A thought about certainty: is it the enemy of wisdom?

What is your idea of wisdom? Socrates said that the more he learned, the more he realized that he didn’t know anything. People call that Socratic wisdom, throwing off “childish” certainty and embracing uncertainty. Is that your view of a wise person, someone who has more questions than answers? Or do you see a wise person as someone who has all the answers, someone who has figured life out completely? If so, then wisdom brings certainty right? The other day I was reading about the difference between biblical faith and “certainty-faith” and the author said a thought-provoking thing: “Sometimes certainty is the enemy of wisdom”. That got me thinking – what am I certain about that I shouldn’t be, and what am I uncertain about that I shouldn’t be? Think about that. It affects how you relate with God, with people and with yourself.

between-suspicion-and-certaintyThere are many possible reasons why we would be inclined towards a black and white view of the world, or a more grey and ambiguous view. To some, this has its origins in our biology. For example, some people’s brain chemistry might make them more predisposed to fuzzy, intuitive concepts while others gravitate towards more concrete analytical ones. This makes me wonder about our natural preferences for different ideologies and theologies. Of course, much of this may be expanded from our biology to our psychology, because our personalities have been formed along different lines due to our environment and experiences. With different nurture, one person may feel threatened by certainty while another desperately needs it to feel safe in the world. Our experiences of family and society, especially at a young age, contribute to whether we expect the world we live in to be hostile or friendly, predictable or irrational. We should be wary of thinking that our personality’s inclination towards or away from certainty is purely objective and logical. Another related factor that influences our sense of certainty is the phase of life we are in. It is a well known phenomenon that, on average, teenagers and people in their twenties have a growing sense of empowerment and self-confidence which is at least partly linked to brain development. People of over the age of fifty, on the other hand, after humbling experiences of church, parenting and life in general tend to be less certain, sometimes even disillusioned. Lastly, certainty can also be highly dependent on our cultural\community background. Some groups of people are notoriously liberal or conservative, for whatever reason, and we assimilate much of that into ourselves in some way as we grow up in these settings. So when we are engaging with people who are different to us, we need to be sensitive to all of these biases, as well as our own.

But what is the truth for us in God? Wherever the Spirit finds us within this complex combination of biological, psychological and and sociological circumstances, my question is: where is He leading me, my family and my friends? How can I hold onto what God has taught me with certainty and conviction, and still remain teachable and open to correction? Perhaps there is a balanced ideal of wisdom and maturity towards which we should all strive, tracing a path like the spokes on a wheel from whichever extreme point on the circumference we begin, to the center which is the image of Christ. And yet, perhaps in God’s kingdom there is also a place for diversity and complementary extremes (who says God likes balance anyway?). Perhaps the Body of Christ only makes sense when there are black and white people who give those more uncertain something solid to stand on, some shape and direction, and perhaps also where the grey people help those who are too certain to find some subtlety and sensitivity, to remember that not all our categories and boxes need to be square and neatly packed together. Perhaps society needs young people with energy and adventure to build, and steadier old people to give it wise and firm foundations. Christian communities can benefit from this diversity, or divide over it!

Personally, I think I have a natural inclination towards seeing life (and people) as complex and mysterious. I assume I have something to learn. I also value teachability, and so I experience people as narrow-minded if they are overly sure of their own view, unable to bear other people’s differences or unwilling to openly engage and ask questions. These qualities can be both a blessing and a curse for me, but I am hoping that God will continue His work in me and make me wise, certain of what He has taught me and less certain of everything else!

What about you? Please share some thoughts from your perspective in the comments, or any questions that you may have.

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6 thoughts on “A thought about certainty: is it the enemy of wisdom?

  1. I used to be a very certain, black-and-white type of person, to someone who is wary of certainty. I think the change came because I’ve experienced that things are often more complex and sensitive than I thought (when looking from afar, outside). Being sure about something and then realising I was very worng has made me cautious to think I’m sure.

    Finch has a term for this: a 2D view vs a 3D view. Which basically means that, when you look at something from just one perspective, it seems simple and clear, but once you gain more perspectives, you realise the same thing looks different from different angles.

    Yet I still shun the concept of subjective truth. It’s true that one can have a subjective view, and that it makes sense subjectively. Yet, objectively your view may just as well be wrong.

    People who know me well know that I am very cautious to say that I’m sure about something, but when I do, I expect people to listen and I resent it when they do not.

    I therefore have come to adopt a much more case-by-case approach, rather than a “universal rule” approach to many of the tricky matters of wrong and right… In most cases I’m confronted with, I feel confident about what is right, but I don’t “extrapolate” to say that it will be the same with all cases.

    Well, that was quite abstract, but I’ll leave you with it nonetheless…

    • Thanks for sharing, abstract or not! I love the 3D analogy, it captures something of what I feel as well (flashbacks of engineering drawing class!). Besides how we experience the world in ourselves, the issue of certainty also affects how we experience each other. I have noticed that black and white people really offend grey people in church, for instance, and vice versa. It’s a bit like the introvert-extrovert dilemma that I have seen play itself out around me, but on a different spectrum, where people just don’t get or like each other because they are different. And yet they need each other so much to grow!

  2. Schaw! [Is that how you would spell it in your South Africaneeze dialect?] Some deep thoughts, but a fun read. Thanks for sharing.

    Personally, I’m inclined to asking more questions, though this doesn’t mean by any means that I’m contented to settle for less answers. No, I want answers, I just end up usually having more questions that I can answer, for find answers too. I also tend to be cautious in reaching conclusions (I guess because of this). But this invariably means that, at times, when I grow tired of being so slow in my thinking that I’ll make rash jumps or spontaneous decisions. Sometimes these end up being ok, and other times I find myself backtracking and retracing my steps.

    I certainly don’t have this balance figured out, but conversing with people like you, keep me on the right track—in both my heart and my head.

    • I’m still trying to figure out the word that you are trying to spell! 😉 You hit the nail on the head: someone who wants questions for questions sake is playing games. We all want answers, we all want security. It’s just that we are tempted to ignore questions to maintain security when they might actually set us free from false security that we are clinging to. For example, this is really at play (in my opinion) with this whole debate around the New Perspective on Paul, where the old perspective people are so certain and so defensive of questions posed by people like Wright that you wonder whether they ever “backtrack and retrack” as you put it…

  3. I am certain about gravity and will not try to fly – today anyways. Most other things I try to be a bit less sure of. Here is a quote that I recently used on my blog in a post titled “The Idol of Certainty”:

    “If I am anxiously striving to make myself feel certain that all my beliefs are true, fearfully avoiding anything that might cause me to doubt them, and fearfully suppressing any doubts that I may already be experiencing, doesn’t this indicate that I am not getting my core need for love, worth, and security from the God who is revealed on the cross? ” -Greg Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty

    • Good to hear from you again kansasbob! I have heard great things about this book on Scot McKnight’s website. The quote is quite a conversation starter. I find myself agreeing with the correction it tries to bring, and yet I am not quite sure if portrays a good alternative i.e. about what, and how, I should be certain… I assume the book does answer this question?

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