Certainty is an Unobtainable Luxury

I find the debates between atheists and theists interesting. I’ve seen some recent posts from the atheist’s side that bring up issues of epistemology. Having been a philosophy major in college, epistemology is a subject I respect and enjoy. I do not assume that you are aware of what it is.

epistemology |iˌpistəˈmäləjē| Noun. the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

In other words, epistemology seeks to answer the question, “How do we know that we know something?” It is a daunting philosophical question that most of us don’t consider in our day-to-day activities.

But, “How do you know?” is a valid question. Especially in our information-saturated, anybody-can-edit-Wikipedia world. Does our information come from a reliable source? How do we know it is reliable? For some questions, we are willing to chance it, trusting the “crowd-sourced” wisdom of the internet. “Urbanspoon says this restaurant is liked by 89% of reviewers….”

For other questions, it seems, we should have greater confidence in our information.

“Is this an accurate medical diagnosis?”

“Is this a sound retirement investment?”

“Why am I here?”

“Is there a God?”

Many of the atheist authors I’ve read recently hold up the standard of certainty. We should only accept knowledge that we are certain is true. That sounds reasonable on the surface. I certainly agree with the driving motive, that we should seek truth over falsehood. But there is a fatal flaw with epistemological certainty.

It is impossible to attain.

Doubt is always lurking. Counter-examples can be constructed for most any proposition we put forward. Many like to point to science, but history is littered with the crumpled remains of disproved theories and thesis. It is hubris to think our current batch is somehow impervious to the same fate.

Obviously, we have learned many things along the way. Electricity, gravity, antibiotics. We’ve figured out some very useful stuff. But if the history of science teaches us anything, it is that the next disruptive discovery is always lurking in the future.

Obviously, other disciplines have the same historical track record. Religion, philosophy, even history. They have all made mistakes.

But even on the personal level, certainty is not possible. Name one thing you know with certainty.

Could it be wrong? Can you construct a situation where you may be deceived? Of course we can. All we have to do is watch the Matrix (or read Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is really the same basic story). Walk into most any Philosophy 101 class and you will hear enough doubt cast about to last you for the rest of your life.

We can talk about what is reasonable doubt versus unreasonable doubt. It may seem mad for me to deny the existence of my coffee table. But that doesn’t mean I can’t. I have had dreams. I have had hallucinations, thanks to high fevers. How do I know the coffee table isn’t one of those?

We can spend the next several hours establishing the reasonableness of the existence of the coffee table. But, at the end of it all, can we prove it exists? Not just show strong statistical evidence significant to >0.00001. That still leaves room for doubt.

Now, consider everything else we encounter in any given day. Do we stop to reason it’s existence? Do we inspect everything? Of course not, we’d never make it out of bed in the morning. There is not enough time.

No matter how materialistic (in the philosophic sense) one may be, we cannot escape doubt. Doubt is the defining human characteristic. Rene Descartes, in pursuing truth arrived at his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, by doubt. He doubted everything he could possibly doubt and was left with the activity of his doubting and the only thing he could not explain away.

The antidote for doubt, the way we escape this paralysis of thought and action is this:


Even with no theism in sight. Even with no questions of ultimate purpose and meaning, every single human being exercises faith. You just did.

You tapped your computer to make it scroll down. You acted in faith that that physical action would result in some result. You didn’t stake your life on it. You, undoubtedly have experienced a time where pushing that key did not achieve the desired result. But you did it anyway, without 100% certainty. This is played out constantly throughout our days.

My point? Atheism needs to find a new argument, because doubt leads down a rabbit hole to nothing. We must be intellectually honest enough to admit that we can do nothing other than live by faith. Once we do that, we can start a rational discussion of what are worthy objects of faith and what are not.

The definition at the top of this post reminds us, “Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.” We like to think we can somehow isolate facts. Derive truth. But we can’t. Certainty is a luxury we cannot obtain.

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Musings on Baptism, part 7

I thought maybe I was done with this series of posts, as it turns out, I’m not. I had the joy of baptising a young Soldier this morning during chapel. Then, at church a couple of hours later I witnessed the baptism of 2 infants.

The Spirit spoke through me this morning to this Soldier. I don’t say that lightly or out of some false holiness, but out of humility. I told him that, “Baptism isn’t a finish line, it’s a starting line.” It wasn’t something I had thought of to tell him beforehand. I give credit to God for that flash of insight. I reflected on those words as I watched the two children being baptized a little later in the morning.

One of the weaknesses of the evangelical approach has been, ironically, the emphasis on evangelism. We do need to evangelize. But that is only part of what we are called to do. We like to think we are “great commision churches” if we focus on evangelism. But, we neglect a vital part of the commission by only working on “conversion.”

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20 emphasis added.

Make disciples. We are to be fishers of men. But our calling isn’t to just pluck them out of the lake and stick them in the live well for Jesus. We are to guide them into the transforming life that Jesus modeled and promised. Discipleship, spiritual formation, catechism. Call it what you like, we shrivel and starve spiritually without it.

Too often, the recent church in America has looked to “get them in.” Getting them in and getting them wet is just the beginning. Now we have to raise them up in the faith, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. I feel more confident that the 2 infants this morning will get that from their parents and their church. The young Soldier graduates basic training in a few short days and chances are I may never see him again. I pray that he continues to seek after God, as he has come to these past 9 weeks. I pray that he continues to have friends like the one that stood next to him this morning during his baptism that can help him grow in the faith.

Evangelism is to the church what recruiting is to the military. Important, challenging work. But that is not all there is. Soldiers know that once you arrive at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and swear your oath of enlistment the journey is not over. It is just the beginning. Much the same is true of baptism and conversion. The Soldier still has basic training and advanced individual training to look forward to. Then they will arrive at a unit where the will start the process of learning how to live out and apply what they have learned, and start learning many other important things for their time in uniform.

It is the same way in the life of faith. Once we are baptized, whether as an infant or much older, it is the beginning. We are in. We are on on way, but we aren’t there yet. The transformation has only just begun, it is far from complete.

May we all press on to the goal that we have been called to in Christ Jesus.

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Imagio Dei

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Genesis 1:26

What is the image of God? What makes man different than all the fish, birds, plants, rocks, trees, livestock, and bugs?

One answer, and not an insignificant one, is language. We speak.

Certainly, lots of other living things make noise. Birds sing, dogs bark, lions roar. Crickets chirp, frogs croak and snakes hiss. But only people speak. The use of language is unique to mankind. No other creature comes anywhere close to the breadth and depth of communication that we are capable of.

God, also speaks.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1:1-3

In the beginning, God did not draw a picture, he did not form some matter with his hands, he spoke. All of the creation account in the beginning of Genesis consists of God speaking and his words resulting in what we know as reality–the world around us, to include us.

God has spoken to people throughout history, starting with Adam.

We are created in the image of God because we are able to speak. Our words, like God’s, can shape the world around us. We do not call worlds into being, but we can create and destroy, shape and guide through the words we use, because we are created after the pattern of God, and God is one who speaks.

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Musings on Baptism, part 6

The first covenant, with Abraham, had a sign and seal in the “sacrament” of circumcision. This was applied to males only, but to those who came into the covenant as adults, they had to submit, as well as those born into families which were part of the covenant on the 8th day. This mark, this symbol of having the foreskin removed was not withheld until the child could “choose” or “understand” what was going on. Instead, it was a teaching tool as the sons matured, I can imagine. “Dad, why do we look different than the gentiles?” (Or I at least suppose this is how it went. Now as to how everyone was so aware of everyone else’s foreskin status remains a bit of a mystery to me.)

Nevertheless, the sign of the covenant was given to infants. They were marked. “This one belongs to God.” Why not apply the sign of the new covenant to our children?

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Musings on Baptism, part 5

Of the two generally recognized canonical sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, it is worth noting that baptism is passive. We receive baptism. We cannot baptize ourselves. The Eucharist, on the other hand, is more active in that we “take and eat.”[1] A priest can commune himself after consecrating the elements himself. You can’t self-baptize.

If baptism is the action which “brings us into” the church, we can’t bring ourselves in. We have to be brought in. If we concede that baptism is a passive act—we submit to it, does that not strengthen the case for infant baptism? If we are to come like a child—in submission because forces bigger than us are compelling us—then is not the baptism of infants the legitimate sign of this submission?

[1] Matthew 26:26

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Musings on Baptism, part 4

One of my favorite bloggers has a video segment that ties into all of this….just out.

You can watch it here.

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Musings on Baptism, part 3

There is a notion, that is used as an argument against infant baptism that runs like this: “The notion that mentally, morally, and spiritually non-volitional infants should be subjected by God to any loss, still more to an eternal one, unless adults have them baptized outrages the ordinary moral conscience and, for multitudes, would make the worship of such a God impossible.”[1]

This seems like a rational argument at first, however it is anything but. Let us start at the end and work toward the beginning. First, the phrase “such a God” is nonsensical. It matters not whether or not we like God. If he is God, then it is our business and bounden duty to get with the program and do what he instructs us to do—no matter how we feel about it.

I know this is not a popular sentiment in the western world. But, if we understand God to be all-powerful and we are his creatures—not his judge, not his peers, not his master—then we need to bow in humility and respond, “Thy will be done.” Even if we think it offensive or unreasonable. (I’ll understand if you need to go away and ponder that for a while before continuing on.)

Second, the argument could just as easily be inverted and used to support infant baptism—the notion that adults, who love their children, can in a relatively simple sacramental action, seal their children until such an age that they can embrace or reject the faith on their own, could just as easily be heralded as an amazing acquiescence of God’s grace to us.

God is under no compulsion to spare any of us. It is only by his love for us and his grace extended to us that any of us live, move and have our being. There is no necessity that God would open up any way to salvation for us, that he would spare Noah, call Abram, send Moses and the prophets, and finally, sacrifice his very son in our stead.

I dare say, it is much more “mean” of certain churches to demand that children risk eternal damnation until they are old enough—in man’s judgment—to be baptized.

Also, there seems to be a connection with the assumption that un-baptized children will be granted eternal fellowship with God because they “could not chose” leads eventually to universalism. (A position that at least a few early Anabaptist came to espouse as the worked out their faith.) The train of thought is simple. If God “must” grant grace to an un-baptized infant, then why not to a unreached aborigine in the bush? Then why not to the person who had a horrid home life and never really heard the gospel, then why not… and so it goes until Christ’s call to “follow me”[2] and his declaration that he alone is, “the way and the truth and the life”[3] are stripped of all meaning and his word is mocked. Is it only the apostate who becomes damned?

[1] Stanley G. Luff, The Times, 26 September 1958, quoted in Beasley-Murray, G.R., Baptism Today and Tomorrow, 1966: New York, MacMillan p. 11

[2] Matthew 4:19 and several other places in the Gospels

[3] John 14:6

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