Uncertainties, and what to do with them

When I was a new Christian there were a lot of things I desperately wanted to know the answer to. And I thought that if I read lots of Christian books and listened to lots of sermons and talks, I’d get to the answers.

At first I imagined this was going to be possible. The books and talks did mostly try to give answers, and initially they seemed pretty plausible, convincing and well-argued. But I wasn’t always fully satisfied with those answers; they didn’t always quite ring true, or quite fill the gap I hoped they would.

And of course the more I read and listened, the more I found that different Christians believed different things, sometimes almost entirely opposite things, and all apparently for very good reasons. There didn’t seem to be the single set of definite, right answers I craved. Each group had its own orthodoxy, which it could defend rigorously, rationally and biblically (though some more convincingly than others).

Of course I turned to the Bible itself in search of the answers, but still they eluded me. The more I read the Bible, the less it seemed to present a single, clear voice on any of these issues; rather it offered multiple perspectives and nuances, and often couched in poetry or story that could be read in multiple ways.

Unanswered questions

So twenty years on I still have a list of questions about Christianity to which I’m far from certain of the answer. Here’s a selection:

  • Is the Bible in any sense the inspired, inerrant or infallible Word of God? What about all the discrepancies (and even possibly errors) in the gospels?
  • What are we to make of all the horrific passages in the Bible, where God appears to be a vengeful tyrant or even a genocidal monster? What are we to make of the inherent sexism and racism in much of the Old Testament?
  • Are only committed and practising Christians ‘saved’; or on the contrary are all saved by Christ’s love and his sacrifice?
  • What exactly does it mean to be ‘saved’? Can people lose their salvation?
  • Is there such a thing as hell and if so what is it?
  • Is there a real, personal devil and are there real, personal demons?
  • What happened on the cross, and what does it mean? How does atonement ‘work’?
  • Does God fully know the future?
  • Do miracles still happen, and should Christians expect to exercise charismatic spiritual gifts (prophecy, healing, tongues etc)?
  • Is it okay for Christian gay people to marry and adopt children?
  • Are abortion or assisted dying ever okay? What about divorce and remarriage?
  • Why is there suffering and is it ever ordained by God?
  • Is the biological theory of evolution basically true and if so what (if anything) does that say about God?
  • Was Jesus really born of a virgin and does it matter?

I’m not sure I’m any nearer to finding answers to most of these questions than when I first set out to follow Christ. In fact, in many cases I think I’m further from an answer; where I once had a fair degree of certainty, I now have far less. That’s not to say I don’t have reasonably informed opinions and working hypotheses on most of these questions (hence all the links above), but I’m far from sure that I’m right.

Two kinds of agnosticism

So you could call me an agnostic on many of these issues, and that would be a fair description. It seems to me though that there are two broad kinds of agnosticism.

There’s the ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’ variety – or to put it slightly differently ‘I probably won’t ever know and it doesn’t really matter anyway, so I’m not going to waste energy seeking the answer’.

And alternatively there’s the ‘I don’t know, and I may never know, but I still think it matters and I do care’.

On some of the questions I listed above, I think the ‘don’t know, don’t care’ response may be fine. It probably doesn’t really matter all that much whether God knows all the future, or whether Jesus was born of a virgin, or whether evolution is true (actually I do think these all matter a little, but not hugely.) I’m not even sure it matters all that much how the atonement works (so long as it works in some way); or whether or not the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

However, in general I think that a ‘don’t know, do care’ attitude is the more helpful one. It’s quite probably true that we’ll never know the answers to most of these questions, and I’m not sure we actually need to know the answers. Nonetheless, I think we grow in faith and maturity by grappling and wrestling with these difficulties and uncertainties, rather than by either sweeping them under the carpet and ignoring them, or else just dismissing them as unimportant.

A positive uncertainty

Let me emphasise that I don’t think the point of this wrestling is to arrive finally at certainties; I’m pretty sure that’s not possible and I’m far from sure that it would be helpful. Rather it’s to arrive at a more mature and meaningful uncertainty; even a rich and creative uncertainty. Perhaps above all a humble, trusting and compassionate uncertainty.

Humble, because if we get to this point we have to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and we may be wrong. Humble, because then we can start to see that it’s not all about our group being right and others wrong. We don’t need to defend our position against those who disagree; rather we need to listen, and keep learning. And humble, because it forces us to acknowledge our limitations – that we probably just can’t understand many things.

Trusting, because though we don’t (and can’t) know the answers we can still hold to Christ who alone does know. Indeed, our lack of ability to find the answers throws us more fully onto Christ, moving us away from self-reliance to trust.

And compassionate, because our greatest call is not to intellectually understand but to love. Some of these questions to which I don’t have answers are hugely personally significant and pastorally sensitive for many people – people who are struggling with their sexuality, or who have had an abortion, or who fear that their loved ones may be in hell. Whatever we believe on these issues, and however certain we are, for these people’s sake we cannot afford to be glib, dismissive or judgemental.

Contemplation, not comprehension

So if there are lots of things you’re still uncertain of after years of searching, that need not be a cause for either despair or resignation. It’s simply a sign that the truth – and reality, and God – is bigger and greater and more wonderful and complex and free and itself than we’re capable of fully comprehending or even imagining.

But if we can’t fully comprehend God’s great reality, we can nonetheless contemplate it. As G.K. Chesterton put it, the rationalist tries to fit the heavens into his head, and his head splits. The poet or mystic by contrast merely tries to put his head into the heavens, contemplating the wonder and mystery rather than seeking to contain or quantify or analyse it.

It might be fair then to call me an agnostic – but it would be what Leslie Wetherhead terms a Christian Agnostic, because perhaps the one thing I am absolutely convinced of is the reality and centrality of Christ. That’s not to say I understand exactly what that means (or even consider it to be fully understandable), but nonetheless it’s of the utmost importance to me.

So I affirm that Jesus is Lord, even if I can’t say exactly how that works or explain everything that it means. And it certainly doesn’t mean (to me) that people who call themselves atheists, or Buddhists, or Muslims or whatever are necessarily wrong, or are not ‘saved’, or are bound for some kind of post-mortem come-uppance.

As Pete Rollins would say, I can’t comment on whether anyone else’s religion or religious view is wrong. But what I can say with absolute certainty is that my own religious ideas and beliefs are wrong. That’s not to say they’re completely wrong or completely useless; far from it. But they certainly aren’t completely right. And they rightly aren’t completely certain.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Bible, Contemplative, Orthodoxy, Scepticism and doubt, The faith journey and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Uncertainties, and what to do with them

  1. Hi EL, I have been enjoying your blog recently, and today’s post is a real winner. Your list of questions about Christianity is very good; I like to think of my perspective as ’embracing ambiguity’ as opposed to commitment to the ‘assured doctrinal truths’ I used to believe.

    I don’t know if you post to Google communities, but I think you would be an excellent addition to Progressive Christian Blogs at https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/106463486758891931975?cfem=1. You would add a fresh perspective to the mix and receive a bit more exposure and interaction. It is a very interactive community.

    If you are interested, I suggest that you begin by sharing this post. And if you have questions you can contact me at tchastain@cfl.rr.com. Thanks for your blog; I appreciate the work you do.

    Like

  2. Gary H says:

    concerning your unanswered questions, I’m about to join a new church which is PCA (a rather conservative lot, but very grace oriented) and the pastor asks for all members to tithe a full 10% of your gross income. I understand the biblical underpinnings for this and i probably don’t have a leg to stand on to give only 2-3%…but do I have a leg to stand on?

    Like

    • Hi Gary, good luck with your new church – PCA sounds a little scary to me, but then I’m a bit of a conservative-phobe at the moment! 🙂

      I really don’t think that the 10% tithe should ever be a requirement for Christians. I particularly object when pastors add in further clauses about it being 10% of gross income, or the tithe having to be to the local church! I believe that the New Testament call is to give generously and cheerfully, based on our gratitude and our care for the poor, not prescriptively or legalistically based on rules or commands.

      I wrote about tithing on my old blog: Tithing, obedience and bad exegesis. Probably worth reading the comments as well, as they go through some further points that I’d missed in the post.

      All the best,
      Harvey

      Like

  3. Wonderful post. Let me encourage you to explore the writings of two ancient theologians: Nicholas of Cusa and Meister Eckhart. Also take a look at John 9 and pay specific attention to how Jesus responds to the “religious” folks in v. 41. I’ve made a case for “Christian Agnosticism,” which is very similar to what you’re writing about here. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts!

    Like

  4. Katie says:

    Great post. I received this link through my brothers blog, Christian Evolution. Reading your blog made me very emotional, why because I have felt this way for so long, longing for answers, but unable to get thru all the thick hypocrisy of religion. My inlaws and the other family matriarchs, are always pressuring me to get my family in church. So I go, get inspired, which is all good and well, them bam, they want to have a full on mass about homosexuality or thithing, or the devil etc… always something that pushes me away. Feeling flat and uninspired all over again. I feel as tho that I have more faith and spirituality in the tip of my pinky than most Christians…. So I say the hell with church, God is in my heart. This is not to say that I do not long for the community and service of the church. If only someone like you or my brother could start a church, I’d be your first member! Thank you for your thoughts. Ps check out my brothers blog, I think you’d enjoy this thoughts too.

    Like

    • Hi Katie, thanks so much for your very touching comment.

      You’ve also pre-empted my next post which is about how going to church isn’t the be-all and end-all of our faith… I do still go to church (a bit irregularly), because I think on the whole I probably need them, and maybe they need weird dissenters like me… but sometimes I do wonder what on earth I’m doing there. I certainly get a lot more spiritually out of other things – music, books, art, nature, talking with friends… and discussions on blogs!

      I’m also lucky to be part of a very accepting Anglican church which doesn’t lay down the law on particular doctrines (sexuality, tithing, hell, biblical inerrancy etc). There are things about the church I don’t fully chime with, but it’s a place where differences can mostly be accepted. And I belong to a small group where I can be as heretical as I like and no-one bats an eyelid!

      PS I’ve just been having a read of your brother’s blog and I like it very much. 🙂

      All the very best, and thanks again,
      Harvey

      Like

  5. Eng Hoe says:

    I’€™m not sure if my simply clicking on Reply will do, so if you do receive this email, I would be grateful if you can let me know.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like what you said. A positive kind of uncertainty.

    I think a large part of the problem in Christianity about truth is historical and cultural. We tend to think of truth only as cognitive. Why? I believe it is because most of Christianity in the world has been shaped by the West. The West was greatly influenced by the Romans who were influenced by the Greeks. To the Greeks, knowledge is only cognitive, or what we may call ‘head knowledge’. But to the Hebrews, and this is what the Bible tells us ‘a person does not really know something unless he lives it’ (1 Jn.2:3-6). Just as God can be known (ginosko€“ Jn.17:3) only from our hearts, we cannot know His Kingdom and everything that pertains to His kingdom except through our hearts. Although the mind is also involved to understand and process what it all means, yet the primary ‘€œorgan’€ to know (ginosko) God is not the mind but the heart.

    A friend and his wife many years ago moved their whole family to another country in search of greener pastures. But instead of a better life, they went through many years of very trying times. He wrote a long email detailing what he and his wife had been going through. Many friends wrote back with the usual kind of things to try and encourage them. Years later he came back on a short trip to the land of his birth and met me and told me that none of what everyone else wrote helped them, but he brought out of his pocket a worn out paper printed with my email reply to him. He said my reply helped him and his wife in ways beyond what they could describe in words. I have attached ‘Dear J’€ here.

    Besides the point about truth going beyond the cognitive, there is something else that opened my eyes to a bigger picture that caused me to sit back and realize some of these questions that you asked (many of them I have been asking too) are unnecessary. Philip Yancey starts his book ‘€˜Disappointment with God’€™ with 3 questions : Is God unfair? Is God silent? Is God hidden? I like what Philip Yancey wrote. It did not answer all my questions, but it started me on a quest to seek God to know Him beyond the trite and superficial answers offered in church. I would rephrase his questions with : Why is God unfair? Why is God silent? And why is God hidden? I am not offering the final answer to all questions, but I have attached something I wrote that I believe perhaps might help us step back to see a bigger picture .. and when we see that bigger picture, then perhaps some of these questions might not be so necessary anymore.

    Eng Hoe

    Like

    • Dear Eng Hoe,
      Thank you for your long and very thoughtful comment! Unfortunately I don’t think your attachment came through. I will reply to you by email as soon as I can and then perhaps you can send your attachment to me directly.

      I agree with you that we probably don’t need answers to most of the questions we want to put to God, or to the many things we don’t understand about Christianity. I don’t think that necessarily means we should stop asking them, or stop thinking about them, but we can perhaps come to a place of trust where our faith no longer depends on getting definite answers.

      I like what you say about the different kinds of knowledge, and I very much identify with this. Knowing about God is, I think, far less important than simply knowing God, in the sense of knowing him experientially and personally in and through the circumstances of our lives. For me truth is not primarily a matter of facts (though these have their place) but is often far better approached through things like poetry, paradox and personal experience.

      I think the only question we need to be sure of the answer to is ‘is God good?’ If we can say yes to that in our hearts, then the rest becomes secondary. And I don’t see how it’s possible for God *not* to be good and still to be God…

      Like

  6. Eng Hoe says:

    Hi, did you receive my email?

    Eng Hoe

    From: Eng Hoe [mailto:acts1322@gmail.com] Sent: Sunday, 13 April, 2014 4:30 PM To: ‘The Evangelical Liberal’ Subject: RE: [New post] Uncertainties, and what to do with them

    I’m not sure if my simply clicking on Reply will do, so if you do receive this email, I would be grateful if you can let me know.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like what you said. A positive kind of uncertainty.

    I think a large part of the problem in Christianity about truth is historical and cultural. We tend to think of truth only as cognitive. Why? I believe it is because most of Christianity in the world has been shaped by the West. The West was greatly influenced by the Romans who were influenced by the Greeks. To the Greeks, knowledge is only cognitive, or what we may call “head knowledge”. But to the Hebrews, and this is what the Bible tells us – a person does not really know something unless he lives it (1 Jn.2:3-6). Just as God can be known (ginosko – Jn.17:3) only from our hearts, we cannot know His Kingdom and everything that pertains to His kingdom except through our hearts. Although the mind is also involved to understand and process what it all means, yet the primary “organ” to know (ginosko) God is not the mind but the heart.

    A friend and his wife many years ago moved their whole family to another country in search of greener pastures. But instead of a better life, they went through many years of very trying times. He wrote a long email detailing what he and his wife had been going through. Many friends wrote back with the usual kind of things to try and encourage them. Years later he came back on a short trip to the land of his birth and met me and told me that none of what everyone else wrote helped them, but he brought out of his pocket a worn out paper printed with my email reply to him. He said my reply helped him and his wife in ways beyond what they could describe in words. I have attached “Dear J” here.

    Besides the point about truth going beyond the cognitive, there is something else that opened my eyes to a bigger picture that caused me to sit back and realize some of these questions that you asked (many of them I have been asking too) are unnecessary. Philip Yancey starts his book ‘Disappointment with God’ with 3 questions : Is God unfair? Is God silent? Is God hidden? I like what Philip Yancey wrote. It did not answer all my questions, but it started me on a quest to seek God to know Him beyond the trite and superficial answers offered in church. I would rephrase his questions with : Why is God unfair? Why is God silent? And why is God hidden? I am not offering the final answer to all questions, but I have attached something I wrote that I believe perhaps might help us step back to see a bigger picture .. and when we see that bigger picture, then perhaps some of these questions might not be so necessary anymore.

    Eng Hoe

    Like

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