The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment by Daniel Taylor

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Theology and Faith
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Once every week or two I meet with a gentleman that has pastored and ministered for the past 38 years.  Many of our discussions have revolved around the issue of faith and doubt.  He has taught me that “doubt is a function of faith.”  In other words, we can see doubt as an obstacle or an opportunity.  It can hinder us in our walk or it can be a call to go deeper in our relationship with Christ.  My friend recommended this book to me during one such discussion concerning our role as Christians and pastors in discerning and sharing truth with others.  I found this to be an intriguing read.
Daniel Taylor discusses the wonder and the difficulty of being a “reflective Christian” in our world.  Taylor focuses on two sub-cultures: secular and Christian.  The reflective Christian, Taylor posits, may not fully fit into either of these sub-cultures.  The reason for this lies in the fact that people from both sides will often be threatened by opposing ideas.  Ideas, for many, are not neutral items.  In a world that pulls us in so many directions, we want to be sure about what we believe.  It gives us a measure of stability and control over our lives.  When we come face to face with opposing ideas, that balancing act is threatened and we react out of self-preservation.
Secularist and Christian alike operate more often out of reflex than reflection.  Taylor notes, “And fear, Jacques Ellul observes, ‘dictates two modes of behavior: violence and rigidity'” (26).  Taylor also notes the importance of community in our faith.  There is a recognition that the Church does not always live up to its high calling.  However, there is a lack of recognition that we play a part in its dysfunction.  To deprive ourselves of the Church to avoid its hypocrisy is also to rob ourselves of the sacramental role it fulfills as well.  The community can be an encouragement to us to keep the faith, even when it is most difficult.  The Church helps us navigate along the journey.
Despite seeing “certainty” as a myth, Taylor asserts that this does not mean that he does not believe in Truth.  He is far from relativistic.  However, understanding the limits of our finiteness gives us pause to be humble.  Our understanding and insight is finite.  That does not mean that we cannot know Truth, but we do so only seeing part of the whole.  A reflective Christian understands this tension.
The biggest temptation for the reflective Christian is inaction.  However, Taylor does not allow that to be a legitimate stopping place.  Faith requires commitment.  Everyone employs faith, even the secularist.  The question is what we will be committed to and if it is worth the time and efforts of our lives.  As such, faith is a risk.  In addition, commitment is a risk.  Certainty is the attempt to remove that risk, but it is there whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.  Lacking certainty does not mean that faith is not reasonable.  Rather, it means that it does not rely solely on logic.  It is important that we recognize the limitations of reason.
So, in the midst of uncertainty, what might allow us to commit in our faith?  Taylor suggests three elements: the use of memory, the experience of community, and the exercise of perseverance.  “There is a shorthand name we give to all our memories – tradition… Tradition is not primarily a set of creeds or theologies, though these are included, but a history of persons and communities and relationships” (107).  The experience of the community allows us to measure our faith by a standard.  We can see how our lives uphold or veer from the lives of the faithful over the centuries.  Secondly, the community can share our burdens.  It is in this context that we learn doubt is a function of faith, not necessarily detrimental to it.  And, perseverance “means continuing in faith when the conditions for faith are unpropitious” (112).
Although I did not nearly do justice to the content of the book, I believe the basic ideas are evident.  There are a few quotes that resounded strongly with me.  I will list a couple of them to help understand Taylor more adequately.
“We should avoid being sucked into negative struggles that are characterized primarily by what they are against, depending often on fear, suspicion, and even hatred for their primary motivation.  Seek out, instead, constructive tasks that bring healing, enlightenment, and encouragement rather than bitterness and enmity… Criticize the church when such criticism is called for, but also seek ways with your own life to make it what it should be” (136).
“The complement of an attitude of humility in regard to truth is one of compassion and patience when in conflict with others” (130).
“If the church is often ridiculous, all the more reason you and I should contribute to its rehabilitation by living correctly before God” (128).
“Truth cannot be adequately evaluated on an objective or propositional level.  How one holds a truth, one’s intention in regard to truth, the use to which a truth is put, the position against which a truth is asserted, the relationship between one truth and an equally valid balancing truth – all these and more determine the ultimate character of truth in our lives.  Sadly, even truth can be made to function as falsehood when it is fragmented, distorted, or isolated from its position in the whole” (129).
“Acting with less than perfect knowledge is part of the risk of being human” (127).
“The pursuit of truth and the love of God are one and the same.  One does not choose between them, as many in both subcultuers suggest.  Simone Weil saw that we can even wrestle with God, and particularly our distorted notion of God, on this ground: ‘It seems certain to me that we can never resist God enough (!), if we do it from a pure regard for the truth.  Christ loves those who prefer the truth, because before he is Christ he is the truth.  If we turn away from him, however, to follow truth, we will not go far before walking into his arms again.  This affirmation is not counsel for playing cavalierly with one’s faith in Christ, and it must be temprered by the realization that what we take for truth is sometimes illusion, but it expresses the central role that truth-seeking has in the life of the reflective believer'” (127).
“But each group is impatient with the recalcitrant who wants to retain parts of both worlds.  Conservative Christendom will allow you to think, as long as you think ‘correctly,’ or keep dangerous thoughts to yourself.  The secular world will allow you to be a Christian, as long as your faith is kept in quarantine and not allowed to influence your judgments or lead you to question secular presuppositions” (60).
“Common sense solutions are often not solutions at all.  Why not identify, for instance, with the liberal church which seems more free of authoritarianism, legalism, and anti-world paranoia?  Wouldn’t this be the best of both worlds?  More likely the worst of both worlds, I’m afraid.  The liberal church solves the problems of the reflective believer by allowing the secular world to determine what issues are important and in what terms those issues will be addressed” (61).
“Ultimately, unanimity is impossible.  It is brittle where unity is flexible and therefore strong” (36).
“Many wounded Christians have learned that revealing their thoughts compounds their difficulties, especially in the conservative church” (43).
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