Christianity 201

October 22, 2016

The Challenging Concept of Certainty

Mark 9.23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Job 13.5 Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.

both NKJV

Forgive me while I run a particular rabbit trail today; I hope this gets you thinking. Every once in awhile I trip over a term that is being used by a particular writer or group of writers, and today it’s the term “heuristic faith;” which I believe originated with Gordon Allport in a 1950 book, The Individual and His Religion.

We begin at the Catholic blog Filca Holic

Henri Nouwen said, “I used to resent all the interruptions in my work until I realized that interruptions were my real work.” [Ronald] Rolheiser wrote, “There is something in a planned life that needs to be, for one’s own good, perennially sabotaged by interruptions. I am less glib in quoting them now, given that my own life has just been derailed by a major interruption.” …

…Karl Rahner once wrote that “in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we begin to realize that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” No matter how hard we try to live the best way we can, at all times the music gets interrupted. To deny this is to make life miserable. We wallow in anger with self and others; we lose faith, and blame God for everything. To accept this reality is to mature in spite of the wintry pain, suffering, scandals and disruptions.

Heuristic faith as defined by Henri Nouwen is clinging to what a person believes, even when everything is against it. In his The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, he wrote, “So I am praying while not knowing how to pray. I am resting while feeling restless; at peace while I am tempted, safe while still anxious; surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, in love while still doubting.”

Next we turn to The Psychology of Jesus by David McKenna:

A practical philosophy of life contains an element of faith — it is heuristic. No world view answers or anticipates all the questions of the universe. Therefore, a mature person holds his or her philosophy of life confidently but tentatively. By his own testimony, Paul made room for the unknown: “At present we are men looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12)! Jesus demonstrated heuristic faith when he admitted that the time of the coming of the Son of man was known only to the Father (see Acts 1:7). As Allport would say, “It is a characteristic of the mature mind that it can act wholeheartedly even without absolute certainty.”

Ambiguity came as a shock to me when I was a junior in college. As the product of a home, church, and junior college where spiritual certainty reigned, I was unprepared for the intellectual bombardment of a professor in cultural anthropology. He deftly stripped away all the cultural layers of my faith and exposed an indefensible core. Confused and shaken, I could only pray, “God if you exist and if there is anything to Christianity, show me now.” Taking pity on my desperate state, God brought the person of Jesus Christ before my mind and rested his case. One might say that this was my intellectual conversion because I chose to do what Elton Trueblood described for me many years later: “A Christian is a person who is willing to bet his life that Christ is right.”

At the site Reflections on Biblical and Christian Philosophy, a look at this type of faith as it applies in many of our current science-related debates in an essay on the ideas of Michael Polanyi.

His [Polanyi’s] revelation concerning doubt is spectacular “The doubting of any explicit statement merely implies an attempt to deny the belief expressed by the statement, in favor of other beliefs which are not doubted for the time being.”   Faith and doubt, then, are just opposing beliefs according to personal commitment! The Christian, then, when faced with doubts of various kinds, should attempt to sort out what are these various “other” beliefs, and what are their claims to truth that would challenge Christian beliefs? What could be more practical to the doubts that believers have?

 A misunderstanding of faith is clearly illustrated in the waxing and waning of faith-healing.   Is the lack of healing due to a lack of faith, or are there other elements to be considered.     Medical science can provide mechanisms of healing; Scripture can provide its perspective; and personal experiences provides other perspectives. A better understanding of faith by all these perspectives can give more accurate expectations to those who might seek faith-healing.

Polanyi was not overtly Christian. There are occasional and sometimes surprising references to Christian themes, but certainly no case can be made that he is advancing any religious agenda. Far from it. His Christian theology, in contrast to his scientific and philosophical expertise, is superficial, inconsistent, and minimally related to his epistemology. But Christians can make great use of his ideas. First, his thinking can illuminate Scriptural and personal beliefs and how they function in practical applications. Second, he virtually destroys science as a monolithic, objective, and certain source of truth or knowledge, making it instead into a “personal calling” of “discovery.” Christians need not fear any scientific pronouncements that would affect their theology, as science is only another authority whose evidence is to be weighed along with other important authorities.

That last sentence is a great place to stop today, but we’ll return to look at the issue of certainty again.

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