October 22, 2020

A Big Surprise, A Big Criticism, A Big Question: More Thoughts On The Place of Certainty

One of my biggest surprises this year was looking at the program for the Desiring God Ministries National Conference and seeing Dan Taylor as one of the speakers.

I love Dan Taylor. His book The Myth of Certainty is in my top ten books that have been personally helpful. I’ve reviewed the book here at IM, but here’s the short version: Taylor uses a fictional narrative about a moderate and thoughtful Bible professor who finds himself teaching at a roaring fundamentalist Bible college (not Bethel!) where he’s daily confronted with the pressure to believe far more than he does about far more than he believes anyone should be deadly certain about. In between the fictional narrative, Taylor examines the mythology of certainty in evangelicalism, particularly as it relates to evangelical Christianity. He concludes that a lack of certainty is, in many cases, a needed and Biblical virtue and excessive certainty is often just another name for arrogance excusing sin.

It was a surprise to me that Taylor was on the program with Mark Driscoll and other reformed leaders who seldom say “I don’t know” about anything.

(Commendations to Dr. Piper for this kind of diversity and generosity.)

You see, there’s a lot of things about which I am not certain. Not certain, not absolutely certain, not certain enough to stand up and wave a Bible around and say this is what God thinks.

That makes me different from many evangelicals, especially in my denomination, where the “worldview” approach to Christianity assumes that anyone who believes in the inspiration of scripture can be Biblically, divinely certain about regulations on logging or who should be elected dog-catcher.

I’m not that certain. In fact, when it comes to certainty, I’m afraid of our fetish with it.

Earlier this year, I received a big criticism from a significant person. I was told that “you think you’re smarter than everyone else.” Combined with a few other similar criticisms, I was in a state of intense self-loathing for several weeks, mostly while I was on sabbatical.

My problem was more than just wanting to say “That’s simply not true.” I never think in categories of intelligence in dealing with people. There are so many different kinds of intelligence and so many different manifestations of it, that I’d be an idiot to assume I was smarter than anyone. My father had an 8th grade education and was brilliant in math and many other things. I have 37 hours past my Master’s degree, but I know almost nothing about anything except my own narrow areas of interest: Bible and religion. I’m deeply aware of the dangers of being intelligent (so called.)

Where did that criticism come from? I’m almost certain it comes from the fact that I think for myself and I regular encourage others to do so. For example, yesterday one of our seniors asked me and several other teachers what was wrong with living with a person of another gender if no sex occured. I immediately asked her how she made decisions of this kind? What was her process for deciding what is right and wrong? This frustrated her, because she wanted an answer. I told her that the process of making a decision is more important than getting answers from authority figures.

It’s this sort of thing that gets me in trouble as cited above. I’m not a young earth creationist. Most of my peers are. I’m not talking about the election. Everyone else is. I don’t buy into fads. I try to keep the Gospel central. I question most things from the point of view of Christian realism. I question myself and find myself and other authority figures imperfect all the time.

And I don’t buy into the certainties that others have. I don’t know all about the end times. I don’t automatically think all Christian music is good. I don’t believe what I hear from Dobson. I don’t read forwards in my email. I usually say there are two or more sides to an issue. I often say “I don’t know.” I say that God probably doesn’t care. I say I don’t have the mind of God. I don’t know exactly what the Bible’s teaching is on a lot of things. I believe many things, but I’m not certain about much about the things I believe. (I believe in heaven. I’m not certain about much that I believe, like streets of gold and endless CCM choruses.)

I’m not certain. Does that mean I “think I’m smarter?” I can’t say. I’m sure sometimes I’m guilty of that sin, but mostly I’m trying to think for myself; I’m trying to be authentic. I’m trying to set some limits on how far I go down roads that crowds are going down. I want to ask more questions. I want to learn more and give the other points of view room to say what they think as well.

I don’t like intellectual shorthand or easy answers. I don’t believe God is glorified by a mob mentality or Christians behaving like sheeple. Questioning authority is just as important to me as submitting to proper authority.

In The Myth of Certainty, Taylor says people like me are often miserable around other Christians because we are under suspicion for not being orthodox. When I said earlier this year that I was going to question everything I believed about God based on what I knew about the historical Jesus, some people around me began to treat me as if I had renounced Christ. They had no category between atheism and faith seeking understanding. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes weren’t on the menu.

What shook me up was my certainties about what God would and wouldn’t do. When I moved to a place of less certainty, things made a lot more sense. The journey continues, but my faith is more real when I don’t throw up the concrete pylons of certainty and stop the journey.

My journey leaves me with a big question: As my certainties decrease, my faith increases. Am I on the right road? Or should faith increase my certainties to the point that, like my friends, I can say what God thinks on just about anything?

So far, it feels to me like I was made to believe, not to be certain.