The tyranny of certainty

CertaintySometimes there are ideas in society that are so prevalent that we cannot see them or their effects. One of these is the modern certainty that human knowledge defines the scope of what can be known. Eric Voegelin in Science, Politics and Gnosticism traces this idea back to the so-called ‘enlightenment.’ He quotes Neitzche and Marx among others to illustrate the origins of our modern refusal to ask questions outside the limits of modern science.

  • Nietzsche speaks of a “fundamental will of the spirit” which wants to feel itself master. The spirit’s will to mastery is served in the first place by “a suddenly erupting resolve for ignorance, for arbitrary occlusion . . . a kind of defensive stand against much that is knowable.” [1]
  • Marx says, in the same vein: “All of so-called world history is nothing but the production of man by human labor. The purpose of this (Marx’s) speculation is to shut off the process of being from transcendent being and have man create himself.”

To simplify, this idea can be summarized as if man can’t understand trancendence or God, it’s useless to speculate about such things. This position, of course, ignors the Greek philosophers as well as Christian theologians and thinkers who started with being as a whole and reasoned based on its existence. Neitzche and Marx and many others threw out the baby with the bathwater (There is no reality other than what science can validate) because it didn’t serve their purposes. As Voegelin says, “There has emerged a phenomenon unknown to antiquity that permeates our modern societies so completely that its ubiquity scarcely leaves us any room to see it at all: the prohibition of questioning. . . We are confronted here with persons who know that, and why, their opinions cannot stand up under critical analysis and who therefore make the prohibition of the examination of their premises part of their dogma.” This especially apllies to science and its philosophical foundations.

Questioning and indifference

Why do some people refuse to examine their ideas? One reason is that their idea may be wrong; too much in their life would have to be rethought if their idea was shown to be wrong. Another, harder to see reason is that we live today in a ‘culture of indifference’ where one idea is as good as another. So what if my idea is wrong; it’s as good as yours. You can see this in the ideas that some people post on Facebook. Here are a few examples:

  • “Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways – Jack Daniels in one hand – chocolate in the other – body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “holy Shit, what a ride!!” [A variation of the epicurean idea “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”]
  • “Be who you really are, do not change for anyone, and always always dream big enough to achieve.” [Life is about dreaming the future that we want for ourselves and then achieving that future.]
  • “Thoughts lead to purposes, purposes go forth in actions, actions form habits, habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny.” [We create ourselves through our thoughts, and that’s it.]

You may feel some of these statements make sense, but try asking, “How does the person who made this statement know it’s true?” Or better yet, “Where is God and his grace in this statement?” Why do people make such statements?

If we don’t have some certainty in our life then the ambiguity becomes intolerable. So we create that certainty for ourselves, alone or as part of a community. Even Christians. We rarely ask, If a person believes that the Bible is not the revealed word of God, what would it mean to be a Christian for such a person?  But Paul raises exactly that point and answers his own question: “What then are we to say about such things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhhold his own Son, but gave him up for all , will he not with him give us everything else?” [Romans 8:31-32] Our faith rests on revelation and our experience of Jesus as God or it rests on nothing. Paul knew we would have such questions because we are human. In fact questions are the usual way our faith is developed. To have no questions is not human. Certainty is not the normal human state and is tyrannical because it leads us nowhere. Jesus anticipated that common human situation and showed us the way forward.

Jesus wished to spark questions

One very obvious thing about Jesus is that his actions were ambiguous. He hid who he was from everyone except his disciples — and even they didn’t clearly understand that Jesus was God until after the resurrection. His life invited questions. “Who do men say that  I am?” Who do you say I am?”  Even when he performed miracles, people were confused, even his disciples. Speaking  of the miracle of feeding 5000 men, Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you not yet understand?” — and they didn’t. [Matthew 8:21] Jesus could have easily just told them directly that he was God yet he didn’t. We can speculate why he acted liked this but it is obvious that he wished men to ask questions.

As Christians, when we encounter people who have fixed ideas (certainty) about how life ought to be lived — even other Christians — ought we not to spark some doubt, and a consequent search for new ideas  and a fuller understanding of what life is all about in that person?


[1] Voegelin, Eric (2012-03-27). Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Kindle Locations 430-431). Regnery Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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