The Case Against Certainty-Seeking Faith: Part 1

Paul McMullen —  February 3, 2017 — 3 Comments

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Last week, I introduced Gregory Boyd’s recent book Benefit of the Doubt in a post called Hitting the Faith Puck. This week I’ll continue interacting with Boyd as he presents his case against certainty-seeking faith.

In chapters 2-3 Boyd raises nine objections against certainty-seeking faith. I’ll share a brief description of each objection and make a few comments afterward in italics. I’ll have to split this one up into two posts. Just a head’s up: these reflections are more philosophic, psychological in nature. We will get to Scripture, just not yet.

The Case Against Certainty-Seeking Faith

  • Trying to convince ourselves of certainty, without pursuing further evidence for a belief, is irrational. We shouldn’t have to convince ourselves to believe in something more fully than the evidence warrants. Forcing “certainty” doesn’t work.

On the other hand, repetition of a certain belief (“I do believe, I do, I do, I do”) does seem to eventually convince. In recent times the case has convincingly been made that people who listen to one viewpoint for long enough become convinced it is correct (and are astonished that others could disagree!). But I agree with Boyd that this is not a preferred approach to greater certainty. Repetition does nothing to change the evidence we’ve encountered about a belief.

  • A certainty-seeking faith paints God in a bad light. God is basically allowing “bad things” to happen unless we can muster up enough certainty that God will give what we ask for when we pray (such as for someone’s healing).

Great point. But what about James 1:6-8 (ask without doubting)? As I look up these verses I realize there’s some difference as to how they’re best interpreted. Compare NIV, NLT, The Voice. Hmmm…, we’ll have to return to these verses in a future post.

  • Certainty-seeking faith looks a lot like magic. If the amount of our certainty is the key to getting God to do something on our behalf (even salvation), then we are engaging in a system or exchange where our behavior influences the spiritual realm (God, in this case) to respond in a way that benefits us. If we have enough faith, then we get a healing. If you say the magic words, then the door opens.

Once again, Boyd makes a good point. Certainty-seeking faith puts the ball in our court to get God to respond, same as magic. But so many Bible verses do seem to say this. Jesus’ miracles are often attributed to the faith of the recipient, or a person connected to the recipient. So what’s missing here? The Kingdom of God is accessed by faith. But what kind of faith?

  • Certainty-seeking faith leads to inflexibility. We teach our kids to believe in a fixed set of eternal truths. When they go out into the world and are confronted with new ideas, their old set of beliefs aren’t flexible enough to deal with the new. They feel the choice is between the old and new, rather than being able to adjust the old with the new.

Well, I suppose I and many others are a case-in-point. At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of adjusting beliefs with new experiences. On a macro-level, I don’t trust the popular train of thought (zeitgeist) from one generation to the next. Why trust what culture says is true? They’ll say something different tomorrow. And why should I trust my own interpretation of new experiences? Why can’t we receive the Story that’s come down to us through the ages and let it interpret our experiences? I know that’s overly simplistic, but it feels arrogant to suggest that each new generation and person can determine truth and reality out of their own experiences and interpretations.

“We are neurologically wired to feel good when our beliefs are reinforced and to feel pain when our beliefs are challenged.”

  • Certainty-seeking faith creates a phobia for learning new things. We are neurologically wired to feel good when our beliefs are reinforced and to feel pain (at some level) when our beliefs are challenged. The stronger the belief, the stronger the discomfort when that belief is challenged. Boyd believes this explains both the current cultural phenomenon among conservative Christians in the U.S., as well as religious warfare in the past.

Yes, yes, yes. I’ve felt this on many occasions. And I’m guessing if you’re reading this blog you probably have as well. Thus, the desire for certainty.

  • It is hypocritical in that it asks unbelievers and those of other faiths to doubt their own beliefs, but it claims doubt-free belief as a virtue for Christians. (Conversion would necessarily imply doubt of previous beliefs.) Rather, both believers and unbelievers should question their beliefs. Boyd adds that he doesn’t support agnosticism, which fails to commit to any belief. The failure to commit to a spiritual belief is itself a commitment (i.e., one puts their faith in uncommitted unknowing).

This was a new thought for me. There is hypocrisy in asking others to do what I am not willing to do.

Those are Boyd’s first 6 objections. We’ll explore objections 7-9 in Part 2.

As you can tell, I think Boyd makes some excellent points. But I feel an impulse to push back on some of what he’s saying. How do you feel about these objections? Which resonate with you? Which do you want to challenge?

Paul McMullen

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I've worked with new churches and church plants since 2005. I enjoy writing, teaching, and small group conversations.

3 responses to The Case Against Certainty-Seeking Faith: Part 1

  1. 

    Would it be wrong to say I agree with you? ;>)

  2. 

    Consider with me that when watching many kinds of movies it requires suspended disbelief. Watching Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings and others like that the rational mind is dormant. Also when watching movies that have lots of gunfights, explosions and vehicle wrecks those are unrealistic too. It takes the right brain imagination to engage with these and the same is true for similar books.

    There have been times when I could hardly pray because my rational thinking kept censoring my prayers. Afterall God knows all about this, so I do not need to inform God. God is powerful and knows what His will is for this matter for me or another person. That is like pressing on the brakes while also pressing on the accelerator. It does not lead to forward progress. When that happens I need to stop, take a break and come back to it. Most times I will request others to pray about it because they will have faith where I was stuck.

    Then there are other times when praying is smooth, gracious and flowing. I am coming from a place in my heart of fellowship with God. I am coming as a son to a Father or a friend to a Friend.

    When I am in a healthy place spiritually I come from the core concepts of Christianity. I have been adopted into God’s forever family. Thanks to the completed work of Christ on the Cross I have access to God my Father. He is a real entity and not a theological construct. He knows what is best for me and others. He has all wisdom. He wants what is best in the long run for me and others.

    There has been mention in these blog posts of God not answering prayers for healing. That reminds me of dozens of instances in my past. I have been a follower of Jesus Christ for the last 40 of my 63 years. During the first 25 years I was a member of charismatic churches. I have experienced many healing in my body due to answered prayers.

    I interviewed a woman in my small group that was sent home to die of a blood condition they could not treat. As a last effort she when to the church for prayer like she had many times before. That time she was totally and completely healed. The doctors could not explain it. Her husband told me how that transformed their lives.

    I have read stories of missionaries that witnessed healing due to answered prayers. There are 2 small books that are packed with such testimonies by Jim Cymbala titled Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire and Fresh Faith. There are testimonies of healings due to answered prayers on Facebook and Youtube. I will grant you that some of those are not real but all of them are not fakes.

    Remembering such testimonies has greatly strengthened my faith. Also coming to the Bible with a humble attitude and teachable spirit is essential to shut off the skeptical part of my brain.

    • 

      Thanks for the comments John. If we are willing to wrestle with the reality of “unanswered” prayers, we should also be willing to wrestle with the reality of answered prayers. There are so many stories of answered prayer, sometimes in miraculous fashion. It takes tremendous faith in God’s nonexistence or non-intervention to doubt all of those stories as fabrications or coincidence.

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