The danger of certainty

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The danger of certainty

May 1, 2017 -

It’s often said that nothing in life is certain but death and taxes. That’s not how we typically live though. Most of us can name quite a few other subjects about which we feel completely certain that we are correct. As Bret Stephens writes in the New York Times, however, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

He points to the certainty demonstrated by Hillary Clinton’s campaign team as an example of the dangers that can come from placing too much trust in raw data and our ability to interpret it. He goes on to write, “There’s a lesson here. We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris . . . We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading, and often dangerous.”

Essentially, when data abounds, it’s easy to interpret it only in ways that reinforce what we already think. That, in turn, locks us into beliefs that may or may not be valid. Such arrogance in what we think we know blinds us to the potential holes in our arguments and creates an environment in which even the slightest bits of doubt threaten the whole system.

Does that sound like our culture today? I can’t think of a much better description of the problems that ail us as a society than our inability to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. Party lines are hardened because the other side is built on the very real chance that our thinking might be flawed and that simply can’t be tolerated. Beliefs or lifestyles that differ from our own threaten our very existence because everything we hold dear is intricately tied together to such an extent that one loose thread could unravel everything around which our lives are built.

I would love to say that we, as Christians, are immune to that sort of thinking, but the truth is that we can be the worst offenders. That’s due, in part, to the fact that so much of our outlook on life is centered on a faith that’s grounded in a fundamentally infallible document: the Bible.

Now, to be clear, my purpose today is not to call into question the infallibility of Scripture or to say that it is in any way an untrustworthy source. It is the divinely inspired word of God that is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, and it should have an immensely formative place in our faith (2 Timothy 3:16). Yet, the fact remains that there is still relatively little about its contents that is not open for discussion.

That Jesus lived as God incarnate, died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and is the only path to salvation are the hard and fast, indisputable teachings of Scripture. Beyond that, much in our theology is open for debate. A quick review of our history as a faith should make it clear that we are prone to misunderstanding the Bible and applying it in ways that run counter to God’s original intent. The Pharisees, despite their absolute devotion to studying and living out the Scriptures, spent much of Christ’s ministry standing in opposition to their beloved Torah’s author. They did so, in large part, because they were so certain that their understanding of those sacred teachings was correct that they couldn’t tolerate an opposing view, even when it came from Jesus using those same Scriptures to show them how they were wrong.

When we act as though our understanding of God’s word is correct beyond even the slightest shadow of a doubt, then we risk making the same mistake. That’s not to say that we should begin to doubt that understanding or that we can never speak authoritatively on what the Scriptures teach. But if we ever get to the point that our faith is shaken whenever someone challenges it, then chances are that it was never really that strong to begin with.

As Christians, we should long for the chance to better understand our heavenly Father, whether that means learning something new or unlearning something that we mistakenly thought to be right. It’s vital to remember, however, that the only source that has the authority to challenge our beliefs is the Bible. Arguments from popular opinion, science, reason, or any other source have their place, but if they are truly valid then they will square with the teachings of God’s word.

So the next time you encounter a teaching or belief that runs counter to your understanding, don’t simply dismiss it as false because it’s different. Rather, be like the Bereans and test it against an open and honest reading of the Scriptures to see if it’s worthy of consideration (Acts 17:11).

We should never be afraid of the truth because we worship the God who is Truth (John 14:6). Why do you need that reminder today?

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