The Myth of Certainty

Subtitled “The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment,” this book by Daniel Taylor, first published in 1986, explores what it’s like to be a Christian caught between two worlds—that of the close-minded Christian and the sometimes equally close-minded skeptic. Such a Christian might feel frustrated by the tendency of some in the church to dismiss difficult questions or to refuse to really engage with thinkers who challenge them. They might feel equally irritated by those outside the church who blithely dismiss any beliefs that cannot be rationally proven and paint all Christian beliefs as a sign of anti-intellectualism.

This book is written for a very precise audience: the so-called reflective Christian caught between these two more extreme points of view. Although I rarely feel all that torn these days, I do I consider myself such a Christian. Most of what Taylor said about the nature of truth and belief resonated with me. His approach, which recognizes both the value and the limits of reason in seeking truth,  is similar to my own. And I liked a lot of what he has to say about being willing to listen with care to all points of view and to accept the possibility of being wrong. He believes that there is such a thing as truth and that people with a variety of different beliefs probably have a piece of the truth, but that it’s no one persons can fully grasp it. We’re all probably wrong about something, and right about something too.

Taylor intersperses his thoughtful discussion with a narrative about Alex, a literature professor at a Christian college, and his encounters with various not-so-reflective Christians and non-Christians. These people are awful—absolutely appalling. There’s the old-school professor at his college who rails against “the humanist conspiracy.” And then there are the colleagues he meets up with at a professional conference who call the administrators at Alex’s college “New Right stormtroopers” for requiring its employees to abide by a strict code of conduct. What’s worse, in both cases, they are unwilling to listen to any arguments to the contrary. It’s all tirades and name-calling.

As head-shakingly entertaining as these anecdotes were, I think they weakened the book and limited its value to those outside Taylor’s core audience. I’m pretty sure that Taylor realizes that most Christians are not as close-minded and legalistic as those he describes in this book and that most agnostics and atheists are not as mean-spirited as those depicted in this book. A few of the phrases and modes of arguments used were just familiar enough that I could see why Taylor included them—people do say these things! Still, Alex’s interlocutors all felt like straw men to me. I suppose if I still lived among people who thought Jerry Falwell was the cat’s pajamas or if all the non-Christians I knew spent all their time going Christopher Hitchens on me, I’d be pleased to find a companion in Alex. As it is, though, these straw people seemed too easy to dismiss.

I read this book as part of my Lenten practice for this year of reading a chapter each day in some work of Christian nonfiction. (My other Lenten practice is not spending time on Twitter except on Sundays.) It was a pretty easy read and didn’t challenge my thinking all that much. As such it was a good warm-up for my next Lenten book—The Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann. That one may extend past Lent as it’s really heavy theological reading that I’ll have to take slowly. I’m looking forward to that because I’ve been missing that kind of heavy-duty theology since I decided not to continue my graduate work in theology. (And as much as I miss that kind of reading and thinking, I do not miss reading and writing about it on someone else’s schedule.)

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2 Responses to The Myth of Certainty

  1. Jenny says:

    This is a good Lenten resolution you have made. I should do that! except I have already bitten off as much as I can chew this Lent. I have given up “like” as conversational filler, and I am also resolving to make an extra effort to do the right thing in small situations.

    • Teresa says:

      Perhaps it’s one to remember for next year? This is actually the first year that I’ve tried to take on something deliberately spiritual (Some years I don’t even observe Lent at all, but since I’ve officially part of a Lent-observing denomination now, I figure I should make a serious try.)

      Already I can see I’ll have trouble tomorrow as I’m going into DC straight after work for a play (you’re going to squeal when I tell you it’s An Ideal Husband), and I will probably be too tired to read a chapter when I get back home :( I will attempt a couple of pages anyway and perhaps will make up for the lost chapter on Saturday.

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