by C Michael PattonNovember 17th, 2010 35 Comments
Indubitable: adj - Beyond the possibility of a doubt; unquestionable
I don’t believe the Christian faith is indubitable, but I do believe that it is true.
I tell this story when talking about the bankruptcy of requiring indubitability before you believe something (Yes, I’ve told this before):
I play this game with my kids that drives them crazy. Sitting in the room, with no one but us, while they are not looking I will slap them on the rear-end and act like I did not do it. They turn and say, “Daddy! I know you did that.” I say, “I did not.” ”Then who did it?” they respond (thinking they have settled the issue with this one question). I say, “A guy ran in the front door and slapped you and then ran out.” They look at me like I am crazy and exclaim, “Daddy! We know you did it.” “Look!” I respond to their skepticism, “The front door is not locked. It is possible that someone could have come in since the door is not locked.” Upon further looks of skepticism, I force them go check the door to see if it is locked. Once they see it is unlocked, I have won the day. I have poked a hole and their certainty and even caused them to confirm it by checking the door. No longer possessing the indubitably that I have required for their epistemic verification, they now have lost poise in their former confidence. In other words, I tricked them into thinking that one has to be absolutely certain about something before it can be believed.
Ideas about the value of certainty are currently on the theological stage of debate. With the intellectual challenges of the so-called “new atheism,” some Christians are opting for a fidist approach to the faith (ignore the evidence, just believe). Others, however, are responding to their challenges with precise and cutting vigor. However, many are on wild goose chases checking doors to see if they are locked and becoming frustrated, even doubting, when they find that the door is not locked.
Objection: “You can’t be certain that Christianity is true. One scholar has proposed Christianity borrowed from other ancient religions to get its story.”
Response: Oh great. Yes, most people don’t believe this, but what if this one scholar is right? What does this mean for my faith?
Objection: “You can’t be certain Christ rose from the grave since his body might have been stolen.”
Response: I supposed this could be true. Though there does not seem to be any evidence for this, it might have been stolen. What does this mean for my faith?
Objection: “It would seem you have a problem since there are two angels in one resurrection account and only one in the other. Which one is it?”
Response: While they both agree that Christ rose from the grave, should I continue to believe when these two accounts cannot agree on this most basic detail?
Objection: “Stephen Hawking said that a black hole could have created our universe out of nothing.”
Response: I have no idea what this means, but what if Hawking is right? He is a very smart man.
Often, a skeptical world will will provoke us with the reality that we cannot be indubitably certain about any of our beliefs because of the infinite amount of alternative possibilities. No matter how unlikely these alternative possibilities are we find ourselves spending time defending against positions that are well beyond tipsy in their stability. When people poke “holes” in our beliefs with arguments that are no better than “look, the door is not locked” we find ourselves missing the big picture, backed into a corner seriously discussing the security of the door.
How do we get here? Glad you asked.
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), the father of the “Age of Reason,” was commissioned by a cardinal in the church to find a way of attaining a level of certainty that went beyond mere probability. With skepticism on the rise, mere probability was looked at as the ugly step-sister of the indubitability that accompanied absolute certainty. “We don’t want probability! People can poke holes in that. We want absolute certainty. We want to be indubitable!” Indubitability ultimately equates to infallible knowledge—knowledge that can’t be wrong. Prove without a shadow of a doubt that God exists by mere intuitive resources. That was Descartes commission.
Again (just in case you have not grabbed a hold of this word yet), indubitability describes the impossibility of being wrong due to an exhaustive and infallible method of inquiry; indubitable beliefs are beyond the possibility of question or doubt. This is what the church wanted Descartes to produce with regard to the Christian faith.
Descartes was up to the task. Locking himself in a large dutch oven, he reasoned with himself until he could reason no longer. “What can I be indubitably certain about so that I might get a foothold on faith? What truth is beyond question?” He decided to doubt everything (and I mean everything). He even doubted his own existence, believing that, no matter how unlikely, the demons might be tricking him into thinking he exists. But when push came to shove, there was one thing he could not doubt. There was one thing he was indubitably certain about. From this he would build all the rest. What was it? He could not doubt that he was doubting. For in order to doubt that he was doubting, he would have to doubt! And if he was doubting, he would have to be thinking. And if he was thinking, he was in existence. Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) was his conclusion. Upon this, he built his method for attaining indubitability. His “I think, therefore I am” looked as if it provided a bridge to attain the type of certainty to which humans have never been privy. His methodology, which became known as “the Cartesian method,” was adopted in large part by those in the West. And thus began the Age of Reason, where certainty—indubitable certainty—reigned supreme. There was celebration at Descartes seeming defeat of the skepticism of his day.
The problem: The Christian faith does not require human indubitably. God does not call on us to infallible certainty before we are required to believe in him. Our trust in the Lord does not come only after we have considered every other possibility, no matter how unlikely. Why? Because indubitability is a black hole leading to perpetual skepticism. Contrary to Descartes methodology, there are always going to be alternative possibilities. There will be an infinite number of objections that can be brought up. No matter how unlikely, there will always be doors to check to see if they are locked. Once we suspend belief until all the doors are checked, we have suspended belief forever. No one actually can or does live by such a method in the acquisition of truth in any area of life. We never require ourselves to check all the locks on all the doors since there are an infinite number of locks and an infinite number of doors. Yet, often, we do it anyway. When the door is unlocked, those who are epistemically conditioned to find this substantial, like my children, enter into a state of suspended belief, doubt, or skepticism or opt for a “leap of faith” that demands no evidence, and then sneer at those who do demand evidence as if it is passé.
There is a point in our faith where our search for indubitability needs to yield to the sufficiency of probability. This does not mean we are taking a blind leap into the dark. On the contrary, we are responding to the sufficiency of the light that has been given. In fact, to fail to respond is the leap of blind faith. For in our indecisiveness, we have actually made our decision for the least likely of all the options. “I am not going to commit myself to believing my daddy slapped me since there are other possibilities that, while unlikely, are out there.” That is making the least rational decision of all. That is the biggest leap of faith there is available.
There are many people out there who are on the never ending quest for indubitability. You might be one of them. Forever on the verge of making a decision, but always getting tripped up by the least likely of alternatives. “The door is unlocked.” “A demon is making me think this.” And a million other things. There are many people out there who will make you think that your search is valid. My encouragement to you is to make a decision based on the light given. When you look at the Bible, yes, there are going to be an infinite amount of alternative explanations for many of the events described. But there comes a point where you must commit yourself to the Scriptures, opting for the most likely. If Christ rose from the grave, there are implications that the Bible is trustworthy. Infallible implications? No. Sufficient implications? Yes.
What my kids should say is this, “Daddy, I don’t care if the door is unlocked. It does not play a sufficient part in your proposition to warrant a disregard of the greater areas of viability with regard to our belief that you are the one who slapped us.” And if I respond, “But you don’t know with perfect, absolute, and infallible certainty,” they should say, “No daddy, probability is sufficient to warrant, yea, demand a belief such as ours and, as a consequence, to reject your alternative.” Well, if they said it like that, I would be quite scared, but you know what I am saying.
Probability is sufficient. We neither need to go into intellectual hibernation and accept our beliefs on blind faith nor do we need to suspend our belief until all the objections, no matter how improbable, are answered.
What I posed to my children was merely a possibility to explain the slap, but possibilities do not create probabilities. We are responsible in this life to act upon the revelation given to us, not to seek absolute indubitably.
We are neither postmodern skeptics nor modern rationalists. We find value in both skepticism, when truly warranted, and rationality, when the probability is conditioned by God to be such.
In other words, our belief in the Bible’s truthfulness should not be sidetracked simply because someone presents an alternative possibility. Yes, we engage these alternatives, but we don’t give them more credit than they deserve. The old illustration of the “leaky bucket” only finds relevance in an imaginary world where indubitability is required for every rational decision. All buckets are leaky, but this does not mean they don’t hold water. Those who say that the Christian story borrowed from other religions or that Christ’s body was stolen have simply presented other possibilities that are often no more sufficient to warrant credibility than my “look, the door is unlocked.” Possibility, yes. Probability, no.
Sermon principles (for those of you taking notes):
- Don’t be shaken by unlikely theories (there are an infinite number of them).
- Don’t hypocritically require indubitability (you don’t in any other area of life).
- Don’t think that all possibilities are equal (they are not even close).
- Don’t opt for a blind “leap of faith” type of faith (this is immoral).
- Just because something is possible does not make it probable (my thesis that I wear on my sleeve).
Finally, and most importantly, I believe that the truths of Christianity are probable to such a degree that the only rational option is for all people to fall on their face and worship Christ.
No, I am not completely (indubitably) certain that Christianity is true. I am not indubitably certain of anything. However, I am sufficiently certain that it is true. So certain that any other choice would be irrational.
- The Sufficiency of Probability in the Christian Belief
- Some Alternative Explanations for the Resurrection of Christ
- “What if I Missed Something?”
- Why I Believe the Canon is Fallible . . . And am Fine with It!
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Seven – What About the Canon?