Everyday Idolatry: Certain Proof

“Like anyone can even know that..” – Kip in Napoleon Dynamite

“For now we know in part…” -St. Paul

Temple in Chennai, India

Since I’ve been in ministry, a few times a year, I hear from a concerned parent or aunt or grandmother about how their young son or niece or whoever has stopped believing in God. They want to know what to say or how to get them to believe again.

I used to give them resources for apologetics, to give them evidence for faith.

I’m starting to think a better approach might be to show them what we don’t know.

Mystery as Apology

So Rob Bell wrote a new book this week. Until now, he’s written books for the church. This book he wrote for the world. But I think most Christians need to read it, not because you will agree with the answers he gives, but because he gives entirely new questions to ask.

And chances are they are the questions that your kid/friend/nephew are asking.

Bell starts off his book by tackling the certainty that both religious and non-religious people have. His first 30 pages are worth the price of the book. Bell does a brilliant job at helping us realize how big and intricate and complex our universe is.

And then he points out that this is just the part that we know about. There is a staggering 96% of the known universe that is dark matter. Which means we have no idea how to even study it. It’s impossible to comprehend the vastness of the 4% of the universe that we know even basic things about.

This week I had lunch with a professor who teaches Physics, and I was talking about how much of the universe is Dark Matter. And my professor friend told me that if scientist were to write down everything they knew on Dark matter, it would all fit neatly on one side of a 3×5 card.

And remember, that is 96% of the universe.

In Rob’s words:

“We simply aren’t the masters of the world that we’ve been told we are.”

Ever since the Enlightenment, Christians have been talking about God with the same language and tools that biologist and accountants have, but these tools have their own limits.

Dis-Enchantment

The brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking was interviewed recently and said,

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Notice what Hawking’s says and how he says it. His assumption is that we don’t live in a fairy tale. His assumption is that the world isn’t enchanted.

Which is so different from the way people used to look at the universe, we used to know what we didn’t know. Hawking’s sounds so certain.

But 96% of the Universe we don’t have the faintest idea about. demotivational-poster-doubt

One of the interesting things about the Middle Ages was that people were aware that their theories of how the universe works, were in fact, theories. A theory was valuable because it was helpful not because it was certainly true. And so their language was much more humble. Someone who was trying to describe the universe would say something like “Things appear to be this way.”

In fact, one of the main reasons that the scientists/priests were so against Galileo was not because of his whole “the earth revolves around the sun”, but because of the certainty in which he was saying so.

Now, I’m just as bothered by the next guy by the Midieval ages bad conceptions of God and Church and authority, but one of the things that I appreciate is their humility.

Because at least they knew what they didn’t know.

And what’s more is that this kind of empirical certainty is sucking away our soul.

In other words, does everything we know have to be proven the way that a scientist needs proof?

That she loves you?

That life matters?

That we should care about justice?

Evidence that Denies a Verdict

But this isn’t just a problem athiest’s and scientist’s have. Because we get frustrated with how certain the scientific method has made people, but Christians talk eerily the same way.

Think about the best-selling Christian books right now. “Heaven is for Real” or “Proof of Heaven” are consistently topping the bestseller list, and while I don’t mean to be critical, I think this is telling about the Christian sub-culture we live in.

We want proof. But if you can prove Heaven or God, it suddenly isn’t God you are talking about. Because it no longer requires faith.

Richard Beck has a fascinating post on why religious certainty draws crowds. We want to anchor ourselves in a mysterious world. And I understand why we do this, but at some point if we don’t acknowledge we could be wrong, we are dealing with something other than Faith.

On some level, no matter what language we use, we are all agnostics. Because nobody really has access to certain proof.

I’m not talking about conviction, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think on my better days I’d give my life for that. I’m talking about the lack of humility that recognizes how much we don’t know, and that we could in fact be wrong.

And don’t think we got this idea from the Bible or Christian tradition, we got it from the Enlightenment. In other words way we talk about God was shaped by the way we talked about science.

But this defies what it means to be human. It is to make ourselves into something more than human. Something like mini-gods. It is in word idolatry.

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is certainty.

But I could be wrong.

About jonathanstorment

My family and I love reading, traveling, daddy/daughter dates, playing hide and seek, good music, and long meals with friends. We still miss LOST, and all four of us have Superman uniforms. We are passionate about bringing Heaven to Earth and want to follow Jesus while repainting discipleship for those around us. We are followers of Jesus and I preach at the Highland Church of Christ. We participate in something called A Restoration Movement, and we've come to realize that might be larger than we thought.

41 thoughts on “Everyday Idolatry: Certain Proof

  1. Hebrews 11:1 NIV
    New International Version
    Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

    1. Thanks Peter. I remember having this conversation with another young adult about 5 years ago.

      He quoted that verse and he also is no longer a Christian. I think this is a dangerous verse to read though the lens of the enlightenment.

      I’m certain Leslie loves me but its a different kind of certainty.

      Hope that makes sense and hope you’re doing well Peter!

      1. I don’t follow. Certainty doesn’t have that many meanings in the dictionary…and to say the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but certainty…when the Bible includes certainty in its definition…I find that theology attractive (if it’s flawed in other ways), but I couldn’t remain honest and follow it, because I read my Bible. As long as we’re going off-script, why not go the whole way?

        1. I think certainty has changed meanings significantly since the Enlightenment and so it is important to remember Hebrews wasn’t written to a world that thought or spoke like we do.

          But probably the best definition of what Hebrews means by that is the whole chapter after that verse. The best definition is something like faith is hope that moves us to do something.

          1. But then it says: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”

            That’s faith as a fact — it doesn’t say that it moves us to do anything. And…”certainty” was the NIV’s word, not the original Greek word. I really don’t get it. I don’t. You’re saying “faith is not about certainty” and the Bible bluntly says that it is, in no uncertain terms, and…I dunno. It seems clear that you’re making up theology.

          2. Don’t get me wrong; I think doubt is good. But…this argument is a major trigger for me, as I’ve been accused of arrogance more times than I can count by people who have convictions about things (like god-man virgin rising from the dead to cleanse the world of sin after three days being stone-cold dead in a tomb) that seem fairly arrogant to me. It seems like you’re encouraging people to tell ex-Christians, “Stop being so arrogant.” It’s only fair to let you know that for myself (and many of my atheist/agnostic friends), that often does more harm than good, because from the outside the Christians seems to be convicted about far more things with far less proof, so their arrogance seems greater. I’ve run into this argument so many times as an ex-Christian that it’s a bit of a frustrating trigger for me.

            Sorry…I know I’m ranting, but this is one part of the whole deal I really care about. I’ll stop now. I mainly responded, I think, because you are advocating that people use this argument on people who are not Christian…

          3. How has the concept of certainty changed significantly since the Enlightenment? Please support your assertions with evidence.

            Also, the purpose of a good translation of the Bible is to take the ideas and concepts of the ancient texts and convert them to the language and culture of today. If a translation no longer does that, i.e. the word “certainty” in Hebrews, then that translation must be discarded, and no longer used, especially in the public worship/liturgy/ catechesis of the church.

          4. Monty, I am not sure where to start, because I don’t know who you are, and where you are asking this question from. But the Rob Bell book I am referring to is “What we Talk about When We Talk about God” and it might be helpful. For more in depth stuff, see N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God” Hope that helps!

        2. Certainty is a tricky concept. There
          are things about which I am certain and expect to continue in my certainty. There are things about which I was certain, but am no longer. And then, there is the certainty of God. The idea of God can be certain as long as you hold that real, existent things need not be proven by their mass, weight, measurement or their ability to be observed, poked or prodded. In other words: if you believe that empiricism and scientific method are not the only reality. The Scientific method involves hypothesis (not certain); experimentation and peer review of methods (not certain); theory (not certain); more
          experimentation, observation, and peer review and ultimately, PROOF (certain).

          In this sense, “the opposite of faith is certainty” because faith depends upon the element of uncertainty that is called hope. Faith cannot be measured or proven empirically and neither can God. Hebrews 11 is full of anecdotal evidence of faith in God that Christians believe is real – they may be “certain” of it…but only
          by faith.

          I am only saying that we do use the word “certain” in more than one way and even hear it differently in common usage.

          We are, in many ways, a rationalistic culture. Certainty dismisses the mystical and seeks to explain it and reproduce it by rational means. Faith seeks to embrace the mystical and interpret it through the lens of one’s’ system of belief.

          To say that faith is sure and certain in the context of Hebrews is to say, “I believe God is real.” I cannot touch his personal being, but he can touch me; I cannot see what he looks like, but he can see me. I can observe events as they unfold and believe they are the work of God and testify to that, but I cannot prove it empirically to those who critique my certitude. The person of faith acts on that certitude as Abraham did.

          Faith prays for healing and if healing comes, Faith is certain God did this. If healing is not granted, Faith seeks to understand what God is doing and the words, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Because Faith believes with certitude that God could have healed if
          he had so chosen.

          “Certainty” wants to understand the healing process so that it can be reproduced – “Certainty” stopped praying a long time ago. Prayer is not rational: it does not produce uniform results; it is not predictable or reproducible.

          To say that the, “opposite of faith is certainty,” I suppose, is meant to engage this rationalistic culture in a way that helps it to question its views as to what is certain and perhaps open a venue for it to believe that the spiritual is real in this physical world. And perhaps paradoxically to say that Faith can be more certain than all the unknowns of science.

  2. “God is God and I am not. I can only see a part of the picture He’s painting. God is God and I am man and I’ll never understand it all for only God is God.”
    -Steven Curtis Chapman

  3. Great post Jonathan

    I like to say that we’re all agnostic at some level. Faith is merely action in the midst of ones agnosticism.

  4. Jonathan,

    To a certain extent I agree. There is much we do not know. There is much, “about which I could be wrong.” However, I agree with Peter. What you are saying is contrary to Hebrews 11:1. I’m certainly not a Greek scholar, but the words υποστασισ (assurance) and ελεγχοσ (conviction), both seem to be words reflecting confidence based on evidence.

    I’m afraid the danger of this thought process is that we become apathetic. How can God expect us to “contend earnestly for the faith,” if there’s no way to even know for sure there is a God? How can we approach the throne of grace with “confidence,” if we aren’t confident a throne of grace even exists.

    Paul seems to say the evidence for God’s existence is so obvious, it leaves no room for doubt, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

    I realize I could be wrong about many things. I hope we can, as you say, maintain that humility. But, to say we are all agnostic is something with which I strongly disagree. “I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25).

    1. Thanks Wes! I think there is a tension here too. But I don’t want to try and talk about God or faith the way we talk about scientific empirical facts.

      It’s interesting that the Hebrew word for knowledge is also used to talk about a marriage relationship. i.e. “Adam knew Eve” In other words, what we are confident/know about God is a relational knowledge.

      Thanks for your comment Wes! Hope you’re doing well!

      1. But doesn’t empirical knowledge necessarily precede relational knowledge? Adam couldn’t have “known” his wife, if he doubted her existence. Don’t we need to be convinced, by the empirical evidence, of God’s existence before we have a relationship with Him?

        Granted, we will never know all there is to know about Him. His ways are certainly higher than our ways. But if I doubt His existence, I can’t very well “know” Him.

        Thanks for the good conversation and helping us to think these issues.

        1. So Wes – do you have empirical evidence of God? If so, I’m interested. I’m also interested in how one is required to have faith in something they can prove exists.

          1. Like I said, Romans 1 says that there is plenty of evidence in creation for man to be without excuse. Just because I am convinced by the evidence doesn’t negate my faith because I still have not seen God Himself (Hebrews 1). The greatest evidence for God is the Word and it is the source of faith (Rom. 10:17).

  5. You touched on this, and perhaps it was misunderstood: the communities of science already accept the reality of doubt, since certainty is the death of the curiosity inherent in the pursuit of facts to inform knowledge. Our faith in God is also centered on an essential fact: the historic fact of the cross and the birth of the Christ-centered community of disciples.

    1. Bob, that’s right. The ancient Christians talked about God in two ways. One, what we do know that he’s revealed, and two what we don’t know. The mystery of God is what I want to lean into here. But, yes, I agree, the best “evidence” for Christian faith, and the reason that I believe is the early Christian community that went around saying they’d seen the risen Jesus…even if it cost them their lives.

      1. There’s a quote I’ve saved on my FB page:

        “One of the reasons we can be pretty sure Jesus actually existed is that
        if He had not, the Church would never have invented Him. He stands so
        passionately, resolutely and inconveniently against everything an
        established church stands for. Continuity? Tradition? Christ had nothing
        to do with stability. He came to break up families, to smash routines,
        to cast aside the human superstructures, to teach abandonment of earthly
        concerns and a throwing of ourselves upon God’s mercy.”
        – Matthew Parris, The Spectator, Feb. 25, 2012

        (Mr. Parris, by the way, is a professed atheist.)

  6. Just a brief correction: Kip is not the Uncle in Napoleon Dynamite….that’s Rico. Kip is the brother. I really don’t care about that movie at all, but I’m sure somebody does…..

  7. Jonathan,

    I have always loved this quote from Stanley Hauerwas that I think American Christianity needs to wrestle with, and is perhaps relevant here:

    “Never think you need to protect God. Because any time that you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshiping an idol.”

    That. Cuts. Deep. into my own need for certainty, truth, and most importantly that I need badges of certainty and truth to take to battle against those who threaten my view of God.

    I have often wondered if it would be accurate to say that certainty and truth are/were the virtues of the Modern age of Christianity, and they somehow trumped the virtues of faith, hope and love. When you are shaped by faith, you follow Jesus boldly into unknown, dangerous and scary places in order to share his love and his hope. When you are shaped by certainty, you stand your ground, un-moving in order to trumpet his truth. Something like that…

  8. Thank you for this entry, Jonathan. I have been saying for quite some time, that science and faith have been speaking the same language all along – and are not quite as separate as even the most educated individuals proclaim the two worlds to be. I use “faith” instead of “religion” because much like the science is an institution that houses multiple disciplines, so is religion. You have eloquently written what I have been struggling to communicate, for years. As a student of medicine, and with it, a strong background in science, I noticed early on that science and faith are not separate entities. Not in the way we approach/view such matters, nor in the way we navigate them. The only certainty we have, is that there is much we’ve yet to learn and much more that we can’t know – and what we do know, could be wrong… the world is always changing, and what was truth then, is now entirely false…… Anyway, I always enjoy reading your work,

  9. Jonathan, I wrote a post yesterday called “When God Isn’t.” The truth is, sometimes God is nothing like we expect or imagine. And when you are suffering the hardest life has to offer and God is not fitting so neatly in your god box, then the real questions begin about His nature, etc. I think we have been guilty of idolatry by even having a box!

    1. Les, I’m sorry I’m just seeing this. Thanks for pointing this out to me, and thanks for your blog! I read a few posts and they are very powerful. I’ll be coming back often. Love your line about the idolatry of a box.

  10. I think you’re spot on, and it seems to me that our “certain proof” is more related to our idolatry of security than you mention here. As the enlightenment sought security and control of the world through empirical analysis and knowledge the church took notes. And this is where I think our gospel has, too often,jumped the track. In Barna’s most recent study, 35% of millennials stated that “Christians are too confident that they have all of the answers,” but that’s what we wanted isn’t it? We want to believe our gospel is the complete set of answers to the complete set of questions. That God wouldn’t abandon us to unkowning, confusion, insecurity…

    I don’t think many are buying what we’re selling though. We might make more headway if we were known as a people who handled unknowing well… I’d love to engage with you more about this either here or on my blog: http://www.emptyoration.com/2012/06/philosophy-theology/the-gospel-untruth-we-have-the-answers/ Or in person, if you’re into that sort of thing

    Blessings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *