Certainty and Unknowing

           I really do not like conflict. When I am with a group of people I am not one to create an “us-vs-them” reality. We already have enough dualisms, dichotomies, and arch-rivals in the world. Batman and the Joker, Red Socks and Yankees, Republicans and Democrats, Baptists and themselves all seem to thrive and derive energy from a dichotomous tension. Sometimes that tension is real and sometimes it is fabricated and forced. Always, in such a tension and adversarial relationship, there is stress, conflict, and an attitude of winning and beating, and defeating the other. This is not fun for those of us who like the idea of everyone winning and desires to give awards to everyone for participation. Being a touchy-feely liberal type, I would prefer to avoid such competitiveness and feel that we don’t need another dichotomy in the world but instead need more community handholding, celebration, group singing, and hugs. Yet with all that said, I am going to offer a dichotomy. This is one that is found in various realms of experience (theological, sociological, philosophical, political, and more) that I have encountered in my journeys and studies. Being a theologian I will look at that experience of the dichotomy, but understand that it spans much (perhaps this is the beginning of my long and dry systematics that no one will ever read). This is a dichotomy that I find in what can be seen as a theology of certainty to be held up against a theology of “what if?” Or, for those who desire a symmetry, a theology of certainty and a theology of uncertainty.

            A theology of certainty is one that holds to the sure, the known, and the reliable. It is a theology that looks to the doctrines and statements of faith that one can stake their life upon and grasps to those assurances tightly without considering the possibility of ever letting go. There are truisms that we can state and know and stand upon without question or hesitation. God exists. The Bible is good. We should not hurt each other (maybe). Ice cream is great (always). Not only is it a theology of claiming an unquestioningly solid doctrine, but a theology founded upon a bold methodology. It is the approach to doing theology, an approach to knowing and being sure that is found in this certainty. If you know something as a certainty, then you hold to it. You do not waver, you do not question, and you never budge no matter what you may hear or face. I have no doubt that as you read this you already have images in your mind of moments when such an approach of certainty and strong assurance was practiced by various groups of Christians and the negative results that it produced. Galileo looked at the stars for a very long time and decided that perhaps we may be living in a solar system where the sun is the center, not the earth, and all things resolved around the sun. Such a thought went against the tightly held science and teaching of the Catholic Church at the time, and the Catholic Church held power. In the action of silencing Galileo we see the Roman Catholic Church practicing a theology of certainty. They were certain that the earth was at the center of the universe, they were certain that God would have humanity at the center of all creation as the Bible suggested. The powers of the Roman Catholic Church at the time were certain that they were right and thus acted out of the theology of certainty, silencing Galileo and condemning his writings and teachings. It is a tight hold to assurance and certainty (along with much more but we are going to avoid nuance for the sake of brevity).

            Moving to the more recent era, we see a theology of certainty practiced by those who are a part of the Petersburg, Kentucky Creation Museum. This Museum was built and is supported by Christians who hold to a “Young Earth” view of creation (that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old based on scripture). Those who work at and advocate the teachings of the Museum embrace a certainty that everything in the Bible is literally true (except those parts like giving to the poor and only having what you need and anything else that is not convenient) and thus the earth can only be 6,000 years old because that is what the Bible says. These believers hold that science can be and often is misleading, except when it represents their own position. The displays and content of the Creation Museum teaches that humans and dinosaurs lived side by side and that the theory of evolution can and should be disputed. These Young Earth creationists are so certain about what they believe that they will counter every other scientist, every shred of evidence, every other theory that may suggest that perhaps the Young Earth view of creation (and thus scripture) might be wrong and will not listen to other possibilities of God’s presence and action in creation. This is a theology of certainty.

            As you can see, a theology of certainty is not so much a question of what you believe (although those who practice such a theology are very sure and steadfast about what they believe) but about how you believe it. Let me say that again. It is not so much what you believe, but how you believe it that is at stake in a theology of certainty. It is more a method of theology than a content of theology. It is what we have seen when we have witnessed Christians supporting slavery, supporting homophobia, standing against other faith traditions and cultures, speaking against care of the earth, advocating an economics of capitalism, and staying closed to any possibility of question and of change in one’s approach and faith. While it is good to have a foundation of faith to stand upon, a theology of certainty that takes such an unbending approach has caused much harm on the part of religion and faith. And, tragically is a theology that is practiced by many.

            Perhaps this is a claim against faith that you have heard before from those who distant themselves from religious communities. Perhaps it is a critique of religion that you have made and is what keeps you from making bold commitments to belief. Even as I have just railed against a theology of certainty, we need to be cautious in our critique. Often times it seems that it is the arrogant, educated, stuffed shirt know-it-all who looks at those poor saps who are praying to something that they have never seen, putting their faith in a book that has been edited, changed, and misused again and again with a blind certainty and claim with an air of superiority that it is a good thing that he does not hold to that theology of certainty or any faith at all. He claims that he is happy that he is still grounded in reality and has an open mind to science and progress.

            First, don’t be that guy. No one likes the superior stuffed shirt (says the person with a blog titled, Theological Snob). Second, I would argue that it is very likely that those who pull themselves out of the realm of faith with absolute certainty in their disbelief, who remove themselves from the pews with such an air of superiority, exist in their own theology, or philosophy for that matter, of certainty.

            What we see in other realms of society is not so much an unwavering faith in religion, but a faith placed in science and progress without questioning and wondering. It is a faith that says that we must learn and investigate and increase our stake in not just understanding but controlling creation. Some of those who laid the groundwork for the discovery and development of the Atom Bomb did not stop and wonder what the implications of such destruction might be (others did, but again, we are looking for brevity over nuance). We had the knowledge and we believed that we needed to use it. The introduction of the automobile into culture offered the possibility for families to live in sprawling neighborhoods, to spread out, to distance themselves from the center of towns, from hubs of activity and from each other and many walked straight into the suburbs without a thought or a wonder or a question believing that there would be no trade-off found in suburban sprawl. What could we lose from the growth of manicured lawns, the factory-style grocery stores, and being surrounded by people who look just like we do?

            Technology is developing in leaps and bounds and there are movements of education that pushes to place that technology into the hands of children as quickly as possible because without question or doubt, progress and technology is good. Make them learn on laptops, offer them the opportunity to learn online, give them tablets for reading and note taking. It seems like an almost blind faith placed in progress, in the new and bright and shiny thing with no question of what might be lost. It is a philosophy/theology of certainty placed in progress. Throw away your records and your eight tracks and your cassette tapes and your CD because everything can now be downloaded but never seen. Discard your books because now all words will be illuminated and electronic but never touched. Do not work on your social skills, on your “good morning” and “thank you” because all social interaction will now be through websites, posts and short abbreviated statements in a faceless universe.

            Ok, I need to go and drink some herbal tea and listen to some “old timey” music and calm down.

            It isn’t so much the changes and the progress that is pushing me into this grumpy, old man rant. I have a podcast. I have a blog. I even have electricity in my home. I enjoy and benefit from progress and changes in technology and hope to continue to do so. It is the blind acceptance with which people rocket towards the next thing that I am speaking to. There is a philosophy of certainty walking side by side with the theology of certainty, but this embraces the idea that all things new, that all advances of science, of human interaction, of human development will be good and must be accepted that on a deep level seems very similar to a theology of certainty.


           We like to be certain. We like to have a foundation that we can rest on and be sure of. I image that this is really a deep part of our humanity; we like to have a sense of certainty. What is the earthquake that will shake us from our foundations of having to be right and sure and push us into a place of unknowing? How can we move from a place of needing to be certain to a place where we wonder?

            It may have to be a shaking that will have to help us let go of a sense of hubris in what we believe. There is hubris in walking with such arrogance and certainty in what one claims to know and believe without a second guess. To know and be sure without question is a comforting blanket to wrap around oneself, to be sure, but one that reeks of pride and arrogance and we have to be shaken to get to a place where we will be willing to lose that security blanket.

            It is a shaking that will delve deep into our own humanity. We thrive on knowing and being sure. We promote those who display confidence and certainty, even as the doubts are just beyond the façade of assurance. On one level, to ask people to give up a sense of certainty is to ask them to give up a part of their own humanity. It is to push back against the ways of neighbors and friends and all others who we might encounter and to say that maybe, perhaps the way set before us is not the best.

            It is a shaking that challenges and pushes one to step into the unknown, the untested. It is going into a place where failure is not only an option, but a very real possibility, and maybe even one worth embracing.

            In the religious realm it is saying that we may need to push and challenge our sense of who God is and of how we interact with God. It is pushing the traditions, the bedrock of how we worship, how we pray, what scriptures we read and saying that maybe there is another way. It is a shaking that pushes the believer to look at the holy texts from a different point of view with a different light and a different desire to understand.

            It is a shaking that can be difficult and dangerous because with the foundation of certainty if you remove one brick, if you loosen one stone, the whole thing may come tumbling down. And it is a shaking that may need to happen.


            Where can we go if we do not have a firm foundation to stand upon in our faith and our experience of life? I would hope that as Christians (and other faith traditions) embrace a different theology of openness and possibility, they can witness the constricting and confining approaches of certainty in the world suggesting and offering a different way. I believe that there is a robust path and view that has been set before us by much smarter individuals that is inviting us again and again to journey upon.

            This is a theology of wonder (to reference Abraham Heschel), a theology of “what if,” a theology of uncertainty. It is a theology that does not look for answers, but looks to question, to muse, and to play, with a deep reverence and respect and awe towards the relationship with God. It is a theology that celebrates a freedom in that relationship to do so. It is a theological approach that fundamentally holds to the idea that we are called to question and grow in our relationship with the divine.

            Start with our relationship with God. We could have God be a constant and unchanging and unmovable presence in the sky, up there, far from us. This distant and uninvolved and perfect divine presence does not give us the flexibility to wonder and to play and to question. If God is one way and only one way, then there is only one way to be in a right and true relationship with God. Consider God as known through the revelation of Jesus Christ and through the presence of the Holy Spirit and this approach to the divine does not hold up. Christ walked among us to push us, correct us, challenge us, and to remove the false foundations of faith that we had created to bring us to a deeper relational foundation of our connection with the divine. The Holy Spirit is a moving, dynamic, personal experience of God; it is the unknowing presence of God, the unpredictable, the exciting, the creating presence of God. With the Holy Spirit we are being asked to take a chance, to go into a situation and a relationship where we are not sure what the future or even the next step might be. As much as it pains me to admit, in this area Process Theology gets this right. When they (Process Theologians) claim that God is a creative, responsive presence guiding and shaping creation with us we find that space for the “what if?” Clark Pinnock wrote about the Openness of God. Process Theologians speak about the creative expressive relationship with God. Scripture speaks of the creative nature of God. This is the “what if” of God and is found in the practicing of a theology of uncertainty.

            Think of the questions that we often find ourselves asking and offering to God for direction. What if I move to a new city? What if I try a completely different vocation? What if I sit next to someone I do not know and talk to them? What if I just start singing without holding back? In this active relationship with God we have a sense of God’s presence, of God never leaving us, but also a sense that God is guiding us into the unknown and walking with us without a clear answer of what is right and what is wrong. Move to a different city and see what happens. Talk to the person next to you and see what happens. Try to sing without holding back and see what happens. It is a relationship with God that does not rely on the right or wrong decision, but on the assurance that God walks with you into the unknown. Read scripture with the sense that you are not sure what it might be saying and listen for how God works and guides you with each different readings. Enter into your prayers with a sense that you do not know what might happen and listen for the different ways that God connects and leads you. You read, you pray, and you are not sure what might happen. This is a theology of “what if”?

            I am not suggesting that we go all pell-mell, loosey-goosy with our faith. Our questions and our curiosity come out of a place of certainty. They have to have a starting point or there is no sense of tension or play. In music, if there is no sense of what the tonic might be for a certain piece of music, then the tension would be completely missing with the “off” notes. There need to be some foundation, some standard places from where we start with our theology of “what if.” Perhaps the starting point would be the belief that there is a God and that God is concerned and committed to be with humanity. Your own faith tradition is a good place to look for a starting point.

            We also have to have some sense of how far might be too far and what our limits might be. One should be clear as to whether or not believing in no existence of God would be ok. As we push and play and wonder and investigate, is it going to be ok to get to a place where one says that maybe there is no God, or maybe God is vindictive or uncaring? If we are committed to a theology of uncertainty, then we need to leave space for such possibilities. You may not have a sense as to why you are not willing to go there, but you know that it is the line you feel moved to draw. And then you have something to work on. Why is it that this is important to you? What does such a position of belief say about your faith and your relationship with the divine? Now we are in a rich place to do some very profound theological work.

            If we do not question, and if we do not push and wonder, then we may never get to that place where we look at the very foundations of what it is that we believe and again ask, “what if.” It is not good to just be a curmudgeon and neo-luddite when it comes to technology denying all progress and possibility that the flashy new gadget may offer. Nor is it good to simply accept every change that occurs under the guise of progress without questioning where this progress might lead. We push and wonder and play with our very own relationship with technology and in doing so begin to see the foundations of how we understand our relationship with technology. We begin to see what it is that we are comfortable with, what styles of conversation and communication, what nature of connection, and the ways we take in information fits with who we are and we can have a better, balanced sense as to how we interact each and every new and emerging trend from the world of technology. In the same way we are pulled and called to have a dynamic relationship with God.


            In the end, what I am suggesting is not just a theology of “what if,” or a theology of certainty, but a merging of the two. For we will always have those places of certainty and those margins of uncertainty and dance from one to the other. One leads to the other and then informs the path and progress of the other. Our wondering and playing with concepts, beliefs, and ideals leads to a deeper sense of where our places of certainty lies. It leads to a place where we can be clear about what it is that we will and will not do. Having a sense of our theological core, our basic foundation of our faith gives us the guidelines and the “rules” for playing with questions of faith. We have a grammar and a vocabulary, but that can be pushed and prodded and challenged. So we need to be certain, but not too certain. And we need to play, but not with anarchy. The balance, the wondering and the certainty, offers a healthy and robust faith and relationship with the divine. And we have no idea where it could lead.