Profitable Discourse

The Pursuit of Theological Clarity



   There is a growing desire for a humble Christian attitude of proper self-assessment in which one refrains from pursuing certainty on theological issues. Many rightly argue that such certainty is often a product of pride, a result of a closed mind, and a hindrance to respecting any different perspective. The humility hoped to replace it is marked by an attitude wherein one admits they do not have everything figured out, where one no longer claims to be certain about their theological conclusions.

     The irony is that this desire often assumes what it denies: the speaker is certain of their conclusion and that they have gotten this right—and they are seldom open to reconsideration. Of course if the point is that Christians ought not make claims with certainty, then perhaps this one ought to be omitted as well. Or if they are supposed to admit that we cannot have figured out the truth regarding any theological issue, then perhaps they should refrain from claiming to have figured out the truth regarding this theological issue, namely, the proper attitude one must have before God and others. 

     Of course none of us are without sympathy for this point of view, and indeed agree that a proper Christian attitude ought to be marked by humility—but we must pay attention to the details. I say this not only to discover possible slips of logic, but also to reveal the wider implications of such a position. The irony that claims which denounce certainty do so certainly is one indication that this issue is more complex than we might first have thought. Indeed, the question seems to shift from “Ought we be certain or not?” to “About what ought we be certain?” and “How ought we express that certainty?”


     If we are going to navigate through this complexity, we need to establish a differentiation between the quality of certainty and the method or expression of certainty. Or between the object of certainty and the actions of one who is certain. The same holds of one who is uncertain or open-minded. We need to individually identify both right statements or beliefs and the behavior of those who adhere to them. If so, this means we will most likely find that some right beliefs are held proudly, and that some wrong beliefs are held humbly. We cannot any longer conclude that those who hold to their beliefs with prideful certainty are wrong, or perhaps more dangerously, that those who hold to their beliefs with humility are right—this avoids the issue completely. The change ought to be primarily affected towards character rather than content. How ought one present their convictions? Or their skepticisms?


     Imagine we have before us an aged gentleman whose life experiences have moved him into an ever-increasing position of equal respect for all religious traditions. Full of undeniable wisdom he tells us stories of learning empathy from devout Buddhists, of learning sacrifice from Christians, of learning respect from Muslims. He explains how his wisdom, knowledge, and character have been enhanced by the manifold riches of each individual from each religion he has encountered, and thus he reasons that we cannot really be certain about which one conveys the final truth. The safer, more humble, and more mature conclusion, he says, is that while each religion claims exclusivity of their own system or divinity of their own leader, one must come to see that they all equally, in their own way and with similar capacity, illuminate the truth of reality through their love and devotion. But imagine also with us the presence of a brilliant young woman who, though she is doubtless less experienced in life than the other, proclaims boldly the uniqueness of the risen Christ. She discounts the gentleman’s words with condescension, demonstrating at every point the weakness of his various conclusions, the irrelevance of his experience, the nonsense of his rampant pluralism. She casts off sympathy in exchange for designating absurdity; all in the precious name of Jesus. What is so obviously discomforting about this situation is the simultaneous, polarizing stances of admiration and revulsion we hold for both individuals at the same time and yet in opposite ways. How dare we dethrone the unfathomable God in Christ like the aged gentleman, and yet how dare we treat others with such heartless pride like the young woman? Who among us will concede that Christ is not distinctly divine, and who yet also would not look upon this gentleman's life and witness with admiration and submissive respect? And who among us would deny the uniqueness of Christ as the risen Lord who loves us beyond measure, and who yet also would not look upon this woman’s inclination with justified disgust? In the most counter-intuitive of ways, we are forced to declare the falsity of the former’s claims and the truth of the latter’s. But not in even a breath’s moment later would we exhibit our unflinching support of the former’s disposition and our unapologetic rebuke of the latter’s. This leads to a couple reflections.

First, though it is not readily apparent, both individuals actually maintain certainty. 

     The gentleman has concluded, from his experiences and reasoning, that knowledge is an unfolding journey rather than a still set of decided positions. He has concluded that each system of knowledge or belief is one equal perspective amongst all others of the truth to be found in the universe. But these are conclusions about which he is certain or to which he is committed, contrary to his own instruction, or else he would discount them. What I mean is that if he was not already uncritically committed to the belief that knowledge was an unfolding journey rather than a still set of decided positions, then he would toss that exact decided position out with all others. Or if he was not already uncritically committed to the belief that each system of knowledge is one perspective among many, then he would admit that his is just one perspective and thus would cease to pronounce on the whole. Though he feigns humble uncertainty and wise non-commitment, he is actually entirely certain and committed; only about different issues than those of the religious adherents. This is an extremely important point: certainty is unavoidable, for even doubting our capacity to attain certainty is only justified if we certainly confirm our doubts. In a similar way, commitment is unavoidable, for even asserting that we ought not commit ourselves to particular conclusions is itself a commitment to a particular conclusion. The desire for a Christianity without certainty and commitment, for a Christianity without some things having been figured out, is thus a vain pursuit. The question, again, is no longer “Ought we be certain or not?” but “How ought we be certain?” and “How ought we express that certainty?”

Second, we must distinguish between the objects of certainty or humility and the actions of one who is certain or humble. 

     We need to distinguish between objects and actions or qualities and expressions, but this needn’t lead to the conclusion that these two categories are unrelated, parallel realms. On the contrary they are very closely related, but nonetheless they are not identical. They each influence one another and flow from one another, for knowing is a moral stance, and it thus bears upon the knower to act in particular ways. For being certain about something will imply you ought to express that certainty in a particular manner.

     Therefore, it is entirely inconclusive to think that those who hold to their beliefs with certainty are wrong while those who hold to their beliefs with humility are right. Instead, we need a richer theology that confidently holds to truths while doing so with the utmost humility. We need a theology that contends both with those who claim to have it all figured out and with those who claim only to be on a fluid, open journey subject to exhaustive change at any point.

I’ve written an extended essay outlining this particular theological perspective available here.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

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