We as human creatures are controlled by concerns for reliability. We want to understand what people will do, how things act, what is true in a way that we can have a confident sense of expectations for the future. From our first days in the world, we are learning to develop a sense of a specific type of reliability: trust in another person. As we grow older, we are trained in school to become reliable thinkers and knowers. We ourselves are also brought up to be reliable/trustworthy people ourselves. Trust and reliability is the hidden glue that keeps our own lives together, personally and socially; without a sense of reliability, we would be locked into a sense of fear and protectiveness.
However, most of the time, we are not consciously reflecting on the reliability of persons or things. We primarily develop an intuition about reliability without direct, rational reflection on who and what to trust. For instance, I don’t rationally reflect about the floor of second story of my parent’s house and whether it will hold with my next step. In fact, until this moment, I don’t think I have ever rationally reflected whether the floor would hold or not. Nevertheless, I know the floor is trustworthy. I am certain of it.
However, I suppose it could be technically possible that rot had developed that I could not see at some part of the floor, which would make it unstable if I put weight on it. Given that the house seems to be in good condition, it seems unlikely that there would be any significant rot. Yet, it could still be possible and I have no way of knowing for sure unless I tear about the upstairs to investigate the wooden base. So, I am not entirely certain the floor will hold up.
So, am I certain or not about the floor?
In epistemology, there is a concept known as pragmatic encroachment, in which the perception of whether we have knowledge about something or not is related to the pragmatic circumstances we are in. In the classic example of pragmatic encroachment, there are nearly two identical scenarios where a couple is driving home on a Friday afternoon and needs to make a deposit at the bank. As they drive by, they notice a long line at the bank. In the first scenario, it is not important for them to make a deposit and the wife is confident the bank will be open the next day on Saturday. In the second scenario, it is important for them to make the deposit, and the couple is not confident whether the bank will be open the next day. The sense of whether they ‘knew’ the bank would be open or not was inversely proportional to the importance of the task. The more important it was to make the bank deposit, the less certain they were that the bank would be open on Saturday.
The point behind pragmatic encroachment is that our purposes and goals impact our sense of knowledge, reliability, and certainty. If something isn’t very important, there does not seem to be much lost if what we think to be true ends up being wrong. If something is important, then our confidence in our knowledge becomes much more salient.
Now the logical thing might be to say that the more important something is, the more we should be open to the evidence, but this doesn’t usually seem to be the case. Instead, as Leon Festinger’s study of a cult that produce popular psychological concept of cognitive dissonance demonstrated, the more important and committed people are to something, the less likely people on average are to be open to counter evidence. On the surface, the example of pragmatic encroachment doesn’t seem to gel well with Festinger’s observations about cognitive dissonance.
However, if we were to try to synthesize the ‘logical’ example of the couple going to the bank with Festinger’s study of a cult, we might come up with a basic hypothesis: that there is a “middle zone” of importance of their goals and values where people are most open to considering the evidence, but when things are deemed to be unimportant or of most vital importance, people are less likely to be more open to considering opposing evidence. In fact, our willingness and openness to assess evidence may be considered to be linked with the Yerkes-Dodson law, which stipulates that either too little or too much arousal decreases performance. Insofar as our goals and purposes are linked to our motivation controlled by our states of arousal, then our willingness and capacity to consider how certain we are and how reliably know about the things we seek and are wanting will come to pass depends on us being in a moderate state of arousal. If something isn’t important, we are not likely to give too much though to whether our knowledge is truly reliable or not. If something is very important, we will be in a similar boat.
This doesn’t mean, however, we have the same exact type of epistemic performance in insignificant and extremely significant purposes. When I am walking on the floor upstairs, I don’t really place much importance of thinking about the floor because I have developed an implicit sense of trust in the sturdiness of the floor. I just don’t think about it. However, in the case of cults, they are actively trying to rationalize why their central, most important beliefs remain true, even when it seems to be false. The cult actively tries to obtain a sense of certainty about their religious beliefs, whereas I am principally unconcerned to determine if there is rot in the floor that I am unaware of. In my case, I simply don’t try to think about the floor, whereas in the case of the cult, they are actively thinking, but in a very poor fashion.
I bring this forward to try to present a case for understanding Christian faith and the desire to have certainty about our faith. Especially Post-Enlightenment where religions has been treated and regarded as a superstition, beneath the intellectual superiority of science, Christians have had a chip on their shoulder, often with the felt need to try to prove through apologetics, personal testimony and experience, etc. the validity and certainty of the Christian faith. Certainly, this is not a bad intellectual task for us to take up.
However, the problem with such deeper pursuits of certainty comes when we live with the mentality that my beliefs about God, Jesus, the Church, etc. are of critical, essential importance. When living in a state of religious hyper-arousal, we are inclined to reason poorly about our faith in the hopes to reaching certainty. We get locked into certain types of readings and interpretations of the Scriptures, unable to become more fluid readers based upon what is given. We become overconfident in our understanding of the meaning and significant of our own religious experiences. We become rigidly attached to specific construals of theological doctrine. All of this happens because we overlook the complexity and ambiguity of our sources for faith and theology because we think what we believe and think is of a matter of huge, essential, critical purposes.
Allow me to suggest, however, that this is a fundamental error. It is not my faith that is of the most central importance. It is God who is of the highest importance. I have no control of God, however. God is free to be as God is. We come to trust and know God, but it is what God does that is more important for my life than what I think about God.
To be sure, what I believe about God is the most important thing I can do for my life, but God is more important to my well-being than my beliefs about God at this specific moment of time. God is more important to my well-being that my feelings at this specific moment of time. God is more important to my well-being than my actions as this specific point of time. My beliefs, my feelings, my actions are of moderate importance, whereas God Himself is of the utmost importance. I believe that because God is merciful to the righteous and the unrighteousness, that His love is more important than my own faith.
When we can make the distinction between our own religious and spiritual lives from God, then we are not at risk in getting caught up in the persistent hyper-arousal that makes us poor thinkers. When I overestimate the importance of my own thinking about God, implicitly making myself more important than God, then I begin to become blind to how God makes Himself known, but instead become tempted to rationalize and project upon God.
So, when Christians place a high degree of importance on the certainty we have about our faith in God, salvation, etc., we begin to replace the importance of God with the importance of ourselves, and as a consequence, we get locked into a form of religious hyper-arousal experienced in the form dogmatism that can be hard to break out of and see through.
There is nothing wrong with finding and searching for good reasons for our faith. However, when we egocentrically think our own certainty is more important than God Himself, we replace God with ourselves and yet we feel certain we know God. If, however, I recognize that each choice I make, each step I take to understand God and His will more clearly, each act of worship and submission I participate in is not of the utmost immediate importance now, but over the course of my lifetime it will be the most important decisions I make, I am freed from myself so that I can know God more than I can know the self I try to project onto God. I can search and grasp for a deeper understanding than can deep my sense of faith and confidence, while at the same time, I don’t feel the need to explain away the ambiguities that come with knowing God through the Scriptures, through tradition, through reason, and through my experiences and come to an overconfident, rationalize ‘faith’ that is more in service of my own identity than God.
The one factor that has been the most persistent influence of the hyperarousal of the Christian consciousness has been the belief that “if I don’t believe, I will be eternally punished.” This belief has so strongly reinforced the notion that what I think is of crucial, immediate importance, because if I get it wrong, there is much for me to fear. Such reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s wrath throughout the Bible. If one takes the Old Testament and New Testament seriously, God judges, there is no denying this, and this judgment can be fierce and scary, there is no denying it. However, the ever persistent criteria for God’s judgment is what one has done, not what one believes.
The belief that the lack of faith makes one automatically condemned to eternal judgment is in large part due to a combination of a partial misreading of the language of belief and unbelief in the Gospel of John and overstating the centrality of Pauline justification in conversion. As a consequence, we have treated faith and judgment in terms of a binary, true or false, because we have treated faith and salvation as an “exchange.” Therefore, those who do not have faith do not make that “exchange.” As a result, we encourage a sense of hyperarousal as to the decision to come to faith, making people believe their decision right there at that moment is of the central, most important decisions that they will ever make.
Now, faith is certainly instrumental in our redemption, because of which we have an assurance that God’s transformation of us will have us in the resurrection of life. It is the single most important thing across the course of my entire life. But my choices from one moment to the next is not of the utmost important; it is God who shows grace and mercy who is of the utmost importance. Once I recognize this, I am freed to wholly receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and learn from the Triune God over the course of my life. My life is set on the trajectory of new creation and the resurrection of life, giving an assurance that I could not arrive to apart from faith. With the faith of the Gospel, we come to learn and know God deeply and see our transformed selves as those who share communion with this God through the Spirit.
Without this faith, we are not automatically cast into the fires of hell, but we are left unable to see and understand who God knows us to be, unable to know what awaits our future. Coming to faith isn’t some exchange that immediately changes everything in that moment, as if we have left certain destruction, as much as gives us the relationship that will change us over the course of our entire lives, that we can go from ignorance and deep uncertainty to having assurance of everlasting life. Coming to faith is important, but it isn’t more important than the God who shows mercy.
This faith that is not built upon the hyperarousal rooted in a sense of an exchange does not try to build a false certainty about God that believes I can pierce the epistemic veil between God and me. Rather, I am freed to allow God to be God and allow me to be myself. I can accept that the living God is most important for my well-being, whereas my choices of faith, obedience, worship, etc. simply brings myself into a place where I learn and grow more deeply, freeing myself to know God as He makes Himself known, without trying to reach for a false certainty. It allows me to live in the middle-zone of arousal, recognizing my faith in God and life lived before him are important, but isn’t more important than the God who shows mercy and grace.