The Fear of Certainty

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Ever wonder what is behind the certainty that some Christians claim they have about things that are impossible to verify?

Obviously, it takes faith to be a person of faith. But, I am thinking about folks who claim they understand God’s position on every point of doctrine and every contemporary issue.

I used to think that way.

A hunger for mental tidiness drives people to embrace detailed doctrinal positions on matters of faith. There is a natural human desire to have things figured out, to have the pieces of the puzzle fit together nicely to form a beautiful picture of a belief system or systematic theology that answers all of the questions and affirms our presuppositions.

To buy into a system that already has that figured out for you can be both satisfying and convenient. Then, you don’t have to do the hard work of figuring out what you believe for yourself. You can simply hitch your wagon to someone else’s horse and follow them. That is the convenience of embracing creeds, denominational and local church statements of faith, and following religious teachers, like megachurch pastors.

This helps to explain both the historical popularity, and the current decline of those institutions of faith. People of a passing era were better at playing follow the leader. They were more trusting of both their leaders and their organizations.

Today, people are more cynical, less trusting, and more likely to vet groups before joining them. That’s because there have been so many self-serving and corrupt leaders exposed, and because so many of our institutions have reached a point in their history where they are no longer serving the people, but the people are serving the institutions.

We are witnessing a decline in the popularity of these institutions with a top-down leadership approach. In some ways, power really is slowly beginning to return to the people.

Yet, there still is love of certainty. I expect that an obsessive need to have everything figured out has made a lot of people fundamentalists, and atheists.

Fundamentalists cling to an ancient creed, or historical figure in church history they believe best honors the meaning of the biblical text. They tend to think the church’s and nation’s best days are behind us, because we have strayed from the text (The Bible or the Constitution) and they believe all of the answers are there in the text.

Some fundamentalists and other religionists, eventually become atheists when they realize they can’t reconcile everything in the Bible, and everything they know about God to fit together as perfectly as they once believed. Their house of cards crumbles.

Being a person of faith, and feeling the need to figure everything out, really don’t fit well together. That’s why it is called faith, because you don’t have it all figured out.

That doesn’t mean that a person of faith is an idiot or simpleton. It just means you come to the conclusion that you don’t have God all figured out, and those who seem to have him all figured out, really don’t either. So, you hold on to what you can understand, and what you choose to believe, and you don’t sweat the rest.

I confess, after forty-one years of marriage, I don’t have my wife figured out. After sixty-one years of being me, I don’t even have myself figured out. Why would I even dare to assume I have God figured out?

One more thing about certainty, every once and awhile something happens that makes you wonder if you might be off a little here or there. You wonder if maybe you are a little too certain. Maybe, your neighbor isn’t bound for hell because he is not a Calvinist.

Once your house of cards starts shaking, you have to do something. Some people become more inclusive, some totally reject the faith, and some just fake a kind of nominal belief without really dealing with these issues.

But the most common response a person has when his belief system begins to feel a little shaky is to defend it against all threats. That helps to explain the centuries of fighting between Christian groups throughout church history over various points of theology. But that’s still not the biggest issue with presumed certainty about the details of our faith.

The natural response to thinking you are right, along with the thought that people who differ with you are wrong is arrogance. Pride is the most insidious aspect of being totally certain about all of the details of religious belief, and the Bible indicates pride to be the root of sin.

You can’t help but see the irony of the close relationship between religion, so-called “doctrinal purity,” and pride.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

About Glenn

Glenn Hager is a blogger, former newspaper columnist, and author of two books, An Irreligious Faith and Free Range Faith.
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