differences of opinion on important doctrines. They said theological diversity on such issues was evil and unacceptable, that God’s Word on these subjects was absolute with no room for ambiguity. They accused me of blasphemy and my church of apostasy. It was an incredibly sad experience. I’ve heard such talk before from adults. But I didn’t expect to hear it from high school students.

The Opposite of Faith is Not Doubt but Certainty

I hold many strong beliefs about the life of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and other crucial Christian affirmations. But when religious people are uncompromisingly absolute about all their beliefs, when they cannot see beyond black and white, especially on secondary issues, they are practicing unhealthy religion. The fact is, we are not God. We do not know everything. For example, we don’t know how and when God will end the world. We can’t fully explain the Trinity. We don’t know all the details of Christ’s resurrection or our own eternal life. We can’t be certain about the spiritual status of people who profess religions other than Christianity. And the list goes on and on. Therefore, absolutist religion that has no room for uncertainty and ambiguity is bad religion. As one wise believer once said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.”

Unfortunately, a lot of Christians have problems accepting ambiguity. They want their belief system to be certain, beyond question; and they often punish those who disagree with their pronouncements. Not long ago I heard an amusing story about a monastery. One of the monks died, and they placed him in the large crypt where they buried all the dead monks. Three days later the monks heard noises coming from inside the crypt. When they removed the stone wall, they found their brother alive. Full of wonderment he said, “Oh brothers, I’ve been there. I’ve been to the other side. I’ve seen heaven!” Then he added, “And it’s nothing like what we’ve been taught. It’s not at all the way our theology says it is!” When he said those words, the other monks threw him back in the crypt and sealed the wall.

Although I chuckled at that story, there is much truth in it. For example, I recently had correspondence with a person who wants an absolutist faith, including a perfect and literal Bible devoid of human input or historical nuances of context, including the status of women. This person, extremely unhappy with my comments in my previous book affirming equality between husbands and wives and my affirmation of women clergy said: “To me, there is not an in-between. There is either Christianity or there isn’t. One either accepts the Bible for what it says or dumps it. Is there a way to reinterpret 2 plus 2 equals 4 on the context of when and where it was written?” This person wanted faith to be absolute, with no uncertainties and no ambiguities, like a mathematical formula. But that kind of faith is not possible and not healthy. As Leonard Sweet said in his book Viral, “The true enemy of faith is certainty. The just shall life by faith, not certainty.”1

One of the many problems with arrogant and closed-minded, absolutist religion is that it makes people intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their rigid positions. For example, years ago a young family began visiting my church. They came from a denomination that taught they were the only true church. When their pastor heard about their visits to my congregation, he went to see them. He told them my church was a “tool of the devil.” When they told him they planned to become members of our congregation, he said, “If you do so, you will condemn your children to eternal hell fire and damnation.” At that point they asked him to leave their home, and they joined my church the next Sunday. The following Sunday he publicly condemned them during his church worship service and told the members to have no further contact with them. As sad as that story is, absolutist religion can become even more toxic.

Toxic Faith

That was true for a man named Brad Hirschfield, an orthodox Jew from Chicago. Over time Brad became a religious extremist, convinced his way to God was the only way. He moved to the West Bank in Israel and embraced a fiery political Judaism. Packing a Bible in one hand and a 9 mm pistol in the other, he joined a group of radical Jews at a settlement in the West Bank. They believed their religion alone was pure and that their Muslim Palestinian neighbor’s religion was evil. One day Brad and his militant buddies got into a firefight with a group of Palestinians. During the fight several of his friends began randomly shooting into a school and killed two innocent Palestinian children. That event changed Brad’s life forever. He became physically ill on the spot, nauseous at what he had become—a radical, arrogant, intolerant, religious fanatic. Since that day he has dedicated his life to challenging self-righteous, absolutist, black-and-white, arrogant religion that believes it is superior to others. He wrote a book about his experience called You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith without Fanaticism. Thankfully, Brad now affirms religious humility. He abandoned arrogant religion for a more loving, grace-filled, and tolerant religion.

Arrogant and intolerant absolutist religion is not the spirit of Jesus and is not a part of healthy faith. That’s why Jesus taught his followers to reject arrogant religion and be humble in our approach to faith. The fact is, none of us have all the answers. None of us understand everything about God. Just as we cannot fully describe a beautiful painting or a moving symphony, we cannot fully describe and understand God.

A few months ago, I watched again the old movie Children of a Lesser God. The film tells the story of a man who teaches deaf children and who falls in love with a deaf woman. In one scene the man listened to a record of classical music, one of the great joys of his life. The deaf woman asked him to describe how music sounds. In sign language and interpretative movements he tried his best but finally gave up and said, “I cannot.” It’s impossible to say in words and signs how music sounds. And it is impossible to say in words or images exactly what God is like.

God is too big to be fully described. We cannot put God in a box and say now we fully understand God and have God all figured out. God cannot be trapped and limited in our theological doctrines, as good as they might be. God is too big, too mysterious, too transcendent, and too glorious to be fully comprehended. As the theologian Rudolf Otto once said, God is the “Mysterium Tremendum, the most unfathomable mystery of all.” Our understanding of God and faith can never be completely black-and-white. Instead, there is always some degree of ambiguity and uncertainty. Therefore, absolutist religion is not a part of authentic faith, and we should do all we can to rid ourselves of that kind of attitude.

Seeing through a Glass Dimly

The apostle Paul understood that. That’s why he said in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see but only a reflection as in a mirror.” Other translations say, “We see through a glass, dimly.” The image here is either looking out of a window or else looking into a mirror, and the view is distorted; you can’t see clearly. Paul is saying we don’t always see things with perfect clarity, we don’t always understand everything, and we live with a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity. To further make his point, Paul said, “Now I know in part” (v. 12). Incomplete knowledge, understanding, and clarity are the nature of life and faith, especially on complex issues.

Take, for example, the controversial issue of abortion. There are people today who see this issue in absolute, black-and-white terms, with no room for question or ambiguity. They say abortion is always wrong, regardless of the circumstances. I used to hold this position, and even today I have severe problems with abortion. I wish we lived in a world where abortion never occurred. In fact, I hate abortion. But I had an experience once that brought my absolute, black-and-white certainty into question. Years ago, when I was a young pastor, a couple in my congregation came to see me. They had just learned that their unborn baby had a horrible genetic disease. If the baby was born and if it lived, the baby would have severe mental and physical disabilities. If it managed to live, the baby would spend months in the intensive care unit, attached to most every machine you could imagine. If the baby survived the first few months, it would then suffer until it died, which virtually always occurred by age two, after a long and difficult struggle. So this couple asked me, “Should we consider an abortion? Given all the circumstances, might that be the best loving and Christian option? Or, should we have the baby and do all we can to keep it alive? What do you think is the right and Christian thing to do?” I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t. Sometimes life and faith are gray and ambiguous. To say otherwise is not true to human experience and is unhealthy religion.

However, to say that absolutist religion is bad religion doesn’t mean we grope around in darkness without solid ground to stand upon. Even in 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul admitted that “we see in a mirror, dimly” and “know only in part,” he also said that God has given us the gifts of faith, hope, and love. And faith, hope, and love are more than enough to guide us through life.

1Leonard Sweet, Viral (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2012), 125.