Chasing Certainty

I would like to propose that chasing certainty is like chasing the wind. The most that you can ever hope for is to exhaust yourself only to end up with a handful of nothing.

I work in the context of a ministry with graduate students and faculty, and would argue that the academy eats certainty for lunch. I am not making a statement here that the university is anti-God or anything like that. The truth is that the university is an equal opportunity certainty-eater. When the university is operating at its best, it subjects every idea and research finding to rigorous questioning and testing.  The ideas or theories that survive this process are considered credible explanations, not certainties.

I think there is a mistaken notion that faith, at least for Christians, the group I know best, is about certainty. I think this stems, at least in part from a mistaken understanding of Hebrews 11:1, a verse we often refer to in our “definition” of faith. It reads, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). For starters, I will note that the word “certain” or “certainty” is not used here. Second, I will not that this talks about things hoped for and not seen. Neither of these terms suggest certainty to me but a certain amount of uncertainty. But what about the terms “confidence” or “assurance”. If I look at the context that follows, what I see this meaning is not certainty but simply acting in trust that what is promised or commanded is true. Noah, for example, believes the warnings of a coming flood even though this is a “thing not seen” and builds an ark (Hebrews 11:7).

What I would propose is that the terms “confidence”, “assurance”, and “faith” are relational terms that have to do with the trustworthiness of the object of one’s confidence, assurance, and faith. If a good friend agrees to meet me at Starbucks at 2 pm today, I will go to Starbucks, not because I’m certain they will be there, but because I have faith in their word. I have confidence or assurance, perhaps based on the fact that they have shown up at other times we’ve set up meetings. Therefore, I leave my house at 1:50 believing in an unseen future meeting with my friend.

Much of life is like that. We have reasons to believe and act in certain ways, whether with people or God. But we never have certainty. Yet I often observe Christians, as well as many others, pursuing certainty. Perhaps it is in an airtight theological system–and I’ve seen this of Christians of all stripes. Perhaps it is in an apologetic for the faith that “demands a verdict”! Perhaps it is a theory of the beginnings of the earth or an “airtight” refutation of post-modernism. Or maybe it is just having “enough” money in our bank account, or having chosen the “right” diet or exercise plan.

Sooner or later, in the academy and in life more generally, certainty comes up empty and one of two things happens. One is to double-down and become impervious to whatever is challenging our certainties. I’ve often seen this in the form of demonizing those who disagree or a rigidity of thought. The other extreme is becoming un-done–a completely abandoning one’s faith, sometimes for a new set of “certitudes”. Sometimes, I’ve seen this happen to those who came to graduate school from Christian colleges or from strong church backgrounds. Often, the “secular” university gets the blame, but I would propose that the problem may be the idol of certainty that we’ve erected in the place of trust in the living God, and what happens when we find our idol has “feet of clay.”

Others flourish in a similar environment. These people nurture a humble trust in God that acts on what they do know in loving and sometimes risky obedience and confesses what they don’t understand. It is the kind of faith that has room for questions and doubts and takes these to God. Over time, I watch these people gain a larger vision of both reality and God that is marked by resilience and rigor rather than rigidity.

Pursuing certainty is like chasing the wind. What are your thoughts of how one can live a meaningful and flourishing life in a world without certainty?


2 thoughts on “Chasing Certainty

  1. Very important issue here Bob. Susan Schreiner, theology professor here at The University of Chicago, has recently published a book directly relevant to your concerns here.

    Before saying more about this, we should also acknowledge the problem several New Testament passages have created, especially for evangelicals. For example, in John 8:3 and John 14:6 Jesus speaks of knowing the truth, and Jesus himself being the truth. Unfortunately, truth here has been made to mean and considered equivalent with certainty, not just knowledge. We forget that all people are “fallen” creatures, and that none of us will ever know “the truth with certainty” in this life, that all of us live with much uncertainty in life, and yet do have faith, as you well describe. Apologetics is a valuable exercise for Christians, but all too often it falls prey to the unachievable goal of “the truth with certainty.”

    Now, Schreiner’s book – Are You Alone Wise?: The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era

    Quoting the Abstract which points to the current relevance of her book –
    “In present-day America, the topic of certitude is much debated. On one side, commentators like Charles Krauthammer urge us to achieve “moral clarity”. On the other, those like George Will contend that the greatest present threat to civilization is an excess of certitude. This book points out that Europe in the 16th century was preoccupied with similar concerns. Both the desire for certainty, especially religious certainty, and warnings against certainty permeated this earlier era. ….
    The Protestant Reformation was the wellspring of this debate ….” [!!!!!]

    That last quoted sentence above should be a glaring warning to all Protestants, especially evangelicals today.

    In addition to the abstract for the entire book, one will find abstracts for each chapter at the webpage above, and be able to get a good sense of what Schreiner has to say. Clearly this book and the topic of certainty is worthy of much additional study and reflection. Thanks Bob, for noting this issue so strongly.

  2. Nicholas Wolterstorff has been helpful to me on the issues of knowledge and certainty, especially in his brief note “Advice to Those Who Would be Christian Scholars”.

    These lines in section #3 have been especially helpful and noteworthy.

    “I think of the various academic disciplines very differently.
    I think of them as social practices, some, like philosophy, with a long ancestry, some, like molecular biology, of recent origin.
    And I think of these practices as constantly changing due to all sorts of developments both inside and outside the discipline.
    I hold, thus, that natural science does not have an essence, nor does philosophy. What they have instead is traditions that are constantly changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly.

    “… the Christian scholar participates as Christian in those social practices that are the disciplines. Those practices are not a project of the Christian community, nor are they the project of some anti-Christian community.
    They are human;
    they belong to all of us together –
    – just as the state is not for Christians nor for non-Christians but for all of us together.”

    In short, certainty is not the goal, but rather an ongoing “social practice”, an ongoing conversation that leads to knowledge, but not certain knowledge, rather knowledge always in a state of development.

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