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The Big Question

Do I need to be certain about my faith?

By Wayne Hilliker

Polish linguist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski has written, “There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything, or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.”

There is a story about a theologian and a philosopher who are engaged in intense debate. The theologian says, “The trouble with you philosophers is that you are like a person who is blind looking in a dark room for a black kitten that is not there.” To which the philosopher replies, “And the trouble with you theologians is that you always find it.”

These days, questioning previously held beliefs has become quite commonplace. New expressions of Christianity are taking shape, which are exciting to some but disturbing to others.

In fact, it is becoming more evident that the greatest differences in the church today are not between people who believe different things but rather between those who believe the same things, but interpret them differently. With so many interpretations, some folks want to know who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.”

Huge numbers of people flock to those churches that connect faith with certainty. Some congregations go so far as to demand absolute acceptance of particular doctrines. But when the acceptance of doctrine is required in advance of the experiences those doctrines are meant to define, there is little evidence of believers engaging in a genuine search for truth. Indeed, unless there is room to say “no,” there is really no room for an authentic “yes.”

Furthermore, we will never make faith seem strong by being wilfully blind to everything that denies it. Nor do we honour the truth we have found and experienced through the biblical story by ignoring truth elsewhere. This includes truths in other religions. Daily, we hear about intense and violent disputes that find their roots in religious beliefs held with absolute certainty.

All of this leads to the big question: Do I need to be certain about my faith? But let’s flip the question around. What if certainty is the very opposite of faith? Might it be possible to adhere to an understanding of faith that has nothing to do with being certain of anything?

In approaching Scripture, American biblical scholar James A. Sanders suggests that we misuse Scripture when we turn to it to find models for our morality. Instead, we read it more faithfully when we discover, through the biblical narratives, mirrors of our identity. In other words, we shouldn’t turn to the Bible to be told what to do, but rather to discover who we are. Who are we being called to be in our particular time and place? Such an approach to Scripture recognizes that the Bible is not meant to close a discussion but to open one. Thankfully, the unfolding drama of the biblical story also reveals a God who promises never to abandon us — wherever our feet or our beliefs may take us.

More important than certainty is willingness, in the midst of doubt, to put our ultimate trust in the radical graciousness of God. Such a faith depends less on a rigid set of doctrinal beliefs and more on openness to mystery. It is an understanding that results in a widening of compassion and a reverence for all of creation.

Evoked or not, God is always with us. So, rather than trying to use or manipulate God in the present, we may want to number ourselves among those who simply trust God with our final destiny. Perhaps this was what theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he spoke of “living without God yet before God.”

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner is now in his 80s. As he enters the twilight of his life, he makes this acknowledgment: “I know no more now than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting go of all. But I’m beginning to know that I do not need to know and that I do not need to be afraid of not knowing. God knows. That’s all that matters.”

Our believing comes to full power only when it is conscious of its radical uncertainty. At the end of the day, all I can really testify is this: I do not know, therefore, I trust. But in doing so, I also find most liberating the healing truth conveyed by the 17th-century Christian thinker Blaise Pascal. He offers each one of us this assurance: “Console thyself, thou wouldst not seek Me if thou hadst not found Me.”

Rev. Wayne Hilliker lives in Kingston, Ont.

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