The Problem with Certitude

Theresa Latini Uncategorized 2 Comments

Because of the tendency for our notions and experiences of God to become rigid and prescribed, we—both individuals and communities—need to stand ever ready to have our religious experience and ideas about God broken wide open.

The true enemy here is, in fact, “certitude.” A personal faith or a tradition that seeks to cling with certainty to its ideas about God, or to its prescriptions about how to know God, risks idolatry of the worst sort. . . . The only antidote for such a danger is to embrace the ambiguity and unpredictability of waiting for the insights that open the door to transformative decisions while trusting God’s grace to bring them about.

— Cynthia Crysdale, Embracing Travail

In my last blog post, I suggested that theology can be used—(note the difference between theology itself and its potential use!)—to squelch questions, dull passions, and tame the dynamism of the Spirit’s work in our lives. So I was delightfully surprised while reading Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today to find similar sentiments. In this book, Cynthia Crysdale attempts to reconstruct this theology on the basis of scripture, human experiences of abuse, poor pastoral practice, and various understandings of the cross. In so doing, she holds the theological tradition lightly, but nevertheless she holds it and is held by it. She accurately (in my opinion) identifies the danger of grasping onto our own theological formulations, and her vignettes illuminate the deadening effects of this, which she sums up in the word “certitude.”

Certitude, in this sense, is quite the opposite of faith, or at least it is not faith seeking understanding. Certitude does not require trust or openness. It leaves little room for doubt, honest questioning, creativity, and new insight. It emerges from insecurity and manifests itself in rigidity—in one’s thinking and relating to self and others. When we withdraw from someone who seems ideological, I suspect we are reacting, in part, against attitudes and actions based on this kind of certitude.

The problems with certitude, however, are more far-reaching than even that which Crysdale identifies. For instance, certitude may thwart the mission of the church in our contemporary (western) context. We live in the midst of the “end of tradition,” as sociologist Anthony Giddens puts it. We pick and choose our beliefs and practices; we tend to distrust authorities (religious and other); and we are aware that there are multiple other frameworks of meaning by which we could shape our lives. So faith traditions no longer determine the course of most people’s lives, at least not in a definitively given, once-and-for-all sense.

On the one hand, then, it’s understandable that some of us grasp for certitude. Choosing among many options, sorting through competing perspectives about faithful Christian living can be dizzying and exhausting. On the other hand, certitude simply doesn’t make sense to many unchurched (and churched) people in our context, especially adolescents and young adults.

A God who can be wrapped up neatly, a faith that focuses on “being right,” and pastoral practice that seeks to socialize people into a religious culture rather than creating space and openness for people to encounter a living, dynamic God: all of this has little lasting sustenance for people immersed daily in ambiguity, doubt, and confusion. And most importantly, it simply doesn’t hold up to the biblical portrayal of true God and true humanity in Jesus Christ—the One who went against the grain again and again as he was led by the Spirit and then did what he saw God doing.

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Cynthia Crysdale, Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum, 1999)

Anthony Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives (New York: Routledge, 2003)

Comments 2

  1. Are you saying as Christians we should be "certain" about who we believe or trust? Is there space within being certain?

  2. Thanks for your question, Delonte. Actually I'm talking more about the way that we hold our faith, so to speak, in Christ. I think it's problematic when Christians believe that there is no room for doubt in the midst of faith, no room for questioning Christ's work in our midst in the here-and-now, or no room for accepting that God might be doing something entirely new and unexpected in our midst. Is that more clear?

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