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.

Intentionally elusive truth

Commenting on the process of inspiration by which the Bible came together, C.S. Lewis writes in Reflections on the Psalms,

To a human mind this working-up (in a sense imperfectly), this sublimation (incomplete) of human material, seems, no doubt, an untidy and leaky vehicle. We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form–something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table…

We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given to us in that cut-and-dried, food-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no book. We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context. And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system. He preaches but He does not lecture. He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the “wisecrack”. He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be “got up” as if it were a “subject.” If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, “pinned down”. The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam…

Since this is what God has done, this, we must conclude, was best. It may be that what we should have liked would have been fatal to us if granted. It may be indispensable that Our Lord’s teaching, by that elusiveness (to our systematising intellect) should demand a response from the whole man, should make it so clear that there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and temper, breathing a new atmosphere, suffering Him, in His own way, to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself.

Accepting as a premise this view of the “intentional elusiveness” of much scriptural teaching, it is worth considering how it affects the Christian walk, and in particular our relationships within the Church. As is often the case, we seem to have a tendency to slip away into one of two opposing errors. On the one hand, a right and praiseworthy desire to find out the hidden things of God, to learn His ways, discover His truth, and provide guidance for His flock, leads us to create systems out of the unsystematized, striving as best we can to reflect the Truth in our doctrine. And thanks be to God for those teachers who “feed the sheep” in this way. The danger comes, however, when we easily and unconsciously draw the authority of the Word up into the human constructs which it nourishes; when we forget (in practice, if not in theory) that disagreeing with us is not the same as disagreeing with God.

And so we fight to the death over questions of doctrine upon which reasonable people may reasonably disagree. Is there a difference between baptism by immersion, baptism by pouring, and baptism by sprinkling? Yes. Is it possible that one method is preferable to another? Certainly; in fact, I would make that argument. Can I prove it from Scripture, beyond reasonable disagreement? No. And neither can you or any other Christian. But this now brings us to our first error’s opposite.

Having seen the divisiveness and sin that have followed what one imagines to have been roughly one thousand, nine hundred and seventy-odd years of still-unresolved doctrinal disputes, it is tempting to give up any attempt at systematization or orthodoxy as hopeless and even harmful. If Scripture intentionally does not provide the objective black-and-white schema we would need in order to formulate final answers for so many theological concerns, why even attempt an answer to insoluble questions?

The first and most obvious answer to this objection is found in Christ’s words to Peter immediately before His ascension: “Tend My sheep.” Why is it important to search out (begging divine assistance for our own flickering reason) the principles and truths concealed within Scripture’s intentional elusiveness? “Tend My sheep.”

Returning to the question of baptism as an example, if there is in fact a form of baptism which is more in keeping with the purpose and significance of the act, then it follows that the Church benefits and God is glorified when his people conform more nearly to His ultimate design. If there are ways of worshiping, praying, organizing a church, caring for the poor, engaging the world, or structuring the family which better conform to God’s nature and will, what a poor shepherd he would be who didn’t attempt, to the best of his ability and relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to discover those truths in the light of Scripture.

Jesus Himself did not condemn the master-systematizers of His day, the Pharisees, for attempting to extrapolate rules of behavior from the Bible. Instead, He criticized them for failing to reach the right conclusions, and He offered a better understanding of the principles to be drawn from Old Testament teachings (e.g. Matthew 12:1-7, 12:10-13, 19:4-9, 22:29-32). The Pharisees’ error lay not in studying the patterns of revelation in an attempt to sketch the truth behind, but in becoming so caught up in their own rough sketches that their eyes strayed from the truth they were attempting to approximate.

But the Pharisees return us full circle to be reminded of the danger of our first error, for what Christian has not at one time or another been reminded of his close spiritual kinship to that group of Hebrew theologians whose name has become a shorthand for blinkered legalism? History and our own experience show how quickly we conflate our rules with His, demanding that our brothers bow down and worship before the images we have constructed upon His altar. If love of God and love of His people demand that we search out the elusive truths within His revelation, how can we best avoid the attendant dangers?

The first step, of course, is to beg Him for humility. To pray that our motivation would always and only be love, for the truth we pursue and for the fellow-searchers with whom we seek it. To cultivate an awareness of the distinction between His truth and our extrapolations upon the basis of His truth. To remember that even the most indubitable premise cannot guarantee the truth of a conclusion on the other end of a chain of human reasoning. And to remember that those who doubt our doctrine but love our God are guilty of, at worst, mere misunderstanding, and may only be guilty of arriving first at a truth which we have yet to see.

Beyond this point, however, it is worth returning to Lewis’ final paragraph above, in which he guesses at the reason why we might have received the strange gift of so many dim and elusive truths, “that Our Lord’s teaching, by that elusiveness (to our systematising intellect) should demand a response from the whole man, should make it so clear that there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and temper, breathing a new atmosphere, suffering Him, in His own way, to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself.”

How are we to achieve the right balance between a love of the truth on the one hand and a humble recognition of our own fallibility on the other? How are we to learn, to instruct, and to avoid error as much as is possible for imperfect human creatures? By so “steeping” ourselves in the Word that our very being is, both consciously and unconsciously, shaped into conformity with the One Who we begin to know as we know ourselves. We must absorb, and absorption is a gradual process. To see is not necessarily to know: Many skilled artists have studied and beautifully reproduced Raphael’s paintings, but only his greatest pupil was able to complete his Transfiguration so that one cannot tell where Raphael’s work ended and Giulio Romano’s began.

For of course the ultimate goal is not merely to know the truth, but to know the Truth. If much of Christian doctrine is given to us as a puzzle in this life, we might find a hint of explanation in watching a child’s total absorption in putting the jigsaw pieces together and watching a picture emerge. We may have been given a puzzle, but it is a puzzle the ultimate purpose of which is to show us the nature of the puzzle-maker, and which, like a sort of reverse mirror, impresses His likeness upon us the longer we gaze into it.