Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment

Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty: the Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment. InterVarsity Press, 1992. Originally published in 1986. ISBN: 9780830822379

Daniel Taylor gives his reason for writing this book: "I wrote this book because I found so many people, young and old, struggling with issues of faith and doubt, the life of the mind and the life of the heart, the world of the church and the larger world of ideas. And because the struggles I saw in other were echoes of my own." Taylor is speaking of my own struggles. I became a Christian when I was eighteen in a Conservative Christian Church. Soon after becoming a Christian I went to a public university. I loved the life of the mind that I found in the university and I was committed to the faith I found in my church. I often found that my experiences in these two subcultures were opposed to one another. For over thirty years I have tried to integrate these two cultures in my life. What Taylor has to say about the reflective Christian I have found true in my own life.

Taylor's The Myth of Certainty describes two different subcultures who are convinced they have certainty about what they believe: the academic, secular world and the Christian conservative church. Taylor argues for a middle way through these two subcultures. He argues that we cannot have certainty because we are finite human beings. Taylor, however, is not a relativist. He believes that we can attain truth, just not absolute certainty. He shows how the Christian life is a life of faith and he shows how both of these subcultures are guided by faith.

The Myth of Certainty contains six chapters. Taylor writes about his intended audience: "My direct concern is for those people who, like Pascal, have been unable to attach themselves to the world's 'pleasing objects.' They have found in God, and in Jesus Christ, a proposed solution to the human dilemma to which they have made, with varying degrees of confidence, a commitment. At the same time they have been blessed and cursed with minds that never rest. They are dissatisfied with superficial answers to difficult questions, willing to defend faith, but not its misuse" (11). Reflective Christians want to bring their faith to the academy and they want to bring their faith to the church. The problem is that both subcultures do not want questions that challenge their certainties. They see only black and white answers. They do not allow for mystery and finite human knowledge. Though God's knowledge is perfect, human's knowledge is not.

Taylor describes the reflective Christian in chapter one. The reflective Christian is one who is in awe at his ability "to carry on a mental dialogue with reality" which basically means to think. It also "evokes that long tradition of people of faith who have valued and participated in the life of the mind and who have brought their God-given intelligence and imagination to bear on the society in which they have lived" (15). These people who enjoys pursuing the truth of things. Taylor also asserts that the reflection Christian is a "question asker."

Chapter two describes the relationship of the reflective Christian with the church. Taylor thinks that the church can be an ally to the life of the mind. Chapter three discusses the relationship of the reflective Christian with the academy. Taylor states that "the reflective Christian should be at home in the secular world of ideas, and in practice many are" (46). Basically, faith and reason are compatible, but the reflective Christian will run in to the secular mindset that believes it has all the answers and one of these answers is that God does not exist or is not important. Another problem is that the values of the Christian and the secular world often conflicts.

Chapters four through six analyses searching for truth and the myth of certainty, the risk of commitment, and surviving as a reflective Christian. Taylor notes that "the goal of both reason and faith" is truth. Many academics accept the fact that certainty is not achievable. However, "much secular truth-seeking will in fact violate this method even as it pretends to follow it"(78). Taylor show how knowing about the important things of life contains "too many variables, too much that is incalculable or non-rational, in short too much humaness involved" for the scientific, objective method to work "conclusively." It is the false idea that reason is the only way to knowledge.

Taylor accuses the church also of selling out to the myth of certainty. Taylor notes, "One kind of Christian apologetic claims certainty based on faith, another on a combination of faith and a rationalistic analysis of evidence. Their ultimate goal is the same: an unquestionable, undoubtable foundation on which to base all subsequent claims" (78-79). Where is the need for faith ifs we have certainty? Taylor had an important insight in regards to the relationship between certainty and doubt. He says, "Ironically, the insistence on certainty destroys its very possibility. The demand for certainty inevitably creates its opposite-- doubt. Doubt derives its greatest strength from those who fear it most"(80).

Some will see a problem between the lack of certainty and the need for a commitment. Taylor does not. He says life is full of risks, and the need for commitment. Both the Christian and non-Christian are taking risks. The risk the Christian takes is the belief that Christianity is true; the risk the non-Christian takes is the belief that is not true. Who takes the bigger risk? Taylor says three elements can help Christians in their commitment: memory, community, and perseverance. In memory, he emphasizes the importance of stories on our life. It shapes who we are. Taylor mentions how the church is a body, and we need one another. He says that the church is the place "where the burden of doubt can be shared." He defines perseverance as "carrying on in the face of obstacles, continuing in what one is doing despite unfamiliar circumstances." He interprets Hebrews 11-12 and applies it to these three concepts.

In the last chapter Taylor describes his own struggle to survive as a reflective Christian: "I have learned to live with the rise and fall of the thoughts and feelings of faith, to co-exist with honest doubt, to accept tension and paradox without clinging to it as an excuse for inaction. I have learned to be a minority without seeking to be an adversary. I am trying to do what people of faith have always done-- respond to revelation by my own best lights, struggle to understand all that can be understood and have reverence for the rest, act beyond my certain knowledge in the faith that such action is blessed. 'Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief' " (145).

The Myth of Certainty shows that there is a way to both be committed to the life of the mind and the Christian faith. It shows how to be a reflective Christian. It will help the reflective Christian to know that he is not alone. This book is easy to read and is recommended to Christians who struggle with the relationship between the church and the academy.

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