The human desire for certainty

“Faith is believing what you know ain’t true”  Mark Twain

No. No. No. Not so!  Faith, true faith, is trust and we need evidence to be able to trust! We need evidence.

That is how we live, e.g., we trust surgeons and flight captains with our lives. We trust that others will obey the road rules when we are driving. And we trust those we love. We cant see it, but we trust that there is this thing called love.  The scientist trusts that the world is really there, that her brain is working well, and that the laws of nature are in place.

We base such trust on evidence.

It is truly true that reality is that which is actually there even when you don’t believe in it and it’s an absolute certainty that disbelieving in God won’t make Him go away.

However it is fashionable in some circles to say “nothing is certain”. But there is this human desire for ‘certainty’. It’s everywhere. Here’s a good example.

In John’s biography of Jesus, Thomas was told by the others, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” But then eight days later Jesus appeared and said to Thomas “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” The record says that Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? How blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I wonder if doubting Thomas actually put in his finger or his hand to Jesus’ wounds, evidence of who he was, evidence of his suffering and death, and of course, of his bodily resurrection?  

I can’t be certain, but one day I will find out.

8 responses to “The human desire for certainty

  1. In response to conceptualizing paradox –

    Our coins have two sides to them, yet even if I am an anti-monarchist I must continue to use this as legal tender. The paradox for anti-monarchists could be that they are bound to use such tender though, paradoxically, they must acknowledge the place of the colonial head of state and its antithesis, the wild-and-free-life of Australia. It is paradoxical for Australians to have these 2 contrasting images imprinted on the coinage, yet despite this all Australians use this as legal tender.

    In accepting all that our Triune God places before us we may be enriched through paradox rather than being beset by doubts and uncertainty about truths of His Kingdom that we all hold. Yet in some ways we must embrace paradox – for God is both an avenging God and a Lover and Christ with tears welcomes the prostitute and the churchman, the lover and the abuser into his Kingdom. Paradoxically, we all banquet at the same table, hopefully enjoying all that Christ has prepared for us; in this way we can embrace the paradoxes rather than letting them divide us.

    Rosie G.

    • Paradox? We may well ask what qualifies a saying to be proclaimed a paradox? And who is the the position to be able to universally determine what qualifies as paradox?

      Does the Bible throw any light on this question? Anybody? I doubt whether the term “paradox” or any similar term ever emerged in the minds of the Hebrew writers. Seems like it was not an issue for Hebrew thinking. The Lord God had spoken, they had heard and so that’s what they wrote. Of course, that didn’t stop the rabbis and sages of Israel endlessly arguing and debating the meaning of certain texts–they did not just give up and say “O well, it is just a paradox”.

      I am grateful to Stewart in his reply for the following observation:
      “Calling something a paradox reduces the impulse to question and conditions people to accept the unacceptable.”

      Yes, that can be a quick way to kill any discussion and especially any questionning of the status quo, e.g., the subversion over the centuries of the original beliefs and the practices of the first followers of Jesus and his appointed emissaries.

      Nevertheless, our Lord God does keep some matters for a future revelation, a future time. I am so glad he does. There will be so much more, infinitely so much more to come. Now we see obscurely, then we will see plainly, face to face, as Christ’s emissary Paul said.

      In the meantime, let’s act on what has already been revealed to us, what is intended to be certain for us. And who was it that said that it was not the difficult texts of Jesus that troubled him, but the plain ones, the certain ones.

  2. terrygatfield

    The human desire for certainty

    An interesting note Ian and a position largely adopted by the contemporary evangelical fraternity – ‘the quest for certainty’. The thread of the quest for certainty comes largely through the first century apologists and even the evangelist Luke in his prologue to Acts can be named as such. But the real thrust for certainty seems to have emerged through the age and spirit of the enlightenment and its sister, western modernity. However, paradox is ever present and there is another side to coin – perhaps many sides to it and I suggest we need sensitivity when approaching such a complex issue like ‘certainty’ and indeed anything approaching the metaphysical and matters of faith and spirituality.

    The scripture are pregnant with paradox and for the eastern cultures it seemed to present little problem to them – but they certainly do to us. So called western scientific linguistic analysis prevents us largely from engaging in paradox. Our language forms and analysis are largely dualistic and they do not handle the mystical very well at all. But to engage in the scriptures we must embrace Paradox – much of it cannot be handled outside of paradox. Paradox is what Chesterton called ‘truth standing on its head’. Another saying I like is that paradox of a truth is often an even greater truth. The mystical tradition embraces the richness of paradox.

    I was arrested with a question from a Franciscan Brother recently who asked me what the opposite for ‘faith’ was. I restrained my futile top of mind answers that wanted to explode from my lips. Silence was painful as he looked for some time quizzically at me. At last I realised my silent trite answers were not going to take me very far. Then he announced, ‘the opposite of faith is certainty’. The statement required from me some careful thought and reflection. I now understand it more fully.

    Embracing paradox through reading the scriptures, prayer and contemplation can be an enriching and rewarding part of our journey. I would suggest an essential part of the Christian journey. I suggest we take care and handle the precious things of God with delicate hands and an open heart. God’s call is for us to live a life of faith and obedience with him without the demand or quest for certainly.

    • Faith and certainty are part of the journey, not opposites. God has given us enough that we can be certain of, that our faith in God’s character is justified. The beginning and end of our need for faith is faith that God is exactly who He says He is, in all His attributes. The certainty of His creation is one part of our basis for that faith, our foundation – its hard rational unchanging logic enables the field of science to exist (don’t take that for granted, other faiths preclude the ability to engage rationaly with creation because their gods play fast and loose with truth and order). The certainty of the person of Jesus and his death and resurrection are another part of that foundation. The certainty of the interaction between God and His chosen people as retold through the Old Testament is a third part of that foundation. On that basis we have enough evidence to put our faith in God’s character, that He will be in the future exactly who He said He is in the past. That our salvation is assured on that basis. The original sin was the result of God’s character being called into question – not His existance, but His character.

      As for paradoxes, you’ll have to give me some examples. All I’ve seen so far are merely a lack of understanding of the complete OT and NT text. That’s not being flippant. Some of these ‘paradoxes’ have been the basis of control of the Christian faith, and earthly money and power is dependant on that control. Calling something a paradox reduces the impulse to question and conditions people to accept the unnaceptable.

    • Thanks Terry for some provocative thoughts and the opportunity to add some more.
      I see the biblical writers speaking from a position of certainty otherwise they would not have written what they did, or faced death and suffering for what they believed and fearlessly proclaimed. I am not saying they had all the answers. I am not suggesting they did not face dilemmas and paradoxes. But look at the “certainty” of the writer at the end of John’s gospel account and also the opening words of his first letter (1 John).
      Perhaps we need to clarify what we mean by “certainty” or rather “the need (quest) for certainty”. The context for what I said was the unbelieving world which must be challenged, head on. People make choices. And there will be no excuses. Bertrand Russell will not be able to excuse himself before his maker with “I did not have enough evidence”. The “new atheists” are indeed certain that there is no God, certain that science explains everything, certain that people who believe are ignorant or unintelligent. Never mind that many eminent scientists are believers. Do the unbelievers look for the evidence? Or are they like the marketers of harmful and toxic products –cigarettes is only one example—who live in constant denial, shouting down all other voices. Fundamentalism of the highest order.
      I am not saying we should not be sensitive and feel the lostness, the loneliness of the world, of the despair out there, or of the furious anger of the tone-deaf people who cannot hear the music which we can hear.
      Terry, the “enlightenment and its sister, western modernity” have actually removed certainty and replaced it with doubt about the Biblical world view! The Enlightenment philosophers are responsible for so much cynicism and doubt in the West today, seen in the media, in film, art, philosophy, etc. Just read the absurd leaps of faith Richard Dawkins and his ilk make, with stuff like Stephen Hawking, in his book The Grand Design …
      “It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical laws, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”
      So what do the scripture writers say is the opposite of faith? Unbelief! Of course there are matters which are uncertain. There are paradoxes for us to wonder about and ponder. And in our rush to be dogmatic about many things we too may become fundamentalists. There are notable examples and we must live with these like the Jews did, follow their good example and stop trying to have all the answers. There is often no one right answer.
      The secret things belong to the Lord our God but the things that are revealed belong to us and out children forever. Deut 29:29.
      Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Jonathon Sachs said recently in Sydney :

      “Faith is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility. Possibility is better than probability. The prophets aspired, dreamed of a society of compassion and grace.”

      We people of faith have so much more than mere probability! We have boundless possibility! By faith. Faith in the God who is really there. Probability breeds uncertainty while possibility gives birth to faith, hearing the promises, the plans, the purposes of the Almighty Lord of Hosts for us, the objects of his eternal love.

      Tread sensitively everywhere? Tiptoe around sensitive, politicly correct issues? No. No. Shout! Rather tread boldly. Boldly proclaim the mighty salvation through the gospel of Jesus, boldly ask and receive, boldly keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking, boldly believe even against all the odds.

      Jonathon Sacks talked about Abraham who against all odds believed God –for him it was certain that God would bless the whole world through him. He would though at times be tempted to try to make God’s promises happen by smart thinking. Turns out his efforts were not so smart! God words prevailed.

      Abram believed God because God had spoken and made covenant with him in unmistakable ways. The Hebrew people were certain about their ancestor Abraham and certain that the Lord God had opened the waters of the sea and saved them from falling back into Egyptian slavery. They never stopped talking about this.

      In the Gospel story, Peter wants to walk on water like Jesus. At Jesus’ word “come on Peter”, over the side of the boat he goes, boldly. Until he suddenly takes his eyes of the object and source of his faith, and sinks! Doubt rather than mere uncertainty. Maybe, what I, and many of my brothers and sisters in Jesus have to fight against, is doubt rather than uncertainty.

      We all have our times of doubt. This is borne out time and time again in the testimony of countless believers and also the biblical stories of real men and women, stories which never attempt to white-out their failures.

      You, Terry, are indeed certain, not doubting, of many matters. You continue to come boldly into the Lord’s presence and frequently proclaim his generosity. The search for certainty ends with faith in the Lord Jesus, and him alone. And of course you are certain about the names of your children and grandchildren and the identity of the architect who designed your house. And both you and I have decided to depend on him that we shall remain faithful unto him till the end.

      As the apostle Paul wrote to his rep, Titus,
      We are filled with hope, as we wait for the glorious return of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. He gave himself to rescue us from everything that is evil and to make our hearts pure. (Titus 2:12-13)

      And he wrote in his second letter to Timothy
      Because of this, I suffer also these things: yet I am not ashamed; for I know him whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to guard that which I have committed unto him against that day.” (2 Timothy 1:12)

      And in his letter to the Romans
      For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16)

      We could go on … and on. This kind of faith sounds like ‘certainty’ to me. Like he said to Thomas (here feel my hands and side!) and the 2 Emmaus blokes (O you slow of heart to believe all the prophets!) –doubt is the opposite of certainty. We, like them, are called to believe based on good evidence. As for the unessential matters, I can’t be certain, but one day I will find out. We do not have time for uncertainty about the essentials, it would cripple us, it would silence us.

      Go tell it on the mountain!

  3. Yes, I second what Kate says. Another thank you.

  4. Thanks Ian, I can’t stress enough how great it is to read that someone is promoting Christianity for what it is – a public claim to truth. There is a lot of paraphenalia around the ‘Christian life’ but in essence, the main point is investigatible by anyone. The facts of Jesus’ life death and resurrection, including His claim to be God etc, are recorded by heaps of historians, including skeptical and hostile witnesses! And really if what Jesus claimed is not true, thenthe rest doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how it makes me feel or whether my life is better because of my faith. Without the facts, it’s just another life choice. So here’s to not having to check your brain at the door to have faith!

    • Thanks so much Kate. Have we met? I know a few “Kates” but I cannot recognise your email. Thanks again. And be assured I will continue to present Jesus publicly while I have breath.
      Ian Thomson

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