The Arrogance of Unwarranted Certainty

Picking up where I left off yesterday, I want to consider further the first of three important truths I mentioned at the close of that post. There I noted that the older I get, the less certain I am about a lot of things, and I am not troubled by that. In fact, unwarranted certainty very often breeds arrogance, while honest doubt encourages humility and deepens faith.

I have a theory. It is not something I have read anywhere, at least not that I recall. It is the product of gut feeling and personal observation, not surveys or scientific testing of any kind. I may abandon it tomorrow, but for today, here it is.

People who grew up without religious affiliation, if they ever formally identify with some church or religious organization, do so on the basis of shared beliefs. That is, even if they are first attracted to a group for sociological reasons, they generally do not perceive and identify themselves as members of the group until they understand something of what the group believes and come to embrace some or all of those beliefs themselves.

On the other hand (and I’m still laying out my theory here), people seldom disassociate themselves from a religious affiliation simply because they decide to stop believing something. Either they encounter a new belief which displaces what they had previously believed, resulting in their identification with a different group more compatible with their new belief, or the social dimension that once bound them to a group of people with whom they shared common beliefs erodes, undermining their motivation to identify with the group. In that case, they don’t move on to a new affiliation. They join the ranks of the unaffiliated.

In some cases (perhaps many), their attraction to the group weakens because the group’s behavior, in whole or in part, fails to reflect the character and values of its beliefs. When that happens, disassociation from the group results in disillusionment with what the group supposedly believes and, in some cases, a rejection of those beliefs altogether.

To put it more succinctly, people identify with a group on the basis of belief. They un-identify with that group on the basis of experience. Bad experience often leads to skepticism about belief. Sometimes the skeptic can find his or her way back to some form of belief. Sometimes not.

That’s the end of my theory. It is also a summary of my story.

Seven years ago I lost my faith. Or at least I came as close to it as I ever want to. I came to the place where I could no longer reconcile a belief system based entirely on supernatural elements—incarnation, atonement, resurrection, the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of the bodies of believers, etc.—with a pattern of behavior among Christians, including me, that reflected no supernatural character at all.

I came to believe that my value to the Christian community was based on my perceived functionality. That is, I had value as long as I was of service. When I was no longer needed to serve, I no longer had value. I became lonely and resentful.

I grew weary of the fulminations and pontifications of Christian leaders and teachers, each more self-righteous and self-assured than the last, spouting truisms and platitudes with such confidence and certainty you would think they were Moses carrying the tablets down from Mt. Sinai.

Never mind that much of what one supremely confident teacher proclaimed could be blatantly refuted by another prominent teacher bearing a contradictory message with equal confidence and certitude. Never mind that claims of supernatural power and divine enlightenment were often superseded by reports of behavior inconsistent with belief, and sometimes embarrassingly so.

I came to the place where, like René Descartes in the seventeenth century, I decided to doubt everything. Everything. Even the existence of God. Even the idea of any ultimate purpose for the universe. Then, on a table swept bare of certainties and foregone conclusions, I laid out, as best I could, my presuppositions and assumptions—discarding those that seemed unreasonable, unworkable, or unnecessary—and began the arduous task of rebuilding my faith, or at least trying to determine if it could be rebuilt.

That was six years ago. For a time, the process of rebuilding faith coincided with my preparation for ordination in the Anglican Church. I worked my way through the catechism and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith in the Book of Common Prayer. I first participated in and then led the worship liturgy and the celebration of Holy Communion. Little by little I made my way back to a place where I felt comfortable identifying myself as a Christian once again.

Then, in late 2012, the Anglican superstructure of my faith collapsed, and I had to clear away the debris and examine the integrity of the foundation once again. The foundation is stable, I think, although the stones have been rearranged and a few have been discarded. I have started the process of rebuilding yet again. It is going faster this time I’m happy to say.

I’m not back to where I was ten years ago, before the walls caved in the first time. I never will be. Those walls collapsed because their foundation was unstable and they were too stiff and brittle to yield at all, even in the face of indisputable changes in my frame of reference and my experience of reality.

I hope to God I will never be as confident and certain as I once was of things that nobody—nobody!—knows with absolute certitude. For example, I know that many of you who read this believe you know exactly how the death of Jesus on the cross accomplishes salvation and brings about God’s forgiveness. But you don’t. You have your ideas, your atonement theories, and they may be helpful, at least to you. But nobody knows exactly how that works. Nobody. And it doesn’t hurt to admit that.

In fact, we ought to admit that we don’t understand that concept fully. It actually gives us more credibility with postmoderns and millennials. They recognize, more clearly than we boomers, that, in an age of quantum physics, there is just a whole lot that we used to think we understand, but we really don’t.

The foundation of my faith is a lot less massive in the rebuilding, and that’s okay. The superstructure is a lot less rigid and unyielding. In the absence of so much certainty and confidence, especially self-confidence and fear of the unknown, I find I can see more clearly what really matters.

One thing that really matters is my growing conviction that certainty very often breeds arrogance, while honest doubt encourages humility and deepens faith. That is important truth number one.

More anon.

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