Doubt and certainty: a fork in the road

Conversations with some of my closest fellow sojourners (such as Mike, Cliff, and Matthew) have often included a discussion of the following question: given our radical departure from many tenets of evangelical orthodoxy such as our rejection of inerrancy and acceptance of critical scholarship of the Bible, the theory of evolution, etc., why does our faith remain strong despite the many (if not the majority) who go along similar paths and end up losing their faith? What makes the difference?

There’s no easy answer, of course. Performing an autopsy of another person’s faith is tricky business, and will certainly require more “inside” details than our armchair analysis will be able to provide. So we usually pursue the least assuming and more promising line of inquiry, which is to examine the commonality of the experiences of those of us who hang on to faith despite its dramatically changing shape under serious scrutiny.

This is more of a “journal”, “web log” kind of post than an exposition. The following will in no way give you a complete picture: chances are that if you’re expecting this post to be an apologetic, you will be significantly underwhelmed. Nevertheless, while I was thinking about it I decided to jot down some of the factors that have contributed to my faith’s thriving (and I think many of these go for the friends I mentioned above as well, but you’ll have to ask them).  I focus here not on what makes me a theist, but what makes me persist as a Christian specifically.

Enduring interest
Obviously, an important component is that I am comfortable with (enthralled by, even) many of the teachings of Christianity, although I have since discarded so many of what more orthodox believers consider essential that they would roll their eyes to hear me say that. I have come to understand God primarily in terms of the message of Jesus, rather than Jesus’ purported actions (miracles, etc., even the Resurrection) or even in specific formulations of his message in the Gospels. In fact, I have accepted the revelation of modern scholarship that the Gospels actually represent the message of Jesus as interpreted by different and varied first century “Jesus communities”; especially considering their relatively late date (30+ years after Jesus), we have precious little reason to expect that they directly present Jesus’ message, but are, rather, later interpretations of his message.

Yet I’ve still not encountered anything that convinces me that the Gospel writers’ presentations of the man’s central message were really far afield. Indeed, despite the many differences between the Gospels, the distinctives of Jesus’ message are actually unmistakably close to one another: the first Gospel to be written already has Jesus framing his mission as the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and as MacDonald points out, what that kingdom looks like is remarkably consistent over all four Gospels (italics original, bold and bracketed remarks all mine):

What is the kingdom of Christ? A rule of love, of truth—a rule of service. The king is the chief servant in it. “The kings of the earth have dominion: it shall not be so among you.” “The Son of Man came to minister.” [both from Mark] “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” [in John, of Jesus’ healing of the sick] The great Workman is the great King, labouring for his own…The lesson added by St Luke to the presentation of the child is: “For he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.” And St Matthew says: “Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Hence the sign that passes between king and subject. The subject kneels in homage to the kings of the earth: the heavenly king takes his subject in his arms. This is the sign of the kingdom between them. This is the all-pervading relation of the kingdom.

Many now say that the Jesus of the Gospels was effectively created out of whole cloth by writers well removed from him. But this begs the very serious question never answered: why then did they all create specifically the Jesus of the Gospels? Oh sure there are differences, sometimes dramatic differences, in the Gospels’ portrayals of Jesus, but that makes similarities such as Jesus’ preoccupation with and characterization of the Kingdom of God all the more significant. One must posit a source for these traditions, and we’ve certainly no better hypothesis than that this source was someone actually teaching these things — at very least planting the seeds among his followers. Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, which is at bottom of willful servanthood, stands as what I consider the greatest and most important philosophy in history, inspiring me and countless others to be his disciple. As I have said before, even if I found out by proof positive that Jesus never rose from the dead in any sense, I would likely still consider myself “Christian”, at least in a philosophical sense (like a “Kantian”).

Decisive experience
Ok, so I like Jesus’ teachings — so do many people of other faiths and of no faith whatsoever. Still, I consider myself a “Christian” in a more spiritual sense than that.

My childhood faith, bolstered by a community of faithful believers (and particularly my parents), was delightfully rich. Although I’ve never been one to feel or talk as though “me and God hung out today,” I have always felt “connected” with Him in a mystical sense. Somehow, He’s a person I feel I’ve met and come to know better and better, and in actuality I always feel like I’m delusional for trying to deny this even in my thought experiments, like trying to convince yourself you’re not married when you have clear memories of your wedding and subsequent marriage relationship. My experiences with God, which comprise not only emotions but also consistent and lifelong observations of positive effects of belief in myself and others I know well, have been persistently profound even though somewhat intangible. I have seen no reason not to continue using them as something of an anchor.

Intellectual disposition
One more I’m going to mention here is the influence of certain personality characteristics which may help explain my upbeat attitude toward an ever evolving faith.

An extremely important factor for me was that my experience with faith and Christian belief was always one of discovery. So when the data started coming in that convinced me of evangelical Christianity’s flaws and errors, apart from a feeling of growing isolation from my community I was more than happy to glom onto that data not so much as a challenge to but as an expression of my faith in God.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that the following never applies in the lives of the de-converted, but I know for a fact that it has influenced my lack of de-conversion. It is this: I never trusted easy answers to begin with, and so it wasn’t such a shock to have my evangelical faith overhauled by my close scrutiny. An unshakable uneasiness with simply accepting whatever was handed to me and the above mentioned thrill for the truth hunt have been prominent ever since my discovery as a seven-year-old of the discrepancy between what Genesis 1-2 says and what my book about prehistoric science said.

As Cliff is keen to point out, certainty in either direction is simply not in the cards. The dichotomy is not between doubt and faith — doubt is the qualifier that distinguishes a reasonable faith from an altogether blind faith — but between acknowledged and unacknowledged uncertainty. Christians and avowed atheists alike are simply going about their delusions of certainty in a different way. Christians who refuse to peek under the cover are not exercising faith but fear: fear of having to deal with uncertainty.  When former believers who embrace a thorough atheism as though it were the only option other than fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity, they are not exercising healthy skepticism but cynicism, or laziness at best.

In any event, when I reached the fork in the road at the end of the evangelical path I had been led down, I had two choices: I could take the path of hopeful uncertainty or continue on another (very different) path of imagined certainty. The sign over the first path said, “I’m not certain it’s true, but I love it,” and the other said, “I don’t love it because I’m not certain it’s true.” For reasons such as those described above, I chose the former, “and that has made all the difference.”

As I said, this is not meant to be persuasive but as a window into some of my musings of late. Take from it what you will.

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  • Anonymous

    main reason people who start to critically examine their faith lose it: lack of imagination!

  • “Why does our faith remain strong despite the many (if not the majority) who go along similar paths and end up losing their faith? What makes the difference?” Good question – I pondered this question often when I read Polkinghorne. This quote caught my eye as relevant to your post:

    Polkinghone describes faith as “The ability of understanding to outrun explanation is intimately connected with the religious concept of faith. This is not a polite expression for unsubstantiated assertions, but it points to an ability to grasp things in totality, the occurrence of an insight which is satisfying to the point of being self-authenticating, without dependence on detailed analysis….the insight brings with it a tacit assurance that such explanation should be there for the eventual finding. Such experiences are common among scientists. Paul Dirac tells us how one of his foundational ideas about quantum theory came to him “in a flash” when he was out for a Sunday walk. …The mathematician Henri Poincare was more certain of his insight…An important idea came to him ‘At the moment I put my foot on the step of the {bus}…I did not verify the idea…but I felt a perfect certainty.’ …Their common essence is the attainment of understanding by the power of a whole, by intuitive grasp rather than detailed argument.” (page 37)

    • I really love this.

  • Very well said, Steve. Your narrative aligns closely with my experience. Some may question whether a faith such as yours (or mine ) is “safe” and secure. There have been times when I would consider my faith fragile and tenuous. But it is interesting that, in some ways, faith has gone full circle for me. In my abandonment of certainty, I have become strangely settled, almost more sure (if that be not self-contradicting!) It is as though I have faced down elephant in the room instead of ignoring him, or hoping he goes away. And I now know that the rational bases for doubt, all of them fully appraised, are insufficient to dislodge my faith — a faith is now more firmly than ever lodged in the uniqueness and supremacy of THE Word of God, Jesus.

    • More and more I see the importance of pointing out that it is Jesus who is the Word of God. I hear that Word reverberating throughout my life even today.

  • Thomas

    Cliff, I really identify with what you said about the elephant in the room. As I look back on the last fifteen or so years, I see that the elephant of doubt was very present. Now that I am facing it, I do feel better in many ways, like I am finally being honest, though in many ways I am in a state of far less certainty on a lot of issues.

    Steve, maybe more people who make similar journeys will stay in the faith when they see more examples like yours.

    • Thomas, I really hope so. There’s no magic formula for coming out on the side you and I have, but at very least I want those who have come face to face with that elephant — intentionally or not — to see that no one who does so must reject faith and dismiss the hope of a universe with purposefulness and ultimate meaning.

  • As you know, I’m not really sure what I believe anymore, but the one thing I know for sure is that bloggers like you and Cliff display more humility and honesty about Christianity than most others out there on the internet (and I’ve never really found anyone in real life besides a few at Biologos). So many theologians keep on referring to the gift of faith…and who knows, maybe the veil will one day be lifted and I will see what everyone was talking about, but until that time, all that talk about God inspiring you to have faith used to make me want to go home and cry;) Honest accounts like yours and Cliffs enable me to strive on. Going on and on about the gift of faith to someone that doesn’t have it, without an explanation or advice as to how to cope, is like bringing a child to a candy store and telling them they can’t have any candy.

    • like a child,

      Thanks for your kind words. If there’s one thing I believe about God, it’s that God is a Father who will withhold no good thing from His children. What I think happens sometimes is that we are promised one thing on God’s behalf by people who should know better, and find that we’re not so sure we like what He actually is offering us. I think in the end it’s much, much better, but it will surely require some getting used to!

      I long for you to have some peace in your struggles. If you come out of this anywhere near us, you’ll come out with your faith stronger and wholly in the person of God where it belongs, and in a reality much larger and more mysterious than the package deal of dogma you were sold.

    • Rich_gitsch

      LAC:

      Going on and on about the gift of faith to someone that doesn’t have it…

      Whenever I see or hear about this “gift of faith”, something inside me gets grated. Maybe it is something leftover from hard Calvinism, but I think the phrase itself gives a wrong impression.

      From my own experience, I spent a long time “pounding the throne”, so to speak, about the promises in Ezek 11:19 and 36:26 for God to change my heart of stone. Then the inaudible voice said “Why do you keep asking me to do what I have already done for you?” I quit asking right then and there, although I didn’t feel any different. It’s my choice to either act as if I have a heart of stone, r one of tenderness – I don’t have to keep asking.

      I think it was Andrew Murray (possibly Watchman Nee – I was reading both at the same time) who wrote that what we are usually asking for is certainty, not faith. For if we have to be told every step to make, that is not faith but a lack of faith.

      From what I have read of your writings, I see you struggling with a loss of childish, simplistic ‘faith’. You don’t need (and probably won’t get) a vision, or a voice, or a prophetic utterance telling you that you’ve ‘arrived’. All I can offer is assurance that your current struggle contains the potential to arrive at a more mature outlook. And the deeper the conflict, the greater the potential that is awakening at the bottom of it.

  • I’d love to find some peace as well. I suppose time can heal some of the wounds, as problems that seemed awful yesterday seem petty today.

    Besides the enormous intellectual doubts I face, I’m also weary of reading books when I could be doing countless other more productive or enjoyable tasks with my time. Reading these books is a means to an end.. not my idea of pleasure reading. Often, it is difficult to justify taking the time to read, when my doubts keep mounting. I know most who face the questions I do would have likely given up by now, and I can’t blame them. But as Thomas said, “maybe more people who make similar journeys will stay in the faith when they see more examples like yours.” I resonate with this statement particularly as a result of my grad school experience, because scientist rely heavily on the element of trust when reviewing the literature, because it is impossible to look up the original articles for every little theory. But, unlike science, there is just too little trust in Christian theology – too much controversy and no established consensus. Yet, each side seems to have their own stake on absolute truth, and the rest of us have to decipher the maze in addition to holding full-time jobs (unlike the theologians who can devote all their efforts towards confusing the rest of us)!

  • Phil_style

    thanks for the discussion. I grew up in the evnagelical/penticostal maelstrom, but I no longer call my self evangelical.. well, not in the way I would have as a teenager. But doubt was always with me, and I think I always faced in head-on. I remember, as a 10 year old trying to work out what the hell a “soul” was. It seemed to me to be a completely un-necessary thing. I’ve now settled (for the meantime) on physicalism. But far from killing my faith, this exploration has simply allowed me to explore the great depth of thinking that exists within the wider christian community. If I’d never made a break with the
    “beliefs” of my youth I’d never have discovered the likes of Nancey Murphy, Peter Enns, Leron Shultz, Thomas Merton etc.. and I’d probably be stuck with Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer!

    • If I’d never made a break with the “beliefs” of my youth…I’d probably be stuck with Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer!

      Great are the Lord’s mercies! 😉 I come from a similar background, actually.

      Like you, “for the meantime” I am quite comfortable with a Murphy-esque non-reductive physicalism, although all my knowledge of it is pretty shallow and based off of intuition and what I’ve encountered of it online in the last few years.

  • Pingback: History and inerrancy – around the blogosphere « next theology()

  • Pete

    I started this post with the intention of answering just one of you questions and it expanded into yet another de-coversion story. Sorry. I am not trying to be persuasive either and am happy to live along side you guys with your new modified forms of Christian faith.

    “But this begs the very serious question never answered: why then did they all create specifically the Jesus of the Gospels?”

    Allow me to answer it for you:) It has been well established that Luke and Matthew independently used Mark as a source. To say they are similar is an understatement, they are often exact, word for word, for paragraphs at a time. In college (a conservative evangelical school no less) we did an exercise where we put the three synoptics side by side and underlined where they were the same and different, it was extremely eye opening. This makes where they differ all the more telling. If Matthew differs from Mark in a story they both share, it is usually quite clear that the author who wrote what we refer to as Matthew was changing the details to make a theological point, often correcting the theology of Mark per say (exp. Jesus answers about calling him good because no body is good but God). Then you have the differences where Matthew and Luke share a story not found in Mark, and low and behold these then have the greatest variety (such as the birth stories, which don’t overlap AT ALL) and the resurrection stories, etc. Without a common source, the authors relied on their own traditions (or imagination) and of course came up with entirely different narratives.

    The author of what we call John, which did not use any synoptic as a source, tells an entirely different tale, which presents Jesus in a very different light then the others (and the only place Jesus is even implied to be God himself).

    Now I’m not implying that means Jesus is an entirely mythical construct invented or first documented by the author of Mark to be copied later by others, I accept there was a post-apocalyptic preacher named Jesus, I just think the standard apologetic that we have these independent testimonies with a shared central theme completely ignores the established reality that they are not independent at all.

    “When former believers who embrace a thorough atheism as though it were the only option other than fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity, they are not exercising healthy skepticism but cynicism, or laziness at best.”

    I’m a one time believer turned pragmatic atheist. I was certainly aware there were a myriad of other traditions outside fundamentalism/evangelical Christianity and thought about trying them on for size. Indeed, I WAS one of those different Christians for several years, one who accepted evolution and denied innerancy and this and that yet still put my faith in Jesus. Its just the rabbit whole went deeper then our ancient past and the all to human construction of the Bible, it eventually revealed there was nothing spectacular about the Jesus myth (as it was eventually codified into a religion as separate from whatever actually took place), that it happened all the time, that there were plenty of markers within our text that reveal it is more literary then historical, and that the miracles, and virgin births and even resurrections were all part in parcel at the time for how people identified and build up religious and supernatural figures. Eventually I realized I no more had reason to think Jesus was god then other figure so inscribed in history. He just has more market share. Its no longer a question of whether I can find some christian reality that is not as certain as my fundamentalist belief and I can live with that uncertainty, I simply no longer believe in Jesus any more then I do Mohammad, Allah, or Thor.

    Speaking of which, concerning your question about atheist have just as blind a certainty, I think that misses the mark a bit. I don’t know for certain there is no god nor have any answers about the existence of the universe, I’m just fairly certain if there is a God it is not Osis, or Posiden, or Allah, or Yahweh, or any of the other gods suggested and worshiped through out history. Or I’ll put it this way, I’ll only accept the claim I live in blind certainty to the same degree you accept you have a blind certainty that Josheph Smith didn’t really see Jesus in the forest, or that Mohammad didn’t really rise up into heaven, or that Allah isn’t really the true manifestation of monotheistic God, or that Zeus didn’t really father children with such and such mortal who . . . .

    • Pete, thanks for stopping by. Like you, I’m not going to try to proselytize here, but there are a couple misconceptions I’d like to clear up.

      I just think the standard apologetic that we have these independent testimonies with a shared central theme completely ignores the established reality that they are not independent at all.

      I am well aware and keep abreast of the critical issues surrounding the Gospels. Like you, I was first introduced to the Synoptic problem in my conservative Christian college, but I’ve come quite a ways since then in my research. In fact, the closest Synoptic parallels are at the heart of my dissertation research right now.

      There is no doubt that there is common source material to the Gospels. The question is this: if Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark, and likewise Luke, why did they do so? Why did they not simply charter their own boat so to speak? The answer that critical scholars (including the vast majority of secular scholarship and excluding the crackpot mythicists) have come to is much more nuanced than what you described. It wasn’t a matter of a guy called Matthew finding a scroll and saying, “Hey, I think I can improve on this and start a religion!”. Rather, each Gospel writer adapted already cultural beliefs about Jesus and his teachings for the “Jesus communities” they were a part of. The fact that each of these communities held on to and expounded upon certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry while minimizing others has been typically seen as an indicator that these aspects of his life were more deeply rooted in those communities’ past. This, not an erroneous assertion that all four evangelists independently arrived at the same ideas, was my point in the post above.

      The author of what we call John, which did not use any synoptic as a source, tells an entirely different tale, which presents Jesus in a very different light then the others (and the only place Jesus is even implied to be God himself).

      Actually, scholars have long suspected that John knew Luke, or even that Luke may have been familiar with the proto-Johannine community (see this, for instance). But that’s neither here nor there. 🙂

      I don’t know for certain there is no god nor have any answers about the existence of the universe, I’m just fairly certain if there is a God it is not Osis, or Posiden, or Allah, or Yahweh, or any of the other gods suggested and worshiped through out history.

      Oh, you’re certain about that, eh? 😉 I’m referring to the sort of “avowed atheist” who pays lip service to uncertainty (“There is almost certainly no god”) and then goes on berate people who don’t act utterly convinced there isn’t one.

      Or I’ll put it this way, I’ll only accept the claim I live in blind certainty to the same degree you accept you have a blind certainty that Josheph Smith didn’t really see Jesus in the forest…

      Neither you nor I have found good reasons to believe any of those things and good reasons to doubt them, and so we’re justified to disregard them for the time being. You have found good reasons to doubt the Christian story and I have good reasons for retaining the core bits of it, and of theism at the very least. Not all levels of credulity are as dangerous as the sort of “certainty” I’m describing: we can and must hold that this or that belief is “almost certainly (not) true” for ourselves, but where it becomes dangerous is when credulity reaches a level at which we’re content to go around knocking other people’s beliefs and dismissing their arguments out-of-hand. That’s what fundamentalists on both ends of the spectrum do, even though they (especially atheists) might profess a healthier form of skepticism.

      I do not think it is demonstrably more or less likely (although I personally find it more believable) that the universe has absolute meaning and a creator than that it is meaningless and eternal. Like it or not, both are guesses based on other things we believe about the world around us. Instrumental for me is an enduring belief in absolute meaning; this doesn’t make me a Christian, but it makes me more comfortable with theistic explanations and comports with my experience and observations.

      • Pete

        This is a test

  • Pete

    “The question is this: if Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark, and likewise Luke, why did they do so? Why did they not simply charter their own boat so to speak? The answer that critical scholars (including the vast majority of secular scholarship and excluding the crackpot mythicists) have come to is much more nuanced than what you described. It wasn’t a matter of a guy called Matthew finding a scroll and saying, “Hey, I think I can improve on this and start a religion!”. Rather, each Gospel writer adapted already cultural beliefs about Jesus and his teachings for the “Jesus communities” they were a part of. The fact that each of these communities held on to and expounded upon certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry while minimizing others has been typically seen as an indicator that these aspects of his life were more deeply rooted in those communities’ past.”

    That’s fair. I wasn’t trying to imply Matthew found some scroll and tried to adapt his own religion from scratch from it. Of course I believe the author, most likely a second or third generation educated Greek speaking Christian was part of a Christian community that had its own history and distinctives and shall I say, evolving:) and diverging beliefs. What I am asserting is that among the other oral traditions and beliefs of his own community, he also had the actual text of Mark which he often copied paragraph for paragraph. “Luke” writing somewhere else and possibly never aware of Matthew’s effort, did something similar (he even expressly asserts he used sources).

    “Actually, scholars have long suspected that John knew Luke, or even that Luke may have been familiar with the proto-Johannine community (see this, for instance). But that’s neither here nor there. :-)”

    I overstated my case, I didn’t mean to imply the author(s) of John were entirely unaware of any of the other synoptic gospels. Most secular scholars date this book late enough that it is entirely possibly they had come in contact with them. I only meant they didn’t expressly copy any portion of it. They felt free to write their own narrative which seldomly overlapped with the synoptics and had widely different details when it did.

    Oh, you’re certain about that, eh? 😉

    Yes, I personally:) am just as certain that the god described in the old testament and often self identified as Yahweh is just as non-existent as Baal and El and Jupiter. But I won’t berate you for you continued belief as I certainly understand it and participated in it myself for decades.

    I’m referring to the sort of “avowed atheist” who pays lip service to uncertainty (“There is almost certainly no god”) and then goes on berate people who don’t act utterly convinced there isn’t one.

    Yea, I understand what you mean.

    Not all levels of credulity are as dangerous as the sort of “certainty” I’m describing: we can and must hold that this or that belief is “almost certainly (not) true” for ourselves, but where it becomes dangerous is when credulity reaches a level at which we’re content to go around knocking other people’s beliefs and dismissing their arguments out-of-hand. That’s what fundamentalists on both ends of the spectrum do, even though they (especially atheists) might profess a healthier form of skepticism.

    Well you have convinced on this point.

    I do not think it is demonstrably more or less likely (although I personally find it more believable) that the universe has absolute meaning and a creator than that it is meaningless and eternal.

    I simply don’t resonate with the idea that if there is no god then everything is meaningless. I find it meaningful to live and love my children regardless if a god is watching to approve or if it is merely temporary and we’ll both die and neither of us will ever exist again, that doesn’t take the meaning away from me while I’m still alive. My two dogs love each other and play often, if they were still wolves and in the forest that might love each other and play often and die without ever seeing a human, and I’m not familiar with any Christian tradition that thinks they have some sort of existence after their death. They are gone (just as I expect to be) and yet I wouldn’t say their life was therefor meaningless, because it didn’t extend forever or have a special wolf loving and redeeming god to look over them.

    As for the creator aspect, I used to feel this way but now I have switched. Something has to be eternal, either energy-matter, or this supernatural outside of existence intelligent being we define as god. Why is it more likely the second exists and always exists then the first. Now, it seems a lot more reasonable that the simplest thing most likely always exists, such as matter in its simplest form. Why is it more likely that if something always exists it must be a self-conscious and infinitely powerful being (who otherwise is extremely shy about doing anything that distinguishes him from not existing at all).

  • Thom Stark has a book due out in October, titled, THE HUMAN FACES OF GOD, that takes inerrancy to task and also asks some hard questions concerning inspiration. Yet Stark remains a Christian. I think you’ll find the book very intellectually stimulating and worthy of review in the blogosphere! Also look up Stark on Facebook. Nice guy.

    • ETB,
      Thanks very much. I’ve remembered his name from some excellent
      comments here and there around the blogosphere, and so I was glad to
      hear of his book this week. I should say that I take your
      recommendation of Thom and his writings very seriously. Thanks for
      swinging by!

  • Oh thanks, i appriciate that!