Is there room for a Christian minimalism?

Lately I’ve been observing the religious spectacle that is our malls. And as I’ve walked past the stained glass screens of Westfield’s saints I can’t help noticing something. That so much of the happiness these models portray seem associated with what they’re wearing. Of course having a great body helps too. But why are people so fixated on objects?

I think the attachment to objects is something that’s built from infancy. We associate our first blanket with security. And hot Ribenas with a motherly caress. Every time I go back to Malaysia, I eat at a McDonald’s there. The food probably isn’t even that good. But I can’t help associating my childhood with the same place. The connections we have to people spill over into objects. And the stronger the attachment, the harder it is to get rid of it. Hence why it’s easier to throw away a box of food than a box of letters from those you love.

We adorn our rooms with objects that promise wholeness, peace and contentment which we know deep down we need. But what happens when we confuse our toys with the things they symbolize? Rather than having a car as a useful tool, the Audi becomes a symbol of our social value. And when objects become who we are, we’re not far from using people to get the toys rather than using the toys for the people. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable when we try to use objects to fill the hungry void in us. Like ravenous wolves, we consume forests and mines and we still can’t get enough.

The modern person is faced with a never ending struggle of accumulating things. The modern world is so comfortable, tasty and convenient. But maybe the outside of us has changed much faster than the inside can handle. Though your environment has changed, you’re still the same person deep down inside. So like a kid with a bowl of cereal after school, you eat and eat from the discontentment that still ferments in you. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for. We may not even know what that is. The ancient Greeks once said that the most important task was ‘to know yourself’. But our age has forgotten such ancient wisdom in the pursuit of the perfect present. We can never get enough of what we don’t want, treating the symbols for its reality.

Making and consuming products isn’t too different from ancient religion. We just don’t call our things ‘gods’. But they promise all the same things — fertility and wealth, power and success. As the Protestant reformer John Calvin pointed out, the human heart is an idol factory. And in the 21st century, its idols are on a permanent 24/7 clearance sale. They’re on every street corner and every browser tab. They peek from articles and videos and podcasts, beckoning passersby and following them even after they’ve clicked away. But there’s nothing behind its smiles and sheen. These idols are masks that only pretend to give you what you want. And the more we buy, the more they demand. What will we sacrifice for it? People become competitors and tools. Habitats become business opportunities. And we ultimately become just a hat rack for our things, inanimate and devoid of life like Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt.

A Reflection on Augustine’s Confessions, Book 2

I recently caught up with a friend to discuss chapter 2 of Augustine’s confessions together. It started smooth but we derailed towards the end of the chapter when Augustine began talking about the story of his disordered loves. Like many good stories it all started with a piece of forbidden fruit.

As a young man, Augustine took a pear from a farm. But to be more precise, he stole it. And as he reflected back on his life, he was puzzled at why he would do such a thing. It’s one thing for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. But Augustine realized that he had done it for no reason at all. There was nothing attractive about the pear other than the sheer pleasure of stealing itself and the joy of doing it in company.

We were both confused. Not just because Augustine had previously described the human condition as a case of loving the wrong things. But now he was pointing out that there was something wrong about our love itself. It sounded much worse than what we had originally thought about people’s motivations. Can you imagine forgiving someone who admits to hitting your car not because he was in a rush but simply for fun? The sympathy we feel towards those who wrong us often come from seeing them as noble people with misplaced intentions.

But Augustine is honest about you, me and himself. I can see what he means. There’s a certain mystique that draws you in to sin. It’s alluring. Lustrous. Forbidden. Scandalous. Just look at a Tim Tam ad. Remember the old msn status? ‘If loving you is wrong then I don’t ever wanna be right.’ There’s also the sweet, sweet feeling of vengeance – that feeling of being gloriously right and no apology will ever be good enough for you. We don’t just love badly but we love the bad.

I think Augustine provides some hints to help us understand the difference between the 2. When we sacrifice our lives for money we show how desperately we want security. When we sacrifice children for the sake of our jobs we show how much success matters to us. We’re enslaved by whatever we sacrifice ourselves for. That’s worship, the ‘for God’ part. And as Bob Dylan says, ‘everyone’s gotta worship something.’ And though our hearts are restless seekers until they find God, they’re also restless imitators of God. Even perversity doesn’t stop us imitating the one we were made for. We enjoy the freedom that comes with exercising autonomy and control over what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want. McDonald’s all day, everyday. Children when I want and how I want. So we become like gods.

This unlimited freedom we’re exercising is simply a superficial imitation of the one who is truly free. This cheap copy of God is what Augustine had in mind when he stole the pear. And I think this role of playing god is probably more destructive because by doing it makes its doers accountable to no one else. But as I spoke to my friend over the burnt raisin toast of a late night McDonald’s, I was reminded that God’s work is not so much to make us what we’re not but to remake us into who we truly are. We are what we love after all and we love best when we love what is true, good and beautiful.

On The Unexamined Life

One man has gone so far as to say that ‘all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.’ I’ve read about Socrates’ last days and his defense of his own life. I’ve read about his life from Kierkegaard and many others he’s inspired. Behind his thought stands one driving desire: to live the good life. For Socrates this was the unexamined life. And it would be the same life that he would give his up for. Rather than escape to exile or face his accusers in an execution, Socrates would choose to drink hemlock and die. His crime? Corrupting the youth of Athens by persuading them that the unexamined life really wasn’t worth living.

I want to explore why this man was willing to die for such a belief. After all, not many people die for any beliefs. It happens a lot less than we think. Whoever died for the ontological argument for God? Or whoever died to over whether God and evil could co-exist? It seems to me that our lives can extend no farther than our actions. There and there only, lays what we truly believe.

That’s where the problem begins. When I think about a life of self-awareness and examination, I find that it’s hard to tell what I’m willing to stake my life on. Are the values I hold something I believe or just what the crowd tells me? Some people say fruit is good for you. Others say it’s too sugary. I haven’t made up my mind. But I just ate a banana. The most obvious difficulty of the examined life is during high school. Critiquing everyone AND trying to fit it? You’ll have a better chance of scratching your belly… with your foot. This is okay for small matters like the color of your shoes or the lunch you’ll eat (for most at least. Others may need a psychologist). But this applies all the way up to the meaning of our lives.

This is a dangerous game. By living the unexamined life, our identity will be inevitably determined by the masses – ‘Christians’, or ‘Doctors’, or ‘Family’ eventually makes the unique YOU not so unique at all. You’ll just be the clone of whoever or whatever people want you to be. This means that at the end, there’ll be nothing particularly valuable about you. There exists only the amorphous blob ‘Christian’. No one wants to be just a face in the crowd. Everyone wants to be known and loved as themselves. But what we trade off individually we gain communally. Money, status, security and even power. ‘Oh you’re a doctor??? Tell me more.’ At least that’s how I imagine how some doctors expect people to respond.

Is the reward of fitting in worth the cost of meaning and identity and truth? Man’s search for meaning is as unquenchable as the thirst for $10 McNuggets on a midnight drive. All of my life has been a search for meaning. If I just knew my purpose in the grand scheme of schemes, then somehow even the dishes I wash with my little hands would have some value. But for an authentic individual, meaning can never come from the crowd. So the value of the examined life is first revealing who we truly are and if our thoughts and actions align. But Christians know that the examined life can’t provide the truth we need to live by. Only Christ can. But as the early church fathers saw it, it seems like Christ and Socrates can be pretty good friends.

The Question Everyone Answers But No One Asks

The Question Everyone Answers But No One Asks

Should you snooze your alarm or kill yourself? Before anything else, before you plan your life goals, or argue about whether the world is understood in this or category, there is only 1 question worth asking…why not kill yourself? In a strange case of reverse engineering, Camus causes us to realize that the good life is an assumption that no one examines1. This is because people learn to live before they learn to think. But if they would think first, they would realize that working out how to live only makes sense if life is worth living.

It is strange to write this. In a time of a pandemic that echoes Camus’ own novel ‘The Stranger’, humanity is forced to grapple with the value of life and its meaning in way it hasn’t done so for a long time. But even before this there were creaks and strains under the weight of all this living. In those early mornings, as you clobbered your alarm clock and swiped across the pages of Google News, haven’t you wondered if it was all worth it?

When you become truly aware of this problem, it is like discovering a leech on your back. It has been there this whole time. But without realizing you had continued to walk on the same path. Now that you see it, you can’t forget its fangs or the fact that it’s slowly draining your life away. This is the ever present absurdity in all of living. This acute postmodern problem can produce heights of dizziness and nausea, disorientation and anxiety. But rarely does it surface to the level of consciousness. We’re too busy eluding it in every single pursuit, hoping that one person or promotion or experience will bring the desire of unity and transcendence and meaning to your life. We hope that we will eventually find joy.

Camus starts with this assumption that life is absurd. There is no rational schema, no grand narrative to understand the world and therefore no extrinsic meaning. Every single system that has tried to rationalize world has toppled under its irrationality. Faced with these facts, he believes that one must then ask whether or not the absurdity of existence means it is better not to be. The other options, to live apathetically and only for the sake of others is cowardice or to live with a false hope is dishonesty. Man then must construct his meaning from within knowing that it is absurd.

Whether you’re a Christian or a humanist, the same question remains. Even with the narrative of Christianity, one is faced with a world that is at present dark and filled with irrationality and meaningless suffering. No matter who you are, a leap is required; to have faith in the infinite Being (God) who transcends our comprehension and live, or to defy the absurdity of existence and live as a rebel. One is resigned the other is defiant. Both are courageous (for reasons that will require another article). But both cannot be right. Either way, Camus doesn’t leave us the option of escaping such a question once we realize that life ultimately escapes our grasp.

Note: the fundamental problem with the Christian leap of faith is theodicy, which Camus himself points out. The existence of a good and omnipotent God who permits suffering is a well known argument which I believe has been refuted time and again since Camus’ life (and even in eras before). But I think that it needs a new way of addressing which I hope to get to at some point.

  1. https://www.amazon.com.au/Myth-Sisyphus-Penguin-Modern-Classics-ebook/dp/B00GEDD3ZG/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Why do I follow Jesus?

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” When I think about why I follow Jesus, I think of Peter’s response to Jesus after many had deserted him because of what he said. Jesus looked at his disciples and asked, ‘you don’t want to leave too do you?’ But Peter replied, ‘Lord, to where else will we go? You have the words of life.’

Just as he fed 5000 with only 2 loaves of bread and 5 baskets of fish, so Jesus offers himself as true bread and drink. For him, to eat and drink of him is to believe him and so believe in his words. I think it follows that our beliefs therefore shape reality. Will I believe Jesus and have eternal life? Or will I try to obtain it another way? Pascal acknowledges that in everything people do, they seek their own happiness and joy (though that doesn’t exclude others). I follow Jesus because I believe him and when you meet him you realize that there is nowhere else and no one else to go to, like an immigrant who finally finds that piece of land called home. For me this home is the home of my affections, the resting place of all my restless searching for joy. In all my years before meeting Jesus, I had thought that what I was looking for all these years were found in myself and my activities but I never suspected that I was made for another.

I follow Jesus because I believe that every desire we have finds their fulfillment in him. It’s not that we’re too eager for happiness and God wants to ruin the fun, it’s that we’re far too easily satisfied. I was like a child content with playing in mud when sand castles, not knowing that beaches were offered to me. But when I took and read his words I realized that these beaches were here all along. This restless heart had found its true and eternal home.

Climate Change: A Loss Of Secular Hope?

Kids say the darndest things. And in 2019, its things like “how dare you” and “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” We young people are pretty good at grabbing attention. But the attention we often grab paints us as little more than loud mouthed nuisances. I should know, as the person who wouldn’t stop telling others that I would be an NBA player (I’m still waiting for the call up). At the same time, kids have something that adults don’t have – an utter lack of blandish. And no amount of wheedling will convince your child that the sky isn’t blue or that circles aren’t round (I hope). So when climate change protests and groups like Extinction Australia turn out to be comprised mainly of young people what does that mean? I think it can suggest that they’re being manipulated. But I also think its an honest acknowledgement of a problem by a generation that doesn’t quite know what to do. The problem isn’t the climate. It’s far deeper. The protests are a demonstration for life over death. Young people want to live! And they’ve had to come to an honest acknowledgment that being itself is oriented towards death. Honesty is a good thing.

But the loss of hope is not. When I see Greta Thunberg speak, her eyes are fiery, her face is contorted and mouth is aghast. It’s as though she can’t quite believe that the world isn’t taking her seriously, beyond those coddlers in front of her. Honesty without hope only breeds despair. And despair is an ugly black dog. But what do you do if you grow up believing in the imminent end of the world? If that wasn’t bad enough, if you’ve grown up with a secular worldview, then you’ve also believed that this life is all there is. So you stuck between 2 walls. And the walls are closing in. On one side is the climate and on the other is your own mortality. And both are growing increasingly shorter, squeezing the life out of your young body, leaving you trapped and grasping for the air of transcendence which is no longer there. As William Lane Craig paints it, the universe is continuously expanding. And as matter gets further and further apart, life grows colder and colder. Far from the sun, life will cease to be, vacating the premise for decay to set in. Until one day there will be no life in the universe. All galaxies and the stars will be extinguished, leaving only a void that is endlessly expanding outwards on itself. Everyone and everything you have ever loved will be for naught.

I think Dylan Thomas has captured the most popular solution to our demise in our time:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

The end of the world kind of forces you to grow up doesn’t it? Climate change has aged these children as they grapple to deal with matters that one used to do in their death beds. The children rage because they think their time is short. But you will rarely see Christian children or their parents amongst the protesters. And its not because they’re all climate change deniers. Nor do they believe the universe will continue on as it has for infinity. We know the world is ending. But our honesty to face reality has been transposed to the plane of hope. And hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts1. This hope is the hope of a world to come, a world where God has made all things new, a world where a child may pluck an apple from the tree of life and eat and live (does that affect her carbon footprint?). This hope is a physical hope, verified by the resurrection of Jesus, the first fruits of that world. No wonder that it is written “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable2. And Greta and all those Extinction Rebellion kids sure look miserable.

No Dylan Thomas, this is the song we should sing:

God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.

Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas,

though its water roars and foams and the mountains quake with its turmoil.

There is a river—its streams delight the city of God, the holy dwelling place of the Most High.

God is within her; she will not be toppled. God will help her when the morning dawns.

Nations rage, kingdoms topple; the earth melts when he lifts his voice.

The Lord of Armies is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.3

  1. Rom. 5.5
  2. 1 Cor. 15.19-26
  3. Ps. 46. 1-7

Is An Insignificant Life Worth Living?

It has been a busy year so far for my family and I. At the beginning of the year I decided to begin studying my Master of Divinity degree at Christ College because I thought it was a better path to developing what abilities God had given me and how I would best help others. The semester was a hard one. Besides learning a completely new and dead language (Koine Greek) I also began a new role as clinical educator at work and the constant juggling between the 2 responsibilities meant that by June my body was worn out and my mind was absent. I needed a holiday. By July I was in Sabah, Malaysia enjoying the tropical weather and seeing my grandmother whom I had not seen in 13 years. But while the weather was sunny and the waves were calm, a storm in my heart still raged. I experienced a gnawing restlessness that grew each day and fully manifested itself only once I had returned to Sydney and prepared to return to ‘normal life’.

This restlessness of mine which I am prone to experiencing was crippling. Around the same time, I had struggled to know how I ought to rest and what to prioritize in the upcoming semester. Was I even studying the right course? Why was it so hard? How else should I be using my time? From the moment I entered my last clinical note, I think my mind had already begun to consider the alternatives I could be doing with my time and my life despite my constraints. Being open to new possibilities was exhausting, like never ending research for a product you want to buy. In the end, it came down to what I perceived as the absurdity of my life. What was the point of my labors if none of my work will be remembered? This is something that has become increasingly obvious to me. After all, Jean Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion at 26 while Nietzsche only became the youngest professor at the University of Basel at 24. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ Accompanying this feeling of insignificance is a feeling of missing out, that there is a life out there where I might be happy, leading everyday that I haven’t realized it to be filled with constant regret and envy at those to appear to have found it (though I haven’t actually met anyone who has yet). It wasn’t until the first day of returning to work at my clinic that I read this an article on restlessness in the Art of Manliness.1

One of the most valuable lessons for the young to learn is that it takes a great man to accomplish a great undertaking, and that both are necessarily few in one generation. If this lesson were learned and heeded half the heartache of our mature years might be avoided. Effort, and high resolve, and noble purpose are excellent qualities of character; but they can never enable a man to lift himself by the boot-straps nor accomplish the unattainable. It is at once the weakness and greatness of some to conceive what they attempt to do of so high a degree of excellence that no human power can reach it. The natural effect of this is a restless desire to accomplish something far beyond what is ordinarily attained even by surpassing talent. When such a desire has taken possession of the heart, the usual achievements of men seem poor indeed. With their broad views and far-sighted stretch of thought, it seems trivial to come down to the common affairs of every-day life. It is to them a small thing to do good and get good in the plain old common-sense way. J. Clinton Ransom, The Successful Man, 1886

Thanks to the technological developments of the last 2 centuries, the accumulation of wealth in the West and the emphasis on self autonomy, we are served a buffet of endless possibilities and enticed by endless temptations and expectations. How can one live in such a world? The solution I think seems to be by a good dose of humility. Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that there is nothing better for man than to fear God and keep his commandments, so Kierkegaard reminds us that there is little way of knowing if the life we have chosen for ourselves is the best. Often the responsibility of this immense choice can crush us from ever making a decision. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Humility and faith are the keys to enjoying the present and leaving the future to the One who sees all that is under the sun. Complement this with TGC’s article “How Do I Discern If My Ambition is Godly?” 2

Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s helpful to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

  1. ## How to Cure Neurasthenia (Restlessness) | The Art of Manliness
    Link
  2. Link

The Biggest Reason Why Most Resolutions Fail

Why do most resolutions fail? These days it seems people hesitate to make any resolutions. Others do it half-heartedly expecting that they will fail past March. The good thing is that I think this betrays the reality that we know how impossible change is. Having seen the countless attempts we’ve tried to improve our lives and failed we are a little bit wiser. Change is hard because I think what we do isn’t separated from who we are. I think the reason they fail is because people for the most part remain themselves at the end of the year.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

To understand how resolutions connect with the change we want to see, it is helpful to ask what resolutions are. At its most basic level, I think resolutions for most people are expressions about what they would like to achieve. It is a show of will. By gritting one’s teeth, one attempts to stand up to one’s self to stop doing one thing and start doing another. And then we fail. And fail again. And make resolutions for the next year. While this is annoying, when you’ve lived long enough it can become just another fact of life and something you apathetically accept. But I think it does raise the question of whether there was something wrong with the original resolutions that people make. Is it because the will wasn’t strong enough or because it wasn’t genuine?

I don’t think that’s the case. I think when people make resolutions they genuinely desire, hope and believe that they can change. Resolutions are done when the will is most firm and the vision is most clear. With the destination in mind, the heart goes along and charts the route. But the problem may be the direction of one’s will. In life, few things are done well by aiming directly at the object as an end in itself. It seems that to operate a business well, one must seek to serve rather than to profit. To lead well, one must seek to embolden the people they lead. On the other hand, leading to obtain power leads to the manipulation and usage of people like tools in a shed. So in order to change what we do, we must first change who we are. Because a large part of our accomplishments proceed from our habits and then our character, changing who we are involves changing our virtues. We must have an image of who we ought to be and strive to embody it. Like Narcissus whose continual reflection of himself turned him into a flower of vanity, we become what we behold for long enough.

For me and countless others, change is something I’ve struggled with. From my childhood till now, I have often realized that I am not who I ought to be. And trying to figure out whom I ought to be has been like looking for fish through muddy waters. But what I discovered at 17 remains true even now — that there is none who so embodies what it means to live the good life and to be fully human as the man the Bible calls Jesus. Yet he was more than a man. He was the embodiment of the divine and because of that change hasn’t just been possible but it has occurred simply by beholding and believing him. For me, change has come from a change in spirit and the spirit through faith. While I’m sure 2019 will continue to challenge who I am and who I ought to be, I know like the apostle John that it isn’t in vain.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. – 1 John 3:2

I hope that you too would see and experience true change in 2019 and that you would become the person you were called to be.

How to Live: Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Our hearts intuitively seek happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.

3 problems with living for happiness

  1. Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
  2. The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
  3. I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.

Why living for meaning is better

While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.

Why Does It Seem Like No One Can Be Sure About Anything?

Certainty is a lack of doubt about something. This exists on a spectrum from relative to absolute. Although philosophers often attempt to differentiate psychological certainty (which is the strength of one’s belief) and epistemic certainty, I believe that reality shows the two to be mutually dependent. What one knows with absolute certainty entails that one believes it wholeheartedly as well. We must have psychological confidence that the certainty we know is accurately represented. For example if I know for certain that my car is parked outside then it I’m able to believe with full confidence.

But can we know anything with absolute certainty? The postmodern zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) would say no. You can see that whenever anything claims to be certain or universal, a general skepticism tends to follow along. Things like grand historical narratives or universal principles are looked at with suspicion by society. This is because we refuse to allow any authority to interpret our lives and give it meaning outside of our self. As humans we like to think we generate our own meaning. It’s not just postmodern or deconstructionist philosophy though, that articulate such ideas. While the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said as humans, we are ‘radically free’, Disney says ‘it’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through, no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free.’ But if we ourselves are uncertain people, then so too will our knowledge be. And if doubt has become the default attitude of society then it has also become its virtue. And certainty in the modern world is now the bad guy, the sign of arrogance.

Besides everyday life, this issue can also be applied to a religious context: can we know God with certainty? For Christians, the answer is yes because the Christian belief is that God’s special revelation is certain and therefore we should be certain about it too. While there are things we ‘figure out’ such as science, there are deeper, more fundamental truths (which are articulated in Scripture) that are revealed to us from birth, truths that are unchanging and certain, regardless of who we are. They govern the world and are revealed to us rather than worked out. In such a context, doubt then is more vice than virtue because it is wrong to doubt what God has clearly revealed to us. So the reason the postmodern mind thinks that there is nothing that can be absolutely known is because there is no knowledge that exists outside of the self. Here is why I think this doesn’t work (and certainty is possible):

It is impossible to exclude certainty in all cases

The inescapable fact of life is that even denying certainty requires certainty about it – ‘that nothing is certain.’ But of course, how can we know that? So the argument against certainty itself must be uncertain. Further, any argument against certainty must assume that argument can be a means of finding truth. Someone using an argument to test the certainty of propositions claims certainty at least for that argument. In this case, he claims that he can test whether we can legimiately know things with certainty. But a test of certainty must be certain itself because it would become the criterion of certainty. As the theologian Frame says, an argument that would test absolute certainty must itself be absolutely certain.

Certainty is supernatural

At the same time, we know that we do not have certain knowledge of everything, which is proven to us everyday. We’re frequently contradicted by our own words and actions. Each day little discoveries are made, showing us that the world we knew before wasn’t quite what we had thought. Before space, time and relativity, there was simply an apple falling to the ground. And there is a humility that comes with acknowledging what we do and what we don’t know. After all, no one likes a smart ass. Certainty cannot come from an uncertain source and therefore cannot come from us.

For Christians, God’s word (special revelation) is the ultimate criterion of certainty. What God says must necessarily be true because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore we have a moral responsibility to regard God’s word with absolute certainty and make it our test for all other knowledge. However, our psychological certainty about the truth of God doesn’t ultimately come from our logical reasoning or empirical or even historical evidence (which is useful) but from God’s own authority. As humans we are made with the capability to understand truth and it is to this aspect God’s word is self-authenticating, speaking on its own authority. At the same time, God is a person and therefore he can choose whom to reveal himself to. Certainty is an act of God by his Spirit, often accompanying human reasoning to give us certainty. Yet Christian Scripture never turns away those whom honestly seek to find the answer to such questions.

Conclusion

Secularism ultimately rejects certainty because absolute certainty is supernatural and the secularist is unwilling to accept a supernatural foundation for knowledge. For the Christian, God’s revelation is a wonderful treasure and one that “saves the soul from sin and the mind from skepticism”1. Questioning whether anything is certain is a sign that one hasn’t yet found any sturdy ground to stand on outside of themselves. It is like a blind man, who isn’t sure of the road he is walking on. He feels it in terms of a series of physical sensations, separated by the rhythm of time. A bump here followed by a bump seconds later indicates an uneven road. But it isn’t until that his eyes are opened that he can know that with certainty that it was a road he was walking on all along. So too with God.

  1. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 582-587