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At a recent conference, I shared that, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certitude.” A participant e-mailed me afterward asking me to expand on the concept. He said “I’m trying to get my arms around this concept.” He seemed to be an eager and responsible learner since he even looked up the word “certitude” in the dictionary. He said that Webster’s defines it as “Freedom from doubt, especially in matters of faith.”
My comment was meant to address both a misunderstanding about faith and some of the assumptions we tend to have about what constitutes educating in faith. The popular misunderstanding often translates to the sentiment, “If I have faith, I will have no doubts and will have an answer to all of life’s questions, the problems I experience, and the issues in the world.”
It’s an example of a cognitive-oriented propositional faith that assumes that faith is equivalent to holding the right beliefs. Education then is about giving people all the right answers. In terms of faith formation, we run the risk of shaping persons who have little capacity for mystery, learning (since they have the answers), or for challenge which leads to growth.
Taken to the extreme, this stance becomes a form of insanity—one’s perspective of the world is so narrow and lock-step integrated that there is no room for rationality or for different points of views (if you’ve ever been in the presence of a person suffering a schizophrenic episode, you may know what I mean). This mentality is a characteristic of extremist religious cults.
But if the nature of faith is that it is a quality and a relationship, then certitude (having “so much faith in God that there is no room for doubt”) is not the issue. Faith is about our relationship with God. The more we mature, the more we tend to realize that we know less than we thought we did, and the fewer things we become absolutely certain about even in the Christian life (but those FEW things we are certain about tend to be the ones most worthy of it).
The interesting thing is that lack of certitude does not lead to despair, because a mature faith has the capacity to live with the ambiguities, paradoxes, and mystery of the spiritual life and of the human experience. In fact, we know that a mature faith is a critical faith. It can reflect on its own experience of faith, and it can examine, challenge, and question its own beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices.
A mature faith has the capacity to appreciate where God ultimately cannot be “understood” or “comprehended,” and that isn’t the point anyway. What God desires is a redemptive loving relationship with us, not “good students” who know all the right answers. What God requires of us is trust and obedience even when we do not understand—perhaps, especially in those times.
So, one flaw in so much of what we tend to do by way of Christian formation education is to lean toward reinforcing people’s beliefs, seeking to provide comfort and assuage doubts, rather than, when appropriate, challenge and provide the kind of dissonance required to help people grow in their faith.
The greatest and deepest literature in spirituality, from Augustine to St. John of the Cross to Teresa of Avila to John Bunyan come from persons who did not speak from the hubris of certainty about the Christian life, rather, from the depths of their wrestling with God and the angst of the vagaries of faith.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to its teaching and learning blogs.