As we were driving to dinner, I made some off-the-cuff remark to my wife that eventually became the dominant discussion of the evening. And most of the next day. No, it wasn’t something negative about her. How could I possibly? Shame on you. OK, yes, I have in the past spoken without thinking and hurt a person’s feelings. Maybe once or twice. But this was not one of those occasions. This was a fleeting observation I had hurriedly distilled into theory and was now foisting upon my dear wife.
“ A Christian is not nearly as certain as an atheist, for a Christian at least concedes that he may be wrong about the existence of God.”
And so the discussion began. Never one to give up on a theory without repeated reasonable attempts at defending it, I tried to explain. “An atheist clings to certainty. He is certain that there is no God. To admit that there might be is not to be an atheist.”
“But what is a Christian except a person who believes that there, in fact, is a God?” she countered. She had gotten quite good at rebutting my nonsense and forcing me to use something other than volume and tone to validate my statements. As the next 24 hours unfolded, there were other conversations and activities, other words being read and discussed, many trivial, some ideological. But at its end, here are some thoughts that rose to the surface—or maybe, more accurately, sank into our hearts.
Faith is an admission of mystery. The fact that faith has shown up at all on the scene means that much is unknown—perhaps unknowable, at least for now. And it also means doubt was lurking nearby. Faith is not called on when our senses have defined our reality. We don’t need faith to tell us that burnt toast tastes bad or that a fire is hot or that an elephant is larger than an ant. We have our senses for that. We need faith when the light is dim, when the horizon is foggy, when we are “seeing through a glass darkly.” We summon faith in our hearts at precisely the moments when our senses fail and uncertainty prevails. The presence of faith is in itself a confirmation of uncertainty.
The great contribution of faith is that it gives us sight. And often, faith produces in us a kind of certainty. The temptation is to run with that newfound certainty and pretend the mystery never existed in the first place. “Of course there is a God! How could there not be!” But we must always remember that it is faith that provides a sense of certainty, and not the other way around. Faith helps us take a step; it doesn’t make the ground more firm.
It’s easy and increasingly popular to swing to the other end and vilify faith and certainty as the genesis of genocide and global terrorism. After all, wasn’t Hitler acting on a certainty of faith that the Jews had to be eliminated? Aren’t the Ayatollahs teaching and encouraging terrorists with a doctrine of holy certainty that the infidels must die? Mark Buchanan, in Your God is Too Safe, leads a reader through these questions, explaining that neither doubt nor faith is inherently toxic. It’s the fusion of pride with either that makes a person go mad. A doubter proud of his earthy, street-wise cynicism is a fool with no hope of growing up. A man or woman of faith, whose pride in their faith has made them glib and callous is prone to mistakes—costly, dangerous, mistakes that will harm others and themselves.
So, a humble faith then is what is needed. A humble faith is one that has to be called on daily. It does not simply stand guard impervious of doubt. A humble faith is one that belongs to a person all too aware of doubt. As for my original claim that an atheist is the one guilty of strong certainty, I suppose it depends on which atheist you ask. (I am covertly admitting that I don’t really know. Don’t tell my wife.) But as for us, Christians, let us remember that we are people of humility and faith—which is another way of saying that we are people of mystery, people who are acquainted with uncertainty, familiar with doubt. We are people who understand that mystery is the context in which both faith and doubt thrive. And while we daily choose Faith, grabbing him by the collar, raising him to his feet, asking him to stand firm, we may, in the course of doing so, rub shoulders with Doubt. And there is our confirmation that we are in the right place.