Our culture radically fluctuates in its certainty. On the one hand, science means certainty. “Science says…” ought to end all debate, whatever the topic. A peek into public discourse would reveal high levels of confidence on certain moral and political matters. Few appear to be neutral about abortion, for example, and the crusading spirit of party politics evident in countless protests, newsrooms, debates, and comment sections is fed not by wavering doubt but by righteous certainty.
On the other hand, skepticism, doubt, and agnosticism make themselves equally apparent. We see this in the rise of those who are seeking a spiritual home without feeling that any established tradition holds authority and in the crisis of personal identity and ultimate meaning that has led to such drastic and disheartening plunges into depression and suicide.
Some have lost faith in any moral or political system, attempting to live with an open hand, only accepting that which feels good and true in the moment.
Why such certainty in regards to the scientific? Why ambivalence towards the moral and political? Why even greater lack of certainty in aesthetic, spiritual, and metaphysical realities?
In short, because reason has divorced faith. A happy marriage once existed, but reason began to view faith less like a complimentary partner, which together produced and nurtured knowledge and certainty, and more like a youthful fling that had fizzled out. Reason matured; faith remained young and naive.
For many people, that which can be proved by reason (and/or with its new partner experience) leads to true knowledge and thus to certainty. If, for example, you precede your assertions with “studies show” or “in my experience,” that is often taken as “the following must be the case.” Appeals to either often prove to be persuadable proofs in the minds of many, real confirmations of the truth. Faith no longer leads to knowledge but to mere belief — or weaker yet: personal opinion. To take something on faith is to be unreasonable or unscientific, to remain unenlightened. It is no accident that philosophers of the 18th century who emphasized rational inquiry as the means to knowledge, repudiating faith and traditional authority, called their own time the Enlightenment (or similar words in other languages: Aufklärung, le Siècle des Lumières, L’Illuminismo). Faith was the crutch of religion which the new way of thinking rendered unnecessary.
But what can actually be proved by reason or experience? Much less than we suppose in reality. Take the sciences for example. We must not neglect all that the sciences have helped us understand about our world. Yet, how often has one scientific paradigm been replaced by another? If entire ways of thinkings have been revolutionized over time, what makes us so certain that today’s scientific ways of thinking will not soon be replaced? Any system created by a finite, imperfect being will itself be finite and imperfect. Our scientific reasoning cannot bring certainty to our understanding in nature, even less to our understanding of society or politics or morality. While scientific inquiry can give us insight into how the world currently works with relatively high degrees of accuracy, it cannot describe it perfectly, nor can it tell us how things ought to be.
Take experience as another means of certainty. Our sense perception is often tricked. Our mind misremembers events. What makes me so certain that things as I have perceived them are the ways those things are in reality?
Reason and experience have failed to answer the questions for which we most deeply desire certainty. Actually, not just for the questions we desire — for those we most desperately require to live full, satisfied lives. Because again, whatever derives from within a broken system cannot but in some sense be flawed. This has led some to abandon certainty altogether. All of life, they assert, swims in doubt and darkness. But who walks through all of life as though absolutely nothing is certain? Nobody! If they truly believed that, they would necessarily doubt their own doubtfulness, and then where would they be? Back at certainty?
In practice, faith — what we could also name personal commitment — rests at the root of all of the truths we hold most confidently. We trust that we exist. We trust that others exists too and are not robots or figments of our imagination. We trust that the cosmos runs according to some logic. We trust that the world can be made better. Or at least we trust that a better place might await us after this one. We trust that the authorities or experts have done their due diligence and can offer true guidance.
We need a remarriage of faith and reason. Faith gives us the framework within which reason can most effectively work. As theologian Herman Bavinck noted, faith is our source of knowledge — that which grounds and originates knowledge — and reason is the organ of knowledge — that which furthers and deepens our convictions. To see faith as less than that is to open oneself to a life of wavering doubt or false certainty. And to be opened to that sort of life is to any sense of ultimate comfort or hope or peace.
Now, when we see the plurality of faith systems that all claim certainty — and thus hope and peace, the temptation arises to throw our hands up in surrender again and sink back into doubt. Since we know faith is necessary, however, we would do better ask questions of the faiths: What is its source? What grounds us in it? What is its object? Which has the power to transforms hearts and minds? The faith that can sufficiently satisfy these questions has already been alluded to: the one that has originated outside this broken world, can root us and grow us by its own power (i.e., not creaturely power), and has as its object something beyond our fallible nature. That faith is the true faith which will provide the certainty our soul desperately longs for.
And that faith, I confidently believe, is the Christian faith. For as Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, claimed in Romans 11:36, “For from [God] and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” He grants faith even to the simple and neglected, grounds us by the work of his own Spirit through his Word revealed in the Bible, and draws us towards his grace freely given in Jesus’ sacrificial death, which atoned for, pardoned, forgave us from all our corruption, brokenness, and failings. I could not imagine a faith with greater structural integrity upon which to find certainty and rest.
Having earned degrees from Southern Methodist University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Michael attempts to pass on what he has learned by teaching world and church history and apologetics. If he had to read theology and classic fiction for the rest of his life, though, he wouldn’t be sad about it. Michael loves his beautiful wife, Micaela.