Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor - my favorite book of 2016


The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment by Daniel Taylor (Book Review #79 of 2016)

This five-star work is Book of the Year 2016 for me. Like many reviewers, my reaction is one of "I now know I am not alone." It is not in Kindle format, so I took pictures of probably 1/3 of the pages to make highlights (hence page numbers are missing from most of the quotations below). He later wrote a sequel from an older-age perspective, and I hope to find that soon.

Reflective Christians (me): "have found in God, and in Jesus Christ, the proposed solution to the human dilemma to which they have made, with varying degrees of confidence, a commitment. At the same time they have been blessed and cursed with minds that never rest. They are dissatisfied with superficial answers to difficult questions, willing to defend faith, but not its misuse. Furthermore, these people find themselves in the church, members of a Christian subculture...they are both indebted to it and victimized by it. At the same, time they are often part of...another culture...hostile to their Christian commitment. This is the secular, intellectual world that deals in the manufacture and propagation of ideas" (p. 11).

 I stumbled across this at a used bookstore about the time Andy Stanley's 2016 mini-series on apologetics (directed toward those who had left the church for a "None" status) was sparking controversy. I listened to the entire series and read Stanley's explanation in Outreach Magazine,
stating his belief in inerrancy but challenging preachers to avoid saying "the Bible says..." These were on my mind along with John Piper's response to his personal dialogue with Stanley when I saw this book and was struck by the Introduction (above). I do not know if Stanley read this book, but I suspect he has. I noted that Barnabas Piper rated this book 5 stars and wrote his own book (Help My Unbelief) along similar theme, which I now hope to pick up.

The older I get and the more widely I read and interact with educated, biblically-skeptical non-Christians the more I am in tune with an apologetic that asserts a "reasonable faith"; one that begins either by 1) pointing out the attractiveness of the Christian worldview compared to the logical absurdity of life/values/ethics in the absence of a creator, or 2) the reasonable probability based on all the historical evidence that Jesus did indeed leave an empty tomb. With this approach comes a probability-- there is a chance I am wrong but I believe the odds are in my favor because... (and reasons follow). Nabeel Qureshi's testimony, in which he studied philosophy in college and began to use Western logic to examine the Bible and the Quran + Hadith literature to reach a conclusion that Christianity was likely true and made a faith decision, also weighed on my thinking.

Faith necessitates a level of uncertainty that does not contradict the "assuredness" of Hebrews 11:1. Doubting Thomas believed in a resurrected Jesus because he saw and felt his wounds himself. Jesus said "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). None of us were there with our cellphone cameras, but we rely on the relayed testimony and historical evidences of those who were. Faith necessitates risk, another word for uncertainty. Without doubt, there can be no exercise of faith.

"Faith, however, is not a matter of rolling the dice. It is, or can be, a conscious expression of a great gift--human freedom...without this freedom, commitment would be inconceivable...Barth says freedom rightly understood is not freedom FROM something...'but freedom TO and FOR," a release to choice and action. And the greatest exercise of that freedom, Kirkegaard affirms, is to choose God, to choose commitment and responsibility.."

People do not like doubt or uncertainty, however, and we have a cognitive bias to believe with certainty things we cannot truly, absolutely know. An atheist maintains his certainty that I am a fool to be a Christian just as a fundamentalist may believe I am dangerous because he places his certainty on "because it's in the Bible." Within both camps there is also the presence of "True Scotsman fallacy," if you believe X, you must certainly believe Y, or else you're not a True Believer in X. (For example, before the GOP nominated Trump I would have said you have to believe in free trade to be a Republican, similar to how most Democrats say you have to be pro-choice to be a Democrat). Taylor deals with some of these cognitive biases without calling them such, (this was written before Kahneman and Tversky were household names).

"How does one survive as a thinker in the church and a believer in the larger world?"
Taylor's point is that people who may be well-read in non-religious Christian topics and yet maintain faith often struggle to fit into either our Church or among our non-Christian educated colleagues & friends, hence they/we feel alone. We need to be able to question institutions, which to some adherents is paramount to "attacking God" (p. 30), but need not be so. People defending institutions are often "protecting themselves, their view of the world, and their sense of security." The reflective Christian likewise questions the secular orthodoxy:

"Secularists don't generally think of themselves as having an orthodoxy, but they have one just the same...(with) articles of faith, each with its own history...like reason, inquiry, objectivity, tolerance... etc." The orthodoxy of the secular world today is pluralism. "Only 'friendly' diversity, like the pseudo-questions in the Christian subculture can be allowed. The intellectual world, like its Christian counterpart, exercises power first for the purpose of self-preservation..." As such, there are examples of closed-mindedness on both sides. Universities will bar creationists just as churches will bar atheist string theorists.

Taylor critiques the worship of reason by secularists, who do things with reason that it by definition cannot do. "There is no objective, neutral thing called 'reason' which anyone with some training can use to get at the 'truth' of things (especially nonphysical things). The closes we come perhaps is in the scientific method...or in the technical use of logic in formal philosophy." People who purport to use reason to equate faith with irrationality are as wrong as those who argue that reason and evidence PROVE the existence of God. "God is not reducible to proof and only our weakness makes us wish it were so." Reason is not at all useless, and the Christian can use it just as well as an atheist--the difference is the Christian is more likely to acknowledge its limitations.

Taylor likewise highlights "the myth of objectivity," noting that "objectivity is supposedly something that the intellectual can have, while the person of faith wallows in subjectivity." But "in deciding what is good and true and beautiful and worth living for in this world there is so much sheer humanness at work, that the claim of cool, rational objectivity is almost laughable. Only objects are truly objective" (p. 51).  He is standing on the shoulders of 150 years of secular thinkers who have used reason to critique and demonstrate its limitations. Pascal wrote "We must know where to doubt, where to feel certain, where to submit. He who does not do so, understands not the force of reason."

"The secular world will allow you to be a Christian, as long as your faith is kept in a quarantine and not allowed to influence your judgments or lead you to question secular presuppositions." The reflective Christian is "reluctantly" willing to be out of sync in both subcultures-- if he is convinced he is correct. "The reflective Christian does well, in my view, to freely admit this possibility of being wrong." I wish I held my own views with such humility. "One can hold beliefs passionately yet with humility...Humility helps us avoid confusing defense of the truth with defense of the self."

Though this work is non-fiction, Taylor sprinkles in an ongoing fictional illustration, the story of an English professor named Alex, who earned an advanced degree at a liberal institution but now teaches at a conservative Christian college. Alex is me. I taught at a politically and religiously conservative Southern Baptist school with its proud traditions and guardedness against anything that might be unusual. His field is English, mine is economics and both fields taught at Christian university may teach that only a particular type of literature or economics is truly "Christian." This was the most powerful passage in the book for me, a conversation between a frustrated Alex and an older, wiser fellow Reflective Christian colleague:

"But why (stay) in the middle of these people? Why not go where faith isn't mixed up with quite so many other things? I mean some of these people genuinely believe God is a free-market Republican."
"Why not, indeed...This is just one little, back-water spot in the river of faith. But it is the place where I have been put, and I have chosen to stay...Don't make the mistake of thinking there's another time or another place where following God will come easier...You have everything you need for your contentment or misery within the confines of your own heart. That will go with you wherever you go. Every place has its pitfalls and absurdities, just as each has its opportunities and measures of grace...Where do you walk to? To other people who are just as silly, who simply have a different mix of blind spots and prejudices?...(F)or me at least there weren't any greener pastures. Or, if there were, they were somewhere inside me."

Taylor writes about the importance of the faith community, both current and our historical forebears. "The church must remember well if it is to function well today." We Christians have two millenia of heritage that we inherit, respect, and are thankful for. "We" ended the slave trade in England and then the West, adopted abandoned children in ancient Rome and promote adoption and foster care today, preserved ancient literature during the Middle Ages, elevated the status of women, continue to feed and clothe the hungry, and so on. Our local faith community is not one we walk away from lightly, we accept one another, love one another, pray for each other, share with each other, and provide accountability and stability in relationships that all humans need.

"The community is (also) 'the place where the burden of doubt can be shared.'" Taylor writes that this particular aspect is "foreign to actual practice" but quite biblical. He warns the reader to guard against cynicism. The reflective Christian has trouble committing to something he is not completely certain about. We would rather think about it some more, and definitely not be looked at as an example. In doing so, however, we miss out on the benefits of exercising faith (and rob the community of the benefit as well).

My review cannot do this book justice, so I highly recommend it. 5 stars.

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