So Lent began today. I’m not giving up anything like chocolate, but I do have a sort of Lenten theme, which is letting go, stripping back and setting aside in order to move on. In this post I’m looking at giving up (false) certainties in order to gain a deeper kind of faith.
I don’t know, I’m not sure and I may be wrong. How often have you heard preachers or evangelists use any of those phrases? If you’re in evangelical circles, particularly the more fundamentalist ones, I’m guessing not all that often. These aren’t phrases that smack of confident belief or strong leadership. They sound weak, wishy-washy, uncertain, uncommitted and lacking in faith; a woolly, fluffy fence-sitting cop-out of an answer. In short, they sound (horrors) liberal. They sound like a philosophy of despair or disengagement.
Of course these phrases can just be used as lazy cop-outs, as ways of avoiding the responsibility of thinking things through for ourselves. There are better and worse, healthier and less healthy ways of being agnostic or uncertain, just as there healthier and less healthy approaches to pretty much anything.
To me though, I don’t know, I’m not sure and I may be wrong aren’t so much liberal as liberating words; a manifesto of hope and humility. Used rightly and understood rightly, they can be refreshingly genuine and realistic statements. They can be expressions not of doubt or even (in the usual sense) agnosticism, but of an adult and honest faith; not of unbelief, but rather of a new way of believing.
All knowing is flawed and partial
The older I get, the less I know, and the less I’m sure of. That’s not just because I’ve forgotten lots of the stuff I learnt (though that’s certainly true), but more importantly because I realise that a lot of what I learnt was both partial and provisional.
I realise that there’s a huge amount that I still don’t know, and much that perhaps I simply can’t know. Indeed, the amount that I don’t know outweighs what I do know by about a gazillion to one. Perhaps one of the few things I do know for certain is that I don’t know all that much.
And of the relatively few things that I do know, or think I know, I can’t be completely sure of most of them – though I can perhaps be provisionally sure enough to use them as a working approximation. I realise that even the things I do know (or think I know) need to be questioned and challenged. I see that much of the knowledge (or supposed knowledge) I possess has come from sources and authorities that I don’t currently have the means to question, so I can’t be certain that it is totally correct or complete.
I also realise that all human beings are flawed to some extent, and therefore all human thinking and reasoning and understanding are also flawed to a degree. However good our sources of information (and most of them aren’t perfect), our interpretations or explanations or representations of it are subject to bias, to over-simplification and even plain mistakenness. This also applies to our reading of the Bible.
So I may even be wrong about the very small amount of stuff that I’m really absolutely certain of. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the things I’m most certain of turn out to be the ones I’m actually most wrong about…
Different kinds of knowing
I realise as well that much of the knowledge I possess, even if it is surely and provably true, is of the least important and useful kind; that is to say it’s merely factual or numerical knowledge. Indeed, as a rule, the more surely and provably true it is, the less important and useful it is. This is the kind of knowledge our society and our church seems to set most store by, but I’m increasingly less convinced of its value.
For example, if I could be bothered, I could demonstrate fairly irrefutably how many words I’ve published in this blog, and how many comments I’ve received. But I couldn’t begin to estimate how meaningful or helpful or important what I’ve written has been or will be; how much of truth is in it.
Similarly I could tell you a whole lot of facts about myself – my date of birth, where I went to school, the jobs I’ve done and so forth. But this wouldn’t really tell you who I am; that’s a mystery that even I don’t know in full.
The cloud of unknowing
The same applies to theology, to our knowledge of God and truth. It seems self-evident that the more you read the Bible, the more you pray, the more you worship, the more you will know of God. For me though, I find that the more I do these things the more I realise I don’t know or understand, and the less certain I become of what I thought I did know. Yes, I could probably reel off a bunch of ‘correct’ and scripturally-founded doctrines, but even assuming they really are correct (whatever that means) do I really know them, do I really believe them, do they really mean much more than a bunch of words that I’ve said I can assent to?
And even if they are scripturally-founded, in the sense that I can find proof-texts to back them up, can I really be certain they’re God’s final word on the matter? Good evangelicals will tell me that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, and it may indeed be so. But how do we know that? Only really by using the somewhat circular argument of taking certain proof-texts from the Bible itself, or else by claiming somewhat subjective spiritual assurance that we know from the Holy Spirit that it is so. And even if the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, how can we be sure that our particular interpretation and application of it is correct and complete? I’d suggest that we can’t.
And even if we can know for sure that a particular doctrine is true, are we really sure we understand it? Take the classic Christian beliefs in the Trinity, or in Jesus being the completely divine yet fully human Son of God. I do actually accept both of those beliefs (or think I do), but I couldn’t even begin to explain them in ways that would make any rational sense while preserving their essence.
Indeed, the more rational an explanation I arrive at, the further I depart from the essence of the doctrines, which are essentially and necessarily mysterious. That’s not to say they are irrational; they are simply beyond human reason to comprehend. It’s their very mystery that nourishes us. If God could be reduced to verbal and factual explanation, what would there really be to worship; what would there be to draw us on further and deeper?
Living with uncertainty
Indeed in one sense, we can’t really know anything for certain – and not just in the area of religious faith. There is always an element of subjectivity – or if you prefer, of trust – at the point of knowing, at the point of our accepting something to be true. However much a fact may indeed be objective, as human beings we just can’t know that for sure; there is always the possibility (for us) that it is false or illusory. We can never prove to ourselves that our experience of the world is not an illusion presented to us by our senses or our brains.
So truth or knowledge is in one sense meaningless until you accept it or believe it – and, crucially, act on it; until it becomes part of your mind and life, of your thinking and behaviour. And at that point it has to become partially subjective, and subject to doubt.
So in a sense faith is our natural condition. Everything we do is reliant on faith – faith that our senses are reliable, that our thinking and reasoning is reliable, that there’s a real world for our senses and reasoning to engage with, and that this world will continue to act according to the same laws and principles that we’ve known up till now. We can take all these as working hypotheses, because everything in our experience has shown them to work; but we can’t prove them.
Readers of this blog may have noticed that I tend to use hedging phrases like in a sense, maybe, broadly, in my view, it seems to me. That’s partly my personality; I’m a cautious, keep-your-options-open sort. But it’s also an acknowledgement that I really don’t know for sure; that what I’m writing is always just an expression of my current partial, flawed and flexible perspective.
However, none of this need be a philosophy of despair. Not being able to know for certain isn’t the same as not knowing at all. There are things we can know to a reasonable degree of confidence, or can accept as good-enough approximations to truth. And crucially we don’t need to be 100% certain of something before we can put our trust in it or make a commitment to it. We don’t have to have scientific proof of all of our ideas and beliefs before we can act on them.
It’s perhaps in this sense that I’m an Evangelical Liberal. I’m no longer certain about a lot of the doctrines of Christian orthodoxy. But rather than discard them completely, I’m happy to take them as broad working hypotheses, or as starting points, or as symbols that point to deeper realities. They may well not be the full picture themselves, and I don’t need to understand them fully in order to be Christian. But I can still accept them as part of a broad framework or grammar that gives some kind of context to my searching.
So maybe the question I need to keep asking myself is not how much do I understand, but am I really living according to what little knowledge and understanding I do have?