As a kid, I sometimes wondered if heaven existed. Since I couldn’t see anything, did it really exist? I don’t know if there were other nine-year-olds who were having existential thoughts, but I was. How do we believe something we can’t see?
But then there were those moments when something would happen that gave me a sign, a signal that God is alive. One of the reasons I never left the church or ditched God as I was coming out, was because of an experience where I felt that God was present. It was a moment when I felt the love of God. I told God of my attraction to men and that sense of love stayed constant. It was a sign that no matter how cool I was about being gay, God loved me and always would. That Saturday morning in 1992 was a moment of certainty- that God loved me no matter what.
I was listening to NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered a few days ago and heard the host interview Ryan Bell. Bell, a former Adventist minister, made news because he was going to live a year without God. In essence he was going to “try on” atheism. Ryan shared what he had learned over the past year. To no one’s surprise, he has come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. The part of the interview that was the most interesting is when he talked about Christianity and certainty. Here it is:
One of his biggest lessons from the year is “that people very much value certainty and knowing and are uncomfortable saying that they don’t know.”
Now he thinks certainty is a bit overrated.
That’s made me wonder: is certainty all bad? Well, there’s certainty and then there’s certainty. I beginning to think it isn’t always so bad. In fact faith has to have some sense of certainty for it to be effective.
Now a lot of progressive Christians I know glommed on to Bell’s characterization of certainty. But I don’t think certainty has to always mean blind faith in something or that questions are no longer allowed. I have certainty that God loves me. I have placed trust in a God that I believe loves me. I am certain of that. I think where a lot of people confuse certainty is when people say they are certain God created the earth in six 24-hour days or that God doesn’t like gays or something like that. There are those folk who think that belief means never questioning anything and turning your brain off. But that kind of certainty is hubris, dumb hubris. Totally dumb-ass hubris. It’s the kind of hubris I saw from some conservative Christians back in the day.
The certainty that I’m talking about is more in line with the Greek word Πίστις which means faith, trust or confidence. It means that I have confidence in God even though I might have questions. I have trust God even when I don’t know what the next step is. The problem I have with Bell and some progressive Christians isn’t that they doubt, everyone does that now and then, it’s that they make doubt the central part of their faith (or lack thereof) life. Instead of seeing doubt as part of faith, it is something that is celebrated, something that shows that this or that person is a “thinking person.”
To which I respectfully call bullshit.
Back in 2009, blogger Daniel Larison wrote about faith and doubt. Writing at the American Conservative, Larison responds to a recent speech by President Obama at Nortre Dame University that talked about doubt. Here is what he had to say about doubt and faith:
Everyone is stricken with doubt at times, but it has to be understood that doubt, like an illness, is something from which one may suffer but which is something that needs to be remedied rather than perpetuated or celebrated. Physical illness can have a humbling effect, but a proper understanding of theological anthropology tells us that illness, like death, is part of our fallen state. Doubt is a function of a mind clouded by the passions–it is the result of confusion. It does not teach us anything, but rather prevents us from learning. It is important to see the difference between doubt and apophatic theology: one is the function of human confusion, the other is the necessary recognition of the unknowability of God in His essence. Obama misleadingly lumps the two together. As Obama would have it, because we cannot know God in Himself and cannot always understand what He wills for us we must therefore abandon all claims of certainty, even when these are founded in what God has told and revealed to us about Himself. Obama said, “It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what he asks of us,” but only for the first part of this is true. What God asks of us is well-known. In the Psalms, for example, He tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.” He has not said, “Be ironically detached and suppose that I might very well be God, depending on how the mood strikes you.” We hide behind doubt and any number of other convenient shields to protect our little selfish empires from the demands that we know God makes of us. He has said, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul and all thy mind and all thy strength.” What He asks of us is quite clear. Indeed, if there is anything we can say that we know with certainty, it is this.
While I tend to think doubt can have a more positive role, Larison is spot-on. Too much doubt or being stuck in doubt prevents people from learning. I think it can lead to a kind of know-nothingism. And as Larison notes, our celebrations of doubt protect us from having to hear what God might have to say to us, what God can demand from us.
I know that Bell was upset with how the church treated LGBT folk. As an out gay man, I get that. But as my experience shows, you don’t have to give up God when people don’t like you. You can be open to a God that loves you and the outcasts.
In the end, I don’t think Bell really explored who God is, along with what the world is like without God. My guess is that Bell pretty much knew his answer long before he started on his journey. I am sorry and upset that people can cause someone to question their faith, but I also think we need to let the journey speak to us (which could have come to the same conclusion). And we need to know that there is certainty and there is the certainty that places trust in God even when the questions come fast and furious.