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?