Friday, June 19, 2009

Faith vs Certainty

One of the things refreshing about not being pastor now is that the temptation is presently far less to fake strong faith just because people are looking to you (paying you) to possess it. Faith can ebb and flow for spiritual leaders (just like anyone else), but there really can be a perceived lack of freedom to show it. Therefore, the temptation can be to project stronger faith than you actually have. This may seem hypocritical, but it's part of the human experience, especially when among your duties are to be the exemplar of faith to those around you.

However, upon further reflection, I am coming to realize that this would be less of a problem if it was faith that people actually wanted to glean from their leaders. Instead, what is implicitly sought is certainty, rather than faith. Faith is the middle ground between certainty on the far right side and doubt on the far left. Both make concrete assertions about what cannot be known. Faith, it would seem, makes fewer assertions with the same level of zeal. Instead, faith trusts in He who is, rather than making dogmatic claims about what He does. Faith may develop parameters of what can reliably be trusted (such as the revealed Word of God or the summary formulations of the ancient Christian creeds), but it still holds a place for the unknown, for mystery.

Certainty is an incipient discontent with what cannot be known. That's all that certainty often seeks to know. In a sense, certainty can, at times, take on the character of distrust, because it becomes fixated on what has not been revealed. An example may help, though examples have their limits:

I trust my wife to remain faithful in marital fidelity. I cannot be certain of this because I do not remain with her every waking moment of every day. She is often away from home without me. Likewise, I am often away from home when she is at home alone. I trust that no other relationship with another man is being, or has been developed, in those times of my absence. To be certain of this, I would need to be with her all of the time. Then I could verify it myself. However, this would demonstrate an alarming lack of trust. Stories abound about controlling spouses who fret over the fidelity of their mates during times apart, and thus seek to minimize times when the partner is out of their sight. This quest for certainty betrays a lack of trust, or faith, in the one who has pledged faithfulness.

As I consider how this template applies to my relationship to God, I realize that a dynamic and healthy relationship must be willing to entertain faith that does not require certainty.

And yet so many assertions are made in popular Christianity (insidiously rampant in Evangelicalism) that seem certain about things never promised in Holy Scripture, considered concrete by ancient fathers or common to all believers worldwide. It is a strange thing to begin developing faith that can shed levels of certainty comfortably, yet that is precisely the journey I am on. For this reason some might consider that I am developing weaker faith. I would instead contend that faith is not faith unless it's faith. That which is certain need not be trusted. As a result, I may trust in the One who sees my affliction, but can make no assertions of certainty regarding any response of his to that affliction. My faith is in He who saves me from the punishment of sin, but no certainty can be entertained about salvation from want, from disappointment or from jobless poverty.

Where this brings me is: I want to say that I trust God for a job, that he will take care of us, but I really don't know what that means. My "faith" is turning into faith (as opposed to certainty). Some will attempt to be comforting by making assertions of certainty such as, "God has something in store for you," or "God is in control," or my personal favorite, "God will provide...because he has a wonderful plan for you." These assertions are meant to be comforting by sounding so certain. However, they are not comforting because I realize that they are most often predicated on assumptions that Scripture and the Fathers never teach.

Someone might say, "I will pray for you." This used to sound like just more popular religious drivel, but now I consider it a better response of faith. To the one who says, "God has something planned for you," I want to say (but often am too polite to), "You have no way of knowing that. I know you're trying to be comforting, but you totally made that up." However, to the one who says, "I will pray for you to find something soon," I want to say (but will likely just say "thank you"), "You mean to say that you will take time away from your routine to appeal to the Lord of Lords on my behalf? You would bend his ear for my benefit? Although we cannot define with certainty how he chooses to interact with our lives, or provide for us when he does, you would appeal to him anyway to intercede in my situation? I'm touched and grateful."

I'm still not sure what new levels of certainty I'll have to shed as part of my faith development, but I doubt it will be comfortable. In the end though, better to have faith in the One that I know, than be certain about things that I don't.

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