In Defense of Certainty

Certainty is on the rocks, and Charles Krauthammer is unhappy about it. In the June 1, 2005, edition of Time magazine, Mr. Krauthammer commented on the confirmation hearings then in session for William Pryor, formerly Attorney General of the state of Alabama, now judge on the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Charles Schumer, senator from NY, objected to Pryor’s appointment to the bench in these terms:

“And in Pryor’s case, his beliefs are so well known, so deeply held, that it’s very hard to believe, very hard to believe that they’re not going to deeply influence the way he comes about saying, ‘I will follow the law.’ And that would be true of anybody who had very, very deeply held views.” (emphasis added)

Need I point out the obvious here? That “very deeply held views” is a euphemism for religious beliefs, and Mr. Pryor not coincidentally is a devout Roman Catholic? At first glance this looks like nothing more than political hyperbole: Catholics and Evangelicals are taking over America and we must put a stop to it! But lest Senator Schumer seem anti-Catholic or, God forbid, anti-religious, he was quick to add a disclaimer: he’s suspicious of anyone with deeply held views. It seems his dismay at Mr. Pryor’s nomination sprang not from bias against Christians, but from fear of those who are certain. Mr. Krauthammer’s purpose in telling his tale and mine in recounting it here isn’t to score political points, but rather to make a point about our culture: ours is a culture of doubt. In his words, “The new wave is fashionable doubt. Doubt is in. Certainty is out.” You probably don’t need to be convinced of this. Most Americans feel about doubt the same way Texans feel about a hot summer: it is an inescapable, if not entirely pleasant fact of life. At times we may make jokes about it (In his Devil’s Dictionary the19th century satirist Ambrose Bierce defined certainty as “being wrong at the top of one’s voice.”); at others, we like Mr. Krauthammer, may decry its power. But we never, never consider certainty as a serious alternative. Even the evangelical Christians that so badly frighten the political left in the US are loath to claim certainty. Consider this excerpt from a book published by a prominent evangelical publishing house, and written by a professor at a Christian college: “My own experience is that for humans certainty does not exist, has never existed, will not – in our finite states – ever exist, and, moreover, should not.”  The title of the book? The Myth of Certainty. What may be harder for the post-modern generation to swallow is the idea that things haven’t always been this way, that there once was a time in which certainty was thought possible and those who possessed it were esteemed. In the small-town Alabama of my childhood strong convictions were seen as a sign of character, and the lack thereof as a sign of untrustworthiness. Ours was the world as seen by Yeats. The unmistakable sign of the collapse of the center, of the triumph of anarchy, and the drowning of innocence?  “The best lack all conviction…” Now it seems the tide has turned, now it is the certain who are lacking in honesty, curiosity, objectivity, and intellectual integrity. The road from Yeats to Schumer, from certainty to doubt is too rocky, too long, and too well-traveled for me to retrace it here, but please bear with me while I touch on a few high points along the way. In the minds of many the problem of certainty is at heart a problem of knowledge. We simply cannot know enough to be certain about anything. We are the intellectual heirs of Rene Descartes, who in his Meditations resolved “… that I ought no less carefully to withhold my assent from matters which are not entirely certain and indubitable than from those which appear to me manifestly to be false…” Simply put Descartes felt he had only two options: absolute certainty or pervasive doubt. To be fair to him I must admit that he made his resolution in the confidence that he would be able to find a sure foundation for certainty, and that in his opinion, he succeeded in doing so. In the minds of most of those who followed him, however, he did not. It’s ironic that the most enduring legacy of his over-zealous quest for certainty is his commitment to doubt. Like Descartes, modern man feels that he should not be certain of anything that might possibly be doubted. And if our choices are only absolute certainty or anything goes, then the latter always wins in the mind of anyone except God. Thankfully, true knowledge presents us with more options than Descartes was willing to consider. Arrayed between the false dichotomy of complete knowledge and epistemological nihilism is a whole host of ideas, some of which warrant belief more than others. These range from the laughable – e.g., reality isn’t real -, to the near-undeniable -e.g., a creator exists and there is a difference between right and wrong. (Jay Budziszewski, friend and professor at the University of Texas, entitled his book on ethics What We Can’t Not Know.) Still others – e.g., miracles like the resurrection of Christ– though inherently implausible, have within the right philosophical framework and with the sufficient historical evidence convincing power. In practice gaining confidence in knowledge simply isn’t as hard as philosophy has made it these past few centuries. But is our lack of certainty really rooted in a lack of knowledge?  If so then doubt’s popularity has arrived at an odd time, for we know more about the universe we live in and about ourselves (at least our biology) now than ever before in human history. It’s an irony that caught the observant eye of the late Walker Percy, who marked the rise of post-modernism in his essay “The Delta Factor” in 1974:

“But time ran out and the old modern world ended and the old monster theory no longer works. Man knows he is something more than an organism in an environment, because for one thing he acts like anything but an organism in an environment. Yet he no longer has the means of understanding the traditional Judeo-Christian teaching that the “something more” is a soul somehow locked in the organism like a ghost in a machine. Who is he then? He has not the faintest idea. Entered as he is into a new age, he is like a child, who sees everything in his new world, names everything, knows everything except himself.”

To Percy our crisis of certainty is at its heart a crisis of self-knowledge. The modern world rejected the framework that makes true self-knowledge possible – we are human beings, made in the image of God, living in an orderly world that He has made – and as a result all other knowledge is called into question. We have become like children, who possess lots of information, but who lack the understanding and confidence to put it to work. Percy makes a good point, I think, given my generation’s fascination with “Who in the heck are we?” questions. And even though the current generation of students with whom I share my life daily is less fascinated with these questions, it is no better at answering them than we were. In their minds the certainty crisis is sociological in nature.  That which passes for knowledge in us is no more than a conditioned response, a by-product of language, family, and culture. In their final analysis we know what we know and believe what we believe because we are 21st century, English-speaking Americans. There is an element of truth in this, to be sure. Whose opinions are free from the influence of family and friends? The same small-town Alabama culture of my past that so admired certainty also taught me to be certain of the inferiority of blacks, and the word “nigger” powerfully reinforced that lie. But there is something missing from this equation, too: a real world that demands our attention and challenges our fallacies. Indeed its challenges are so persistent that the only sure refuge from them is a Paul Simon-esque solipsism. Remember the opening line to his old song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”?  “The problem is all inside your head,” she said to me… C.S. Lewis captured this absurdity well in the finale of his Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.  Near the conclusion of the story Aslan, his Christ-figure, rescues from their imprisonment in a stable some children, the king of Narnia and a group of dwarfs. But though they stand on the green grass in the full light of day, the dwarfs persist in believing that they are still imprisoned in the stable.  When Aslan growls, the dwarfs dismiss it as mechanical trickery. When he miraculously produces a glorious feast for them, they eat it, but tell themselves that they are only eating and drinking the kinds of things they might find in a stable: hay, turnips, cabbage, dirty water. In the end their suspicions of one another result in a feast-ending food-fight, and, oddly, words of self-congratulation: “Well, at any rate, there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in.”  But Aslan has the last word: “They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” Like Lewis’ dwarfs, the post-modern generation cherishes its doubt hoping it will protect them from the disappointment of believing Humbug, only to fall prey to any nonsense that comes along. More plausible to me is the idea that doubt itself is a social construct. It works like this. I’m friends with Kalyan, once a graduate student in engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. He is bright, articulate, interested in many of the same things I’m interested in, and I enjoy his company. He is also Hindu and was at one time head of the Hindu Cultural Society at UT a fact which created a practical tension for me: how can someone who is so winsome be so wrong? Post-modernism offers me a tempting and socially acceptable resolution to this tension: deciding that all our beliefs are only cultural artifacts and therefore of little significance in our relationship. Of course there is a price to be paid for this relief: the thing that brought us together in the beginning – a serious discussion of ideas and their consequences – is now off limits to us and to everyone else. It’s a price even the Christian students I work with are often too-willing to pay. A series of discussion with these students on this subject a couple of years ago moved me to write this essay. The side of the discussion I’ve reviewed thus far – how we got to where we are now in our thinking – was already somewhat familiar to most of them. The theological side of the discussion, however, generated more interest and more heat, for the teachings of the Scriptures could not be more at odds with their mindset and the mindset of our culture than in this: as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to a radical commitment based on a radical certainty. In the introduction to his gospel, Luke assures Theophilus that he has taken care to present him an accurate and orderly account “… so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). Carved into the bell tower that is the most striking architectural edifice on the campus of the University of Texas are Jesus’ words from John 8:32: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” On this basis he calls each of us to “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16;24). In the Scriptures “knowing the truth” and “being certain” go hand; the latter is only laudable because the former is possible. It’s here that the mindset of the evangelical church, too, is often at odds with the Scriptures. For as our culture’s confidence in its ability to know truth has waned, so has our willingness to present the gospel as truth and to answer the flood of questions that inevitably follow. A few years ago I spoke to a group of international students on the subject “What is Christianity?” My first goal was to dispel their misconceptions; I told them Christianity is neither just a western cultural phenomenon, nor a personal existential choice. It claims to be the Truth of the Universe, the Way Things Really Are. And I urged them to evaluate it in light of those claims. The first question that followed my talk was from a Turkish student: Are you saying that Islam is false?” I paused before answering, “I’m saying that both Christianity and Islam may be false, but they cannot both be true, because they teach different things about who God is, who we are, and the world we live in. And, yes, I’m convinced that Christianity is the one that is true.” “I believe the same thing, he replied, “but about Islam instead of Christianity.  But, you know,” he continued, “you’re the first Christian I’ve met who believes this about Christianity.” Perhaps this is why Senator Schumer and others like him have found it so easy to be contemptuous and mistrustful of Christian certainty. For the last two centuries we have been content to justify our certainty in the name of blind faith and to invite others to buy into it on the same terms. But when you buy your certainty on sale is it any wonder that in the eyes of the post-modern world, it has little worth? Bargain-store certainty damages the gospel in ways that are more fundamental than defacing the church’s reputation. When we baptize cultural norms in the name of faith, the post-modern generation replies, “I told you so.” (A few years ago while serving as an elder in an American church, I brought before them a friend and new convert who was asking for their prayers and advice regarding a custody battle he was involved in with his ex-wife over their two children. On seeing his daughter’s names tattooed on his wrists, one of the elders insisted that he repent of the sin of tattoos before he would pray for him.) And even when we affirm that which is true and biblical – e.g. the sanctity of human life –  but do so with arrogance and know-nothing pride, the watching world throws the baby out with the bathwater, rightly rejecting our lack of integrity, while wrongly rejecting the truth of the gospel. Recovering a sound certainty means recovering a biblically sound faith, beginning with the recognition that faith is valid only if its object is true. In confronting the idolatry of his day Isaiah ridiculed its foolishness. A man cuts down a tree. Half of it he uses for firewood, the other half he makes into an image, which he worships. The prophet takes pains to make clear that this isn’t wrong because it violates religious norms; it’s wrong because it’s stupid.

“They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.  No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” Isaiah 44:18-20

According to the Bible any faith whose object is not true is not faith at all; it is vain belief. And the only true object of faith is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But faith, like certainty, is more than merely knowing the truth. It’s what we do in response to knowing the truth. Francis Schaeffer spoke of this in a way that any Swiss peasant fond of hiking in the hills could understand. Imagine yourself climbing in the Alps, say the Dents du Midi, a trio of peaks across the valley from the Schaeffer’s old home in Huemoz. The day that started so fair quickly turns foul as the fog closes in and the temperature drops. In your haste to get off the mountain before your are trapped by the weather, you leave the path, only to find yourself caught on a ledge with no clear idea of how you got there and no viable avenue of escape. Your situation seems hopeless, until a voice calls to you from across the way. The caller identifies himself as a long time resident of this area. He assures you that he knows where you are, and that just below your ledge is an unseen path that will lead you to safety. He encourages you to hang from the ledge and drop. Would you? Not too quickly, of course. First you ask questions. Who is he? Does he know people you know? Can he describe to you the parts of the mountain you know? Does he really know what he’s talking about? The number of questions you ask isn’t important here. What’s important is that by asking them you become convinced that he knows what he’s talking about, that he’s telling you the truth. But being convinced of this doesn’t demonstrate your faith. Hanging and dropping does. Dr. Schaeffer made clear what the biblical equivalents of hanging and dropping are: bowing before God metaphysically, confessing that He is God and that I am not, and morally, confessing that He is holy and I am not, seeking His forgiveness through the finished w ork of Christ on my behalf. Anything less reduces faith to a mere mental abstraction, and nothing is less abstract and more practical than biblical faith. In the Bible the hallmark of true faith is practical: how do we live our lives? Understanding the truth and bowing before God in faith should change us in a number of ways. We’re to change morally, living our lives by a different set of priorities than those of the surrounding culture. Even the secular world expects to see this kind of change in those who “get religion” and, alas, all too often doesn’t. But the gospel transformation called for in the Scriptures is more radical and far-reaching than this. We’re to actually change the way we look at and think about the world we live in. In Romans 12:2 the apostle Paul urges us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Renewing your mind is not a mystical process. Here Paul is urging us to reshape our thinking in light of what we’ve seen to be true. We’re to see the world differently because we know it to be a creation of God, not a cosmic accident. We’re to see and treat people differently because we know they are made in His image. And we’re to see that what we do has a significance beyond the financial and the existential, because we are created to do it and our actions and choices matter. Before she became my wife, Mary Jane became a Christian at age 18 while a university student. She realized perhaps better than most the magnitude of what this entailed. Hers was not merely a religious commitment, adding a spiritual dimension to an otherwise unchanged life.  It was an intellectual revolution that necessitated rebuilding the way she thought and lived. She saw this as so pressing and immediate a need that she left school, family, and Canada behind her for a time in order to find sanity and encouragement in the home of Francis and Edith Schaeffer in Switzerland. Sound radical to you?  It did to me, too, at one time. (I used to joke that I was glad I didn’t know her when she was 18. I was an ordinary teenager, and she would’ve scared me to death.) But perhaps the reason why her actions seem strange to some and why certainty is so elusive are one and the same. Modern and post-modern students alike at the University of Texas see success as a matter of technique. Theirs is the world of Dale Carnegie: winning friends and influencing people is the key to happiness. They see ideas as having little practical value, so they invest nothing in them. As a result their intellectual muscles, their ability to think things through, to restructure a world view, and to live it out, to achieve certainty is more than a bit rusty. To them Mary Jane’s story is foolishness and certainty is an impossibility. Why waste time and effort on a project – thinking and living world-viewishly – that is pointless? With their hearts and minds atrophied from lack of use, the thought of lifting an idea, weighing it, gaining certainty from it, seems as impossible as to them as walking would to an adult who spent his entire life in bed. In truth it is not impossible, but it is hard. Certainty – confidence in our knowledge and our faith – isn’t a starting point from which we ignore every question that confronts us. It is a conclusion, or rather a series of conclusions we reach along the way. It is as we wrestle with ourselves and our ideas reasonably and existentially, by Gods’ grace that we mature in our faith, in our ability to know the truth, and in our certainty.