Why don’t we declare the certainty of our faith?
Regular columnist James Knight explores why we sometimes hesitate to declare our faith, even when we are confident in our own belief.
As I was editing the final draft of my book, I felt a huge sense of God speaking to me. I felt Him challenge the general assumption that we should act as though we believe He exists but never assert that we are certain He does. I felt that He called for a revival of confidence for Christians in the world, where we proclaim that we are certain He exists, because He has made Himself known to us in so many ways that are more compelling to us than the ways we feel certain about other things.
Now obviously this is still a complex consideration that took a while to contemplate - not least because I wanted to test it with more prayer and supplication to the Holy Spirit. And I was also aware that even if this is something of which God approves, there are going to be wise and unwise ways to go about discussing it. After all, the Old Testament is full of occasions where God hides His face from a sinning Israel; and even in the New Testament, where Christ is referred to as 'the image of the invisible God', there are accounts in scripture of Christ's time on earth where He actively avoided the crowds and didn't make a big spectacle of His miracles.
Moreover, our basis for faith is said to be on what is 'unseen' (Hebrews 11:1, 2 Corinthians 4:8), so on what grounds might we be permitted to declare that we are certain God exists? On the other hand, if we claim to feel certain about some things, then there is a prima facie case to be made that we ought to be able to feel certain that the God we have a relationship with actually does exist.
There is also a profound distinction between feeling certain God exists, and the faith one has in Christ. To have faith in Christ doesn't necessarily mean one is not certain of God's existence - in fact, one may have faith in Christ precisely because we feel certain God exists and can be found through Him. Or in other cases, one might feel certain that God exists because one has faith in Christ and sees God in Him. I know God exists - by which I mean that of all the things I know, the proposition related to the God of the Bible's existence is known by me as strongly as the other things I know most strongly.
In order to explain that, I need to talk about the different things I know and how I go about knowing them. Here are three examples of things I know: I know that 2 + 2 = 4. I know that Brazil has a larger land mass than Turkey. I know I prefer fried scampi to fried onion rings. These three bits of knowledge are constituent parts of what one could call my worldview. I use the term worldview to mean the aggregation of all the things I know, think, believe, and feel, based on the totality of my life experience.
That life experience has led me to know that mathematics is reliable; that the land masses of countries are measurable to an accurate degree; that my tastes inform me about what I like and dislike; and that it is possible to compress lots of complex data to formulate succinct theories about the world. It is possible, of course, to challenge some of my knowledge. For example, although I know I prefer fried scampi to fried onion rings, it might be possible to manipulate my neuronal activity to alter my brain states and tastes. Private experiences, as Wittgenstein reminds us, are shaky justifications on which to proclaim knowledge.
When I consider what it involved for me to become a Christian, I am able to declare with confidence that knowing the Christian God exists is something I know as well as I know anything. I know Christianity is true just as I know all the other religions are made up human constructs. You may find this hard to digest, but I think I know why. When you hear someone say they are a Christian, you don't have access to the rich diversity of experience, thoughts and contemplations that went into their becoming a Christian. I think for a non-Christian it is impossible to fully understand how a Christian arrives at their knowledge of God - not least because our knowledge of God is not just of our own doing, it is through God's own Holy Spirit revelations in a daily relationship with us. It is a minute-by-minute awareness of what it means to be in a relationship with God - an awareness to which every Christian reading this will be able to testify.
To know God exists means knowing a lot of other things about how we can know God exists. We are so used to thinking of faith in God through a pretty furtive, circumspect lens that any claims that we know God exists are bound to be met with derision. There came a point in my journey when I started to wonder why this was so. You see, every Christian I know feels certain God exists. Yes we have moments of doubt, we have struggles, and we have emotional and intellectual challenges. But the truth is, we don't just believe God exists, we are certain He does.
Perhaps the reason you don't hear us speaking in terms of knowing God exists is, I suspect, because 1) It is very difficult to articulate what knowing God's existence actually means; and 2) One can't know God exists until one has revelation from the Holy Spirit, so trying to justify the knowledge to non-Christians is rather like justifying Mozart's best symphonies to someone who has never heard music.
But whether or not it is possible to articulate this, the fact is, I am certain that God exists - I'm certain with as much confidence as I am certain of anything. Knowing God exists involves taking a whole lifetime's worth of experience, knowledge, and comprehension (and dare I say wisdom?) that can be used to formulate a proper understanding of all the things necessary to have certainty of God's existence.
I think we also need to draw a distinction here between certainty and proof. There is no proof of God’s existence, so proof is not what I’m considering here. You may recall in Tennyson’s Ancient Sage, his terrific line “Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt”. The point of the distinction is that I think we can feel certain of things we can’t prove. Proof is something that can be demonstrated to others, but it only really belongs in mathematics. Certainty is something we can’t demonstrate to others in isolation because it conveys how we feel about something. If we try to demonstrate certainty to others, then we enter the realms of requiring evidence or proof. I can demonstrate that I feel certain about mathematical sums by proving them with a pen and paper. I can demonstrate that I feel certain that biological evolution is factual by providing thousands of pages of supporting evidence.
But if we claim we feel certain God exists, what we are actually doing is sharing a summation of a complex worldview built on a repertoire of experience. We have to be careful not to undermine the profound contemplations that work alongside faith and humility, but we don't have to discount certainty on the basis of discounting proof. They belong in different categories.
Finally, we can know something exists in a way that we cannot know that something doesn't exist. Given that certainty has to be a feeling based on a proprietary state, the category of positive certainty has to be operating on a higher level to negative certainty. Let's take human love as an illustration. The man who feels certain that love doesn't really exist could spend his whole life being single or in bad relationships and always feel certain there is no such thing as love. Conversely, the man who finds love with his beloved has the experiential mandate to feel certain love exists. In fact, love is one of those profound things whereby once you have it, you sense there is no real greater certainty in your life, because there is nothing on earth that can change that feeling while it's alive and well.
That's why being certain God exists can be valid in a way that being certain He does not exist cannot possibly be. Another reason why this is true is purely down to the informational content. Even if it were possible to feel certain God does not exist, such certainty would take immeasurably more information and cognitive computational resources than feeling certain God exists, which could come about through a much more direct channel, and in much less execution time.
In closing, I am mindful that as Christians, even if we feel certain inwardly, we mustn't alienate people by coming across as being over-confident and potentially strangling the oxygen out of fruitful dialogue. But to be certain, we have to be convinced that the set of all possibilities within our spatio-temporal existence (call it N) has been sufficiently contravened by a Divine power (call it P) who has the qualities to act in a way that seems to us evidently outside of that existence. I do not mean anything that gets entangled with dangerous assumptions like God of the gaps, Clarke's third law etc, I mean a deeper understanding of certainty - a power that God has given us so that He has done enough in our individual lives to enable us to feel certain that He exists. Those Divine contraventions that constitute P could be anything from prophecies, healings, internal revelations, events that we believe to be powered from outside of space and time, and so forth.
Of course, our faith is a worldview based on our life experience, so those 'sufficient contraventions' are built on our experience of others' experiences too in a complex join-the-dots epistemology. But it may remain one of those strange elements of Christianity that continues to linger in the abyss - in that most Christians feel certain that God exists, yet rarely feel the confidence to declare it.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
James Knight is a local government officer based in Norwich, and is a regular columnist for Christian community websites Network Norfolk and Network Ipswich. He also blogs regularly as ‘The Philosophical Muser’, and contributes articles to UK think tanks The Adam Smith Institute and The Institute of Economic Affairs, as well as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC).
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