“The mental illness called certainty” – Frank Schaeffer

The title of this post comes from a line of Frank Schaeffer’s book Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God. Schaeffer is an excellent writer, and the way he worded this line was fantastic. I somewhat understand his decision to describe religious certainty as an “illness.” If you and I had a theological conversation a few years ago when I was fresh out of a 77 hour MA program (transferring seminaries makes a program last longer) at a confessionally reformed seminary, you might have been tempted to consider me certainly ill (see what I did there). The reformed paradigm is so fine-tuned, so well articulated that there remains little room for awe, in my lonely opinion. I had such a well constructed theological box for God to reside it that I didn’t realize just how close-minded I had become. Thankfully, the Lord opened a door to teach high school seniors Bible and World Religions. Over the years in the classroom, I have consistently been shocked by the deeply theological questions I’ve been asked (whether the students realize it or not). Some of those questions have further entrenched me in my positions. Others, however, have broken the stranglehold of certainty.

Schaffer’s line comes in a larger paragraph in which he calls uncertainty “blessed.” I think I agree. Let’s be honest. We cannot know God. Yes, we can know what he has revealed about himself in Scripture, but to then saw know we know God would be an overstatement, right? How can what is finite know that which is infinite? To be finite is to be limited, numbered, measurable. To be infinite is to be limitless, innumerable and unmeasurable. One cannot know the other. Now, I might need to define knowledge here. To define it, allow a personal example.

I’ve been married almost seven years, but with my wife thirteen. Yet, I still do not know my wife. Now, I know a lot about her. I know her date of birth, where she went to high school and college. I know her favorite foods and movies. I know what her hobbies and interests are. But, there are plenty of things I do know know about her. I do not know what she is thinking right now, nor do I know her feelings on lots of issues. She often does and says things that I can’t quite fathom. See my point? There is uncertainty in our relationship. After all this time, we are still learning lots about each other. I don’t foresee a time when I’ll completely, certainly know her.

My wife and I share something. We share our humanness, our created creaturely status. In other words we are finite. My entire existence is utterly dependent. Yet, two finite beings who know each other rather well still have uncertainties about each other. God is infinite. Though I would say I’ve been walking with Christ for most my life, I would be hard pressed to say I know him. There are still questions I have about the faith. I’d be a liar if I said I did not have doubts. There are paradoxes in Scripture that make me uncomfortable precisely because I am not certain how they fit together. Certainty is illusory in the area of theology, only because the subject seems by definition infinite and unknowable.

Certainty is also problematic because certainty seems to lead to pride (or maybe only in my case). Fresh out of seminary with my enlarged library and litany of Scripture verses ready for any theological/philosophical talk I also cared around an ego. I was so certain of the theological doctrines hammered into our brains that “dissenters” should be sought out and argued down. I was so certain the confessionally reformed perspective was right…Wrong. The body of Christ is far, far larger than my rather small, and rather new reformed denomination. Centuries upon centuries have passed with varying perspectives on a whole slew of issues. Certainty bred pride, uncertainty is beginning to breed humility.

There are issues in the Christian faith with which I am less sure. I’ve been reading a fair bit of eschatology lately, and maybe I’m not at a place where I’m comfortable saying, “You know, I’m certain that Jesus will return. I’m just uncertain all its’ attendant details.” Not something you would’ve heard me say a few years ago (though, admittedly, there are perspectives that I’m more certain are not true). I’m not certain the earth and universe are as young as I once thought. As a matter of fact, there are more and more issues I’m becoming less and less certain on. This, I believe is a good thing.

Maybe Christians would do well to be less certain about peripheral matters. I know I was part of the problem, but I don’t want to be anymore. Maybe we should focus solely on the gospel, the good news that “Jesus died according to the Scriptures for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

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