Thursday, August 02, 2007,9:32 AM
Faith, Certainty, and Tom Cruise
A few days ago Erin put up a great post about "Things I Learned From Church (That Didn’t Prove True And What I Am Learning Lately)" It was part of a new synchroblog stared by Glenn Hager. As he describes the purpose of this blog - "I am tackling this issue not because I have an axe to grind with church as we know it, not because I am bitter, and not because I think people who are into attending and supporting conventional churches are inferior. Rather, it is to help me to understand my own thinking..." I was intrigued by the concept and have appreciated some of the posts the participants have put up so far. Then after reading Scot McKnight's post on certainty and faith yesterday I was reminded of an experience in my church background that I have since learned to regret.

I grew up in a traditional, conservative, Texas dispensational church (I'm sure they would merely call themselves a biblical church, but then again so would just about any church...). Most of my experiences there occurred in the youth group. But this was no games and cool music youth group. It was a sit and listen to hour long sermons, read lots of books, attend seminars, and make fun of those not like us type group. Being a Christian meant one crammed oneself with knowledge about the Bible (oh, and avoided sex at all costs as the youth pastor frequently reminded us by recounting his sinful youthful sexual exploits...). We had to know exactly how to argue people into the faith and how to show them that whatever they believed (be they atheist, pagan, catholic, or baptist) was completely wrong (implying we were completely right). I loved it. As an intellectual nerd who prided herself of getting good grades, this was a religion I could relate to. My "faith" was all about facts and knowledge. So while most of the youth group dreaded attending (their parents made them), I and my small group of friends loved being the know-it-all star Christians.

At one point when I was in high school (here comes the Tom Cruise part), the youth pastor choose a new motto for the group. Taken from the popular movie A Few Good Men (back when Tom Cruise still had a career and wasn't the Hollywood freak of the week), our rallying cry became - "it doesn't matter what I believe. It only matters what I can prove!" We were treated to sermons about certainty and correct hermeneutics. We were told that if we do not have 100% certainty about our faith then we are not real Christians. Forget saying a prayer and accepting Jesus into one's heart, this was the gospel of intellectual works. Knowledge, evidence, and proof were what got one into heaven when we died (the whole point of Christianity of course). Belief and faith meant nothing, all that mattered was proof.

When I mentioned the new motto to a friend at school, he looked at me quizzically and asked me if such a stance undermined the whole idea of faith in the first place. I'm sure I parroted something about rationalism and absolute truth back at him at that point, but over the years since then I have come to see that he had a better conception of true faith than I did. I was Thomas demanding proof and not accepting that "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." I cared more about CSI style investigations and converting people to creationism than I did about actually serving others or following Christ.

Now as the idea of certainty or absolute knowledge seems so utterly impossible I laugh at my arrogance in assuming I could ever grasp them. But it was a long journey to move to that point. My grip on certainty held me tighter than my grip on Christianity itself. I couldn't tell if I was more afraid to give up my philosophical system (which defined my religion) than I was to question my faith itself. Or perhaps, I just assumed that they were one in the same. That if I gave up trusting in certainty and empirical proof, I would no longer be a real Christian since I would then have doubts and incomplete knowledge. So the process of letting go was exceeding difficult, but I had to let go in order to discover faith. To discover the mystery and the trust that it takes to believe. To walk by faith not sight.

Now I am sure there are those that will mock me for not being a rationalist. Others who don't see room for doubt and faith in the Christian faith. Perhaps their experiences work for them. This is just my experience of what I learned from church that didn't prove true.

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posted by Julie at 9:32 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 8/02/2007 10:16:00 AM, Anonymous glenn


    Thanks for jumping on board with the project!

    I just wanted to ask you, are you sure that's what you believe? Can you prove it? :-)

    I am amazed at how systematized and sanitized we have made Christianity. It all doesn't sound much like Jesus, and is, of course, a big turn off for most people. Yet, it is a comfortable psuedo-world for so many. I just wonder what might happen, if we got real, honest, and were truly loving.

  • At 8/02/2007 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Erin

    Great post, Julie. I know exactly what you're talking about - my FIL is an "evidences" teacher. He has scientific (but biblical) explanations for everything.

  • At 8/02/2007 08:27:00 PM, Blogger dave

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 8/02/2007 08:29:00 PM, Blogger dave

    amazing post.."the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty" (Anne Lammott)

    .found your blog via friend of a friend on facebook...send me a request over there if you like...

    I married a wheaton girl...her dad and uncle have both been in admin. there (Kriegbaum)..I am pastoring an emerging plant in Calif:

    i added you to my blogroll

    dave wainscott

  • At 8/03/2007 01:14:00 AM, Blogger paul

    thanks Julie, that reminds me so much of my teen christian life, ah bible nerds in the world but not of it unite!

    I often look back and see myself as one of those charicaturs, all giant head and spindly tiny lil body - all head, no heart.

    I've been on a bit of a journey of rebalance for awhile - including a few yrs as an all heart no need to think any more charisma type - just crank the music up real loud and go with the flow.

    But now i am appreciating all the more my heritage and all that head stuffing and heart growing, being loving and thinking about what is right, being generous with people who see things different and trading in some of the certainty for more community.

  • At 8/03/2007 07:24:00 PM, Blogger newcenturion

    Help me out? It’s either you have a head full of biblical knowledge and are sure of your salvation; however that just makes you a mean spiteful Christian incapable of compassion. Or you throw propositional truth to the wind be unsure of your eternal destiny (because having assurance means your arrogant) and just be good person which means you’re a good Christ-follower. Have I got that right? There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium here does there? Can’t you be loving, kind AND have a certainty about the faith, I can manage both by God’s grace? Doesn’t Jude tell us to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints? Sounds like they were pretty certain they had the true faith. Doesn’t it say in 1John “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may KNOW that you have eternal life” Sounds they were certain and had assurance of their salvation.

    Why does spiritual uncertainty equate to “humility” in EC circles (although I believe this “humility” is at best, intellectual arrogance; a contemptuous distain for anyone who clings to the propositional truths of orthodox Christianity and at worst outright rebellion against God) Why on earth would anyone get comfort from a religion based on a man-made philosophy (post-modernism) which in a generation or so will evolve into another equally absurd philosophy. Didn’t Jesus warn us not to build our foundations on sand?

    I have read a lot of “I had a bad experience with the church when I was a teenager, so I’ve decided to bin the whole lot” stories. Well haven’t we all? At one point in my life I was dissatisfied with Western Christianity so I took a spiritual journey. My journey took me East, waaay past the Tiber. You know what I found there? The same things I see going on in this movement; mysticism, asceticism, uncertainty, ritualism, myth, culturally relevant “meta-narratives” and a faith built on nothing but doing stuff. Doing stuff in hopes that works would find God’s favor. In the end it did not satisfy.

    I’ll not deny that the church in North America is rife with apostasy and false teachings, and mean spirited "christians" which is it all the more reason for us to model the Bereans ; search the scriptures daily for in them is Truth. God is Truth, His word is Truth when we deny this, when we question this we will be like the surf of the sea as James so aptly put it driven and tossed by the wind.

  • At 8/03/2007 07:47:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    to Ken, newcenturion, and the mocking masses -

    if you think this post is about rebellion instead of faith you really do have your blinders up. This journey for me was about realizing that I am not God and therefore not omnipotent (the only way to ever have certainty) and instead learning to believe and have faith. This has nothing to do with rebellion. It has to do with choosing God over the philosophies of man. If you are to enthralled to certain such philosophies to even see that, I pity you.

  • At 8/03/2007 09:32:00 PM, Blogger newcenturion

    This journey for me was about realizing that I am not God and therefore not omnipotent (the only way to ever have certainty) and instead learning to believe and have faith. This has nothing to do with rebellion. It has to do with choosing God over the philosophies of man. If you are to enthralled to certain such philosophies to even see that, I pity you.

    Julie first off I’m glad you realize that you’re not God anymore; I’ve never had any delusions of grandeur on that scale myself. On a more serious note, I’m not Ken Silva or Phil Johnson and I’m not mocking you. I’m having a “conversation”. Your religion wants to change 2000 years of accepted orthodox doctrine and is engaged in a “conversation” with other Christians, well let’s converse. Your husband challenged me and asked if I personally knew any emergent’s, I don’t, maybe God has brought me to this forum for a reason. I want to know why people have turned their backs on what is clearly taught in the Scriptures. Why do I get the impression that there is such an overall feeling of anger and distrust of Conservative Christians. Like I’ve said before, I’ve read McLaren, and articles by Bell, Jones and a host of other emergent’s however I’ve also read D.A. Carson and R. Scott Smith’s analysis of the movement (both of which were very balanced and I highly recommend for anyone in or out of the movement). I’m not sure where you get the idea that certainty about one’s salvation or the Truth contained in God’s Word is a man made philosophy. Again please refer to 1 John, God through His Word seems to think it was important that Christians be assured of their salvation. Furthermore assurance does not does not negate faith or belief. I still must believe in Christ and I still must submit to his Lordship over all areas of my life to be saved, there is no “easy believism” in the Faith, it’s all or nothing. So please explain how assurance is a man made philosophy? I’m not sure if you get my e-mail address when I log onto your site, however if you wish to continue via e-mail rather than a public forum (where things can get a little testy and people seem to get a little more defensive, myself included) let me know and I’ll forward you my e-mail.

  • At 8/06/2007 09:05:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    NC - Sorry for the delay in the reply, I've been away from the computer for the weekend. I'll try to address some of your questions.

    First - the believing one is God thing. That was sarcasm. Complete knowledge (certainty) on everything would make one equal with God. So i came to see that to claim certainty is to claim to be God - which is a tad blasphemous.

    And the emerging church is not trying to change 2000 years of accepted orthodox doctrine - mainly because such a thing doesn't exist. Whose orthodox doctrine? The early church fathers? The coptics (the only one who really have 2000 years of uninterrupted doctrine)? The early catholics? The Celts? The Fransicans? The Syrians? The Greek Orthodox? The Russian Orthodox? The Calvinists? The Purtians? The Anabaptists? The Pentecostals? The Dispensationalists? Which set of orthodox doctrine are you referring to?

    Many in the emerging church are questioning our allegiance to post-enlightenment form of epistemology and challenging the assumption that certain doctrines that are a mere 150 years old are necessarily the "correct" ones. instead we want to look at the whole of church history and admit that yes scripture was interpreted differently by different groups at different times. We want to claim what is good and attempt to understand what those scriptures meant in the historical and cultural context of jesus. It isn't a claim that we alone will get it right or get it completely, but for us it is the only way to the intellectually honest.

    So what gets me is people who say hold to something like Dispensational theology (to use what I grew up under) saying that I am abandoning 2000 years of orthodox theology. I am doing no such thing and they need to learn history. I am challenging a certain interpretation of scripture that answered questions and made sense in the historical climate of the mid 1800s. But that scares people who have never been taught that the bible is even interpreted. If they think that their brand of the faith is the only one or the only true one, they shut down and freak out if confronted with an opposing viewpoint.

    As to certainty being a human philosophy. Try reading about the enlightenment. The endeavor was to get beyond all the mystery and superstition of the middle ages (the church) and trust only in what ones senses can tell you. Science and reason were held up as gods and religion was mocked for its imprecise and faith-based nonsense. The church at first tried to resist such a mentality. They promoted faith above certainty. But of course science and reason won out. don't get me wrong I like what science has brought us, what I don't like is how over time the church sold out to the philosophies of the enlightenment.

    In attempts to defend the faith to the masses, the church began to talk like the masses. It used reason and proofs to explain away the mysteries of God and faith. Over time the myth of certainty took hold of the Christian community until it became to be seen as a biblical value. So much so that when people began to point out that christians had accepted fully this philosophy of man the church dug in their hills, denied it, and called the questioners unbiblical. Now holding onto the enlightenment ideal of certainty has become more important for some than truth or faith.