Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Certainty and Confidence in Christianity

Last Saturday I was having a conversation with some friends in a small philosophy group that regularly meets. I mentioned to them that I am less certain now of my faith than I have ever been. This was met with appropriately raised and concerned eyebrows. But allow me to explain to you, as I did to them, precisely what I mean.

When I say I am less certain now, I mean something that I call “Cartesianly certain.” Cartesian certainty is that certain knowledge you have that the contrary is logically impossible. I may be overstating a bit and lacking nuance here, but this is generally how I take it. This is to be distinguished from colloquial certainty, or the certainty of the everyday life. Thus, while I am colloquially certain I am typing this blog post right now, I am not Cartesianly certain. Why not? Because I could, for all I know, be a brain in a vat or have been kidnapped by the government and this (right now) is all a vivid dream that I will promptly forget when I wake up in Guantanamo. So know that when I say “certain” from here on out in this post, I mean this kind of Cartesian certainty.

When I was younger, I was quite brash. I would proclaim strongly and loudly that Christianity was the only way (a truth to which I hold strongly even today!). Yet I can distinctly remember the first time I really encountered a presentation of a version of the problem of evil. I thought it ridiculous, dismissed it out of hand, and moved on as though I had heard nothing. For while I was quite certain that Christianity was true, I lacked dispositional certainty that Christianity was true. This sounds contradictory; allow me to explain.

Dispositional certainty is the term I am using to explain the conditions under which one remains certain of his beliefs. That is, if I were to be challenged with the problem of evil, seriously consider its challenge to Christian theism, and remain just as firm as I was prior to the challenge, then I am to be considered not only certain, but dispositionally certain. This would hold for any such challenge to Christianity. Thus, on the contrary, if I were to face such a challenge and wither, then while I am certain, I am not dispositionally certain. My faith was on thin ice and I didn’t even know it. I lacked dispositional certainty in favor of the cool comforts of going with the flow.

While I have come to realize that I cannot be Cartesianly certain in my faith (after all, faith, while rational, and buffered with evidence, is not the answering of every possible question that could ever arise), I have dispositional certainty in abundance. I do not fear an argument against Christianity, even if I have never heard it before (at my worst, I may fear public humiliation if I cannot answer right away; but that’s an ego problem, not a faith problem). This dispositional certainty we might call confidence.

Thus, paradoxically, while I am less certain of my faith now than ever before, I am more confident in it now than ever before. And this confidence, I suspect, is part of what is called “growing up.” How can you grow up? Is it by sheer power of will? That seems unlikely.

What’s more likely is, at least in part, trying to live out Matthew 22:37, and bear the fruit of the Spirit of Galatians 5. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and let your life bear the marks of one who has had God work within his very soul.

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