We are accustomed to think of unbelief as the opposite of faith. But the opposite of faith is certainty. One popular definition of certainty is:

Perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt.

This notion of certainty is problematical on several fronts. To begin with nobody (given human finitude and fallibility) has access to ‘perfect knowledge,’ let alone knowledge that is ‘totally secure from error.’ Equally, most people, it seems, cannot negotiate a path through life without entertaining ‘doubts’ of some kind or other (if only because of the sheer volume of information we have to process daily).

On the face of it the above definition does not square with reality.

Philosophers and scientists question, at any rate, whether such ‘certainty’ is either achievable or desirable (what, for instance, would constitute definitive proof that your next door neighbour was human rather than an alien merely posing as a human being? The list of things we might question or doubt goes on… )

The quest for certainty is only an aspiration, even in the realm of mathematics.

One of the most celebrated developments in twentieth century quantum physics is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This theory suggests that at a sub-atomic level matter is fuzzy and indefinable. At best we can only calculate ‘probabilities’ as to how the smallest particles of nature behave and interact so as to constitute the physical world. This introduces a level of mystery into such mundane objects as a kitchen table, which according to quantum physicists, is largely made up of empty space. What exactly matter is, then, remains open to question, even if we are sure that we know what a jumbo jet or a beef casserole is made of.

Significantly, the New Testament speaks more of ‘faith’ than ‘certainty’. Christians thus have ‘faith’ that Jesus is the Son of God, that he was raised from the dead, and that he will return to judge the living and the dead. Likewise events such as physical healing or personal salvation are said to be obtained through faith. Believers in turn are encouraged to live by faith and in particular to have faith that God will provide for their every need. In Hebrews Chapter 11 biblical characters are said to have won God’s approval through faith. The exercise of faith is here traced back as far as Abel (Adam and Eve’s second son) right up to the time of Samuel and the prophets (at the close of the Old Testament). In Hebrews 12 moreover the author encourages his readers to look to Jesus, who he describes as ‘the pioneer of our faith’.

Faith defines the people of God therefore in every age.

But if faith is the opposite of ‘certainty’ does this not suggest that religious ‘beliefs’ are somehow based on weaker, less sure foundations? For example, if we say we have ‘faith’ that God raised Jesus from the dead are we not merely stating that we ‘hope’ he did? This would be little more than wishful thinking.

Over against this a more robust, ‘evidence based’ approach to reality is posited.

The atheist biologist Richard Dawkins would be a prime example of somebody who adheres to a strictly empirical view of life. According to Dawkins science can explain the workings of nature without recourse to divine intervention. Religious claims are at best doubtful because they cannot be investigated let alone substantiated. How, for example, would you set about ‘proving’ that Jesus was a hypostatic union of the divine and human nature? Or demonstrate beyond question that he fed five thousand with a few loaves and two fish – or that he turned water into wine?

These types of claims, Dawkins would assert, are not only silly, they are also as inaccessible to analysis or verification as the realm of hobgoblins and tooth fairies.

For Dawkins and his ilk faith is simply ‘bad science’.

But this is to misunderstand the meaning of the word ‘faith’ as defined in the New Testament. The reality is we all live by ‘faith’ whether we are religious or atheist. Faith is primarily about ‘trust’ or ‘reliance’; it’s about who or what we ‘lean on’ or ‘adhere to’, often in the absence of evidence or hard facts (scientists, for instance, talk of ‘multiple universes’ even though there isn’t a shred of evidence for their existence).

Richard Dawkins, likewise, cannot prove scientifically that his wife loves him or even that she has a ‘mind.’ Nor, more pointedly, can he establish that science leads to truth because this would entail using scientific methods to establish that scientific methods lead to truth (circular reasoning).

Science therefore doesn’t go all the way down. It can only take us so far in our quest for ‘foundations’ or ‘certainty’. Most of the time we have to muddle through life using our instincts or gut feelings (like for example if you happen to be madly in love with somebody but in the end decide not to marry them).

In the New Testament faith is about trust in a person, a God who discloses his identity to us in the shape of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The triune God doesn’t do ‘certainty’ because he is infinite and cannot be grasped empirically. Nor, since he cannot be scrutinised in a laboratory, can he provide us with ‘perfect knowledge’ or indubitable ‘proofs’ of his reality.

But he also doesn’t dabble in ‘certainty’ because it cannot bring us into relationship with himself. Relationships cannot work on the basis that you must first acquire complete knowledge about an individual before you decide to open up to them. Nobody has, or can ever have, ‘perfect knowledge’ of another person – least of all of God. Most of what we know about people is taken on trust or instinct built up over time. It is no different with God.

Through Faith or trust, then, we may indeed acquire ‘knowledge’.

Faith enables us to respond to hints or overtures of friendship which others may extend to us. Gestures of warmth, affection or openness invite us to explore the possibilities of connecting with another person at a deeper level, and in turn sharing more of ourselves with them. Overtime we may grow in our understanding and commitment to this individual in the belief that we share something in common. This then could lead to a richer, more meaningful relationship with somebody who originally was a complete stranger.

Hebrews Chapter 11 suggests how this might happen with God.

We come to believe that the universe demands an explanation. We wonder in turn if the cause of all things might be personal rather than impersonal, and whether as creator God may have willed us into being. Thus an adventure in prayer begins which involves both listening and talking to the God ‘who might be there’. As God responds to our prayers we intimate his love. As we sense his goodness our trust and knowledge of him deepens and we learn more about what he’s like through the Bible and other Christians, as well as through his Spirit who we have come to believe ‘indwells us’.

This doesn’t mean that God ceases to be mystery. In Hebrews 11 believers had to contend with extreme experiences which seemed to deny God’s reality. Yet during trials or in the face of death they continued to believe in God because of an overwhelming sense of his providence. This is how faith works experientially.

The point here is that we cannot encounter God the way we might the Grand Canyon or a flock of geese. We cannot analyse or map out the contours of his being as if he were the Pacific Ocean. Nor can we know him they way we might Euclidean geometry or the smell of lavender. God is Spirit. We cannot pin him down scientifically or empirically. God doesn’t exist in the way that birdsong or dark matter exists. Nor is he a person in the sense that Nick Clegg arguably is. God is elusive: he neither transcends nor is immanent within the universe. Yet he is closer to us than our most intimate thoughts and feelings.

This means that when we venture into God we must leave the shores of certainty behind. Certainty belongs to the material realm of science, facts and empirical data – the beggarly elements of the universe. When we engage with God we must hold lightly to our senses.

In Matthew Chapter 14 Peter seeks to walk on water.

The issue is not whether he could be ‘certain’ of achieving this objective, but whether he could trust the person who was inviting him to step out of the boat.

This is the difference between faith and certainty.

Jesus gave Peter no ‘proof’, let alone ‘certainty’ that he would be able to walk on water–he simply invited him for a stroll on the Sea of Galilee.

In his ministry Jesus castigated those who hankered after certainty: ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’ (John 4:48).

God offers us something more secure than certainty: an adventure of faith rooted in his word.

Why through faith? Because this is the only way we can come to know and experience God. The world of ‘proofs’ or ‘evidence’ are a low-grade form of knowledge which merely give hints or echoes of God’s reality.

As we grow in faith it becomes possible to tap in to God without the use of props. As we mature we come to realise that knowing God is less about having ‘certainty’ or ‘evidence’ of his existence than it is about seeing the world in a new light – as if a switch was flicked on and everything in a dark room lit up and made sense.

Dr Brendan Devitt is originally from Ireland and studied Theology, Medieval Greek and Byzantine history at Dublin and Oxford universities and teaches Greek and Hebrew. He is married to Sheralee and finds ways to promote a deeper understanding of Scripture among Christians.


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