Belief and Uncertainty

“How can I be sure?” is a commonly asked question that’s found its way into a popular song that has been a hit at least twice that I remember. The answer is, of course, that we can’t, about most things. We can be reasonable sure of many things, but certainty is often hard to come by.

This often is hard for Christians to deal with, as there seems to be a certain expectation in evangelical circles, at least, that one should be sure of their faith. I recall a book we read when I was in Bible school called Know What You Believe. I honestly don’t recall anything about the book, but I do recall thinking the title was a bit odd, coming as I did from a non-evangelical background (I was Lutheran, which thinks of evangelicalism differently).

The Certain Ones

Since then I have run across a few groups who claim certainty in what they believe. Calvinists, for one, seem pretty sure of their doctrine and will argue it at the drop of a hat. Many dispensationalist groups are similar in their convictions, as they cut and paste Bible verses to make them tell their stories. Then, of course, there are various cults, which I won’t bother to spend time with. To me, anyone who claims to be certain about their particular doctrine is waving a big red warning flag.

Faith (not Certainty)

I’m not talking about blind faith (which is a cultic certainty), but real faith. Kierkegaard famously talked about a “leap to faith,” which I find quite helpful. When looking at the evidence for anything, whether Biblical, scientific, experiential, and so forth, it will only take you so far, then you have to decide whether you have enough information to make an informed decision to believe in something. Is this path safe to walk on? Is this house a good investment? Should I marry this person?

When You Don’t Have the Answers

There will always be questions for which you don’t have answers, and you have to be okay with that. Christianity is full of these questions. What happens when we die? I don’t know. Will everyone be saved? I hope and think so, but I can’t be sure.

On the spectrum of belief, I am in many places on many different subjects. I believe more firmly in somethings than others. As I learn more, my beliefs change, and I move around on the spectrum. I am okay with that. I am reasonably sure about the basics: God loves me, and has my life in his hands, metaphorically speaking. Personally, I have enough to have made that leap, and I’m fine with being in the gray areas on many other unessential things.

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Embracing Uncertainty

I have a weather app on my phone that tells me things like, “Rain ending in 13 minutes.” and I get frustrated when it’s inaccurate. I realize that it’s a best guess based on known conditions, but still, I like certainty, especially when I’m planning a trip to the store.

We all like certainty. It may be a factor of modernity. We’re used to scientific precision–watches that tell perfect time, cars that start when you push the button or turn the key, lights that always come on when you flip the switch, and so on. We like mathematics. 2+2 always equals 4. Hydrogen and the right amount of oxygen always makes water. Gravity is (more or less) constant.

We can deal with a certain amount of uncertainty–in things like sporting matches, for example. This relatively inconsequential uncertainty adds a bit of excitement to the rest of our hopefully predictable lives. But for the most part, we do what we can do reduce risk. We have health insurance, car insurance, home insurance, and even life insurance, in an attempt to minimize the downside of uncertainty.

Embracing Uncertainty

Regardless of our attempts, there is no way to avoid uncertainty. Uncertainty is a fact of life. We have no control over so many factors that impact us on a daily basis. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. Life is unpredictable, and everything about it is uncertain.

That being the case, it makes sense to embrace this concept of uncertainty as best we can. Does that mean that we have to like uncertainty? Absolutely not. I didn’t call this post “the joy of uncertainty.” However, I think we at least need to make peace with it. Take each day as it comes, making something of each opportunity. Notice I didn’t say “making the best…” I am not unrealistic. I believe in having reasonable goals, and always making the bast of surprises just sets you up for failure. Just realize that a surprise—an uncertainty—is likely something you didn’t plan for, so you do what you can and learn from your experience. Sometimes just picking yourself up and moving on is the best you can do, and sometimes you even need a bit of help. Be fine with that.

Next: Uncertainty and belief

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Fear of Wonder

“Wonder,” I think, always carries with it a sense of questioning. How can you look at anything with wonder, and not be filled with questions? How? What? Why? Who? When? We have all used “wonderful” to describe something we’ve experienced that we thought was great. But is that all? Something wonderful is something beyond our normal experience or expectations. It should invite us to ask what made it so? Why was it beyond ordinary? If you don’t have any questions about something–no sense of wonder about it–can it truly be described as wonderful?

The Fear of Wonder

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to God. As God can certainly be described as wonderful, the process of considering God should invite questions. However, it seems that much of modern Christianity is about having a belief in certainty: That what we know and what we believe is solid and firm, removing any room for doubt or questioning. We can sing about our wonderful God and his wonderful works, but our framework–our theological boxes–prevents any real sense of wonder.

I believe that our boxes limit our view of God, so that our mental picture of God is something less than wonder. We know this God. We’re comfortable with him. I wonder, are we doing God a disservice by not wondering? Are we missing that part of God that invites wonder and questioning? Do we, in fact, limit our ability to glimpse into that sense of wonder that reveals more of God than our little theological boxes can handle?

God is bigger than our boxes

I firmly believe that God is able to handle our wonder, our questioning, and yes, even our doubt. We should not have to fear that God is somehow not capable of dealing with the “realities” of our modern lives, that questions of science and philosophy and history are too much for God. Our theological box might be too small, but God isn’t. Perhaps it’s time to move outside the box and discover a bigger God.

To see God as truly wonderful is to wonder, and we should not be fearful of seeing God as God.

For more on this topic and more, look for my book Unboxing God–An Unevangelical Guide to Christianity, due out this fall from W. Brand Publishing.

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The Pre-Gospel

The first inkling we have that something big is coming down—the pre-gospel, if you will—comes from some angels, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. First, an angel called Gabriel appears to a young girl named Mary, and gives her some startling news. She is to become miraculously pregnant with a boy she is to name Jesus.

32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-34)

Okay, so this is pretty major. But wait, there’s more:

 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[d] will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

I’ve always wondered about the qualification “he will be called son of God.” Does that mean that he really isn’t, he’s just called that? In thinking about this, it occurs to me that he is not the son of God in a human, genetic way. But, “son” is probably the best way to understand it. He will be holy (meaning “set apart”), but also he will have the actual nature of God. We know that later on, Jesus often referred to himself as the “son of man,” which was an Old Testament reference to the coming Messiah; in incarnational terms, he was God who was human-born. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

So first, Mary is told he will be the king of Israel and that he will reign forever. Then on top of that, he will be recognized as being the son of God. Of course, it’s doubtful that Mary grasped all of that at the time, but I’m sure she understood that this was a big, Godly deal. I mean, just the angel appearing indicated that much. 

Looking back from our modern-day perspective, we can notice a couple of things. First, we have the aforementioned “son of God” title. It means something specific to us today, but didn’t necessarily have the same understanding at the time. The next thing we notice is the reference to Jesus’s eternal reign of the throne of David. While we now can seen this referred to Jesus’s personal eternal reign, at the time it was probably understood to reference the reign of the lineage of Jesus, whether literally or metaphorically. The Jews of that time were no stranger to spiritualizing prophecies to make them fit their current realities.

Either way you choose to look at it, this is certainly “good news” that more good news is on its way.

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