Christianity and epistemic certainty

“I believe everything I believe is true”: It’s an equivocal assertion, obviously true in one sense while obviously foolish and hubristic in another. While talking it over with a group of students, I was struck by the way in which unraveling the two possible meanings of this statement brings us to the heart of the modern allergy to intellectual confidence, while throwing light on a common struggle within the church over what it means to be sure of our doctrine.

If by, “I believe everything I believe is true,” I merely mean that, given any individual belief which I hold at a particular moment, at that moment I believe that particular belief to be true and all other, contradictory beliefs therefore false, the proposition goes beyond truth to settle in the realm of the painfully obvious. When I say that I believe a particular proposition, if I do not mean that I think that proposition is in fact true and not false, then what exactly is the meaning of “believe” at all?

When I say, “I believe that guy is untrustworthy,” if I do not mean that I am convinced of the untrustworthiness of the presumably-duplicitous male in question, any and all known evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, then what else can I mean? Of course, this conviction may be only momentary. My declaration may elicit such a flood of testimony in defense of the character of the hypothetical object of our consideration that my opinion promptly changes and I am able to confidently declare, “I believe that guy is trustworthy.” But in both cases, for as long as I hold the particular belief, I believe it is true and all contradictory beliefs false. In this sense, the statement that “I believe everything I believe is true” is simply a tautology.

On the other hand, if we widen our focus from microscopic to telescopic, pulling back from our consideration of individual beliefs to look instead at the entire shifting and interconnected mass that makes up our belief system, the proposition that “I believe everything I believe is true” takes on a very different meaning. If I believe that I have achieved the Cartesian ideal of an epistemic structure so perfectly constructed as to ensure that every single component belief is in fact true, I am guilty of arrogance bordering on insanity. Obviously, I don’t know where I might be wrong (if I knew the particular belief which was wrong it would be much simpler, since the very act of acknowledging the falseness of a belief sends the prior error up in flames along with the belief itself), but surely even the most conservative gambler would be willing to stake all he had on the proposition that any given individual is wrong about something?

So we have an apparent contradiction: Viewed individually, it is insane to deny the truth of a particular belief, but, viewed collectively, it is insane to affirm the truth all of one’s beliefs.

This paradox leads to two common errors. The first is the error of the man who is so committed to avoiding the folly of universal certainty that he flies off in the other direction and winds up denying that he even believes that what he believes is true. His humility becomes nonsense and ends in incoherence (see “Higher Education, Postmodern”). The second error is that of the reactionary (often Christian) who is so eager to avoid the first error that he affirms–in fact if not in theory–the absolute truth of every iota of his belief system, resolutely ignoring the very real possibility that he might truly be wrong even about something of which he is wholly convinced. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”

As is its habit, Christianity doctrine manages to embrace the paradox without tumbling off into either extreme. In the Christian model of reality we discover a solid substratum of absolute, objective truth, imperfectly known by finite and fallen men. The late Richard Rorty had a point when he spoke of a “God’s-eye view,” and pointed out that men don’t have one. Of course, Rorty went too far in the other direction and concluded that it is therefore pointless to even pursue objective truth (a proposition which he proceeded to defend as actually true, thus validating Hume’s reluctant observation that it is “impossible for [a man] to persevere in total scepticism, or make it appear in his conduct for a few hours”), but such a dispirited conclusion does not necessarily follow.

If reality is indeed designed, created, and governed by the Logos of which our intellect is a tiny droplet, it follows that we can know real truth, though the limitation of our minds and the corruption of the Fall should make us humble about asserting with certainty that we do know real truth. Even that which is explicitly revealed by our Creator may be imperfectly understood, as, for example, the Messianic prophecies were for hundreds of years. Like an apprentice painter copying the master’s work, we should always try for as much doctrinal accuracy as possible, and we can and should critique the work of other apprentices (while welcoming their critique of our own efforts), but the standard for such critique is the original artwork, not our copy. Even when our version appears to accurately represent the true model, we must remember that our eye is not sufficiently keen, nor our hand sufficiently skilled, to ensure that all the beauty and nuance of the master’s work is reflected in our own model. “For now we see in a mirror dimly… now I know in part.”

Thus Christian humility embraces the burly confidence that belief may be true, alongside the clear-eyed recognition that a belief may be false. The beliefs which I hold about worship style, church government, baptism, or predestination, I believe are true. And if you disagree, I believe you’re wrong (unless and until you convince me otherwise). But I must disagree with an awareness that we both see through a mirror dimly; that we both squint at a reality imperfectly understood, and neither of us has the right to claim perfect certainty until that day when we shall see face to face, knowing fully just as we also have been fully known.

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1 thought on “Christianity and epistemic certainty”

  1. Ah, a man after my own heart. I now understand better why this seems invariably to be expressed in paradoxes (e.g. Paul’s “If anyone thinks he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know”).


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