The False Power of Theological Certainty in Conservatism

When I was 7, I began to follow Jesus as a fundamentalist. More than 50 years later, I am more devoted to Jesus than ever, but it has been a long journey out of fundamentalism, and theological conservatism, to where I am today. My views  have changed significantly from what I was first taught.

Now that I am free of a lot of the conservative theological baggage I carried, I am sometimes confronted by conservatives who challenge my ‘unbiblical’ thinking. Among them is a rock-solid theologically conservative friend of mine. He visits occasionally and always brings up some issue on which he knows we disagree; most recently he defended creationism against evolution.

I would rather not discuss these things because we have no dialogue—just arguments that ‘prove’ his views; but he never uses an argument I have not heard many times over. And he says that he KNOWS he is right; he has absolute certainty about his views.

Holy Bible

Absolute Certainty!

This is not unusual. You might have experienced this yourself; theological conservatives are often ‘absolutely certain’ about what they believe, and they try to badger people with this condescending attitude of certainty. Sometimes they say, ‘I know that I know!’

But remember, just because they think they are certain doesn’t make it true. I think they are quite mistaken on many issues because their entire worldview is based on inadequate, and improvable, presuppositions; a major presupposition is that the Bible comes directly from God and is inerrantly true and is clear to anyone who reads it correctly.

A related problem is harmonization. Religious doctrines don’t exist as isolated beliefs; they are usually part of a larger collection of doctrines based on a few key presuppositions. Many times such collections of doctrines are developed into a huge complex of interacting beliefs called systematic theology.

Systematic theology attempts to collect and harmonize the entire Bible around key presupposition, without regard to the multiple voices of the Bible. Many religious conservatives are quite fond of systematic theology.

The result can be seem quite impressive, but if one important part of the system is shown to be weak, especially a presupposition, the entire structure can come crashing down. With independent thinking and critical analysis these systems can prove to be unimpressive and not so ‘certain’ at all. But proponents continue to defend them with arguments that are totally unconvincing to those who don’t share the presuppositions.

In developing our beliefs we must think for ourselves and not buy into doctrinal systems based on someone else’s authority. I certainly never want anyone to adopt beliefs based on my authority. Think for yourself, and if what I say makes some sense to you then come to your own conclusions.

A convinced conservative can paint a scary picture, but think critically about what they say. Does it make sense? Are there problems with the argument? Is it consistent with the teaching and example of Jesus? Don’t accept a belief out of fear ‘Just in case it is true’.

Theological conservatives do NOT own the truth, no matter how confidently they think they do.

Apologetics

Most people don’t arrive at radically conservative religious beliefs through their own analysis and critical thinking; they inherit their beliefs intact from someone else—either by being raised with the beliefs or by being convinced by a conservative teacher. But once under the sway of such teaching, they are discouraged from entertaining any questions or doubts. Doubt is bad!

But other genuine believers have different conclusions about Jesus, the Bible, and truth; and these people are seen as dangerous because they might introduce doubt (thinking and questioning) into conservative believers with their ‘false doctrines’. And this cannot be allowed!

An important tool against doubt is apologetics, which has two functions: 1) to confront the ‘errors’ of those who think differently and 2) to convince those considering conservative doctrines. But there is also a third function; apologetics is meant to re-enforce conservatives who might be influenced by ‘false doctrines’ and begin to doubt, and it does so by providing ‘answers’ to every possible objection to the ‘truth’.

My blogger friend Josh Way states this very well:

Too many Christians rely on recycled apologetic talking points to avoid the hard and risky work of actually wrestling with issues and problems. And while the pretense of apologetic work has been to “win others to Christ,” the reality is that it exists primarily to reassure believers and inoculate them against questions and doubts.

Poor Practices Arising from Absolutely Certainty

Theological conservatives who are absolutely certain tend to follow certain poor practices.

  • They often defend their views with hubris, arrogance, and condescension
  • They often try to intimidate people with their absolute certainty
  • They often make appeals to authoritarian proof-texts without proper context
  • They often confuse their interpretation of a biblical text as the clear meaning of the text
  • They often threaten eternal punishment in hell for those not accepting their views
  • They often speak in the name of God
  • They often dismiss objections by saying, ‘That’s liberal’, which is a pejorative term used to dismiss the objection, avoid answering questions, and to avoid dialog

Many conservatives are absolutely certain they know the truth about religious beliefs; I think they are mistaken. But if they don’t know the truth, then who does? I doubt anyone knows religious truths for certain, which is a horror to conservatives who are ‘absolutely certain’.

But those who think for themselves must become comfortable with a considerable amount of ambiguity. We will talk about that next time.

*****

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39 Responses to The False Power of Theological Certainty in Conservatism

  1. I really agree with this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ruth Womack says:

    I am an English Christian, raised “liberal” but my teenage Christian friends were fundamentalist. I found this very confusing and have gone to church on and off all my life. I found this post very helpful and re assuring

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Denise says:

    I just don’t understand Christians who react with arrogance when you disagree with their viewpoints…they completely have missed the point, yes? One side of my family is Catholic and the other side are Holdeman Mennonites. I have been confused for years! Now, there are good people in both religions, but they both can’t be right! Mine was an interesting and trying childhood at times and I rejected all religion for a spell. Now, I am confident in my salvation, but would like to have a church home. This is small town America around here, and I just can’t contend with the attitudes and elitism. So frustrating!

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Denise, you are right that some believers really do react arrogantly to those who disagree–as if they know it all for sure. I have learned, for the most part, to let them believe what they wish and not argue with them, for they are not likely to be convinced anyway.

      There are good people in in various Christian traditions; it is not as though groups are all good or all bad. And I find I can get along with people of differing beliefs so long as they don’t try to argue with me about their beliefs. Dialog Yes; arguing No.

      It is often difficult to find a good fit for a church home, and I imagine it is even more difficult in a small town environment. I did write an article that might help some people in trying to find a church. If interested, it is at https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/5-steps-to-finding-a-good-church-fit-for-you/.

      Like

  4. tonycutty says:

    “….but if one important part of the system is shown to be weak, especially a presupposition, the entire structure can come crashing down” – and this is one of the main reasons why they defend it so vehemently. It’s because there is no redundancy in their belief systems; it either has to be all completely correct, or the whole lot is false. It’s not allowed to compromise on any point – not even one – because then the whole structure comes under threat. Not a particularly safe position to hold, imo 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, I hesitate to repeat your own statement back to you, but it is a great statement.

      “This is one of the main reasons why they defend it so vehemently. It’s because there is no redundancy in their belief systems; it either has to be all completely correct, or the whole lot is false. It’s not allowed to compromise on any point – not even one – because then the whole structure comes under threat.”

      This is right on target. And any questioning or doubt often leads to terrible feelings of anguish and lostness. I know; it happened to me.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ken Lynch says:

        I have a co-worker who is a strong believer in Creationism. He told me that the first chapter of the first book of the Bible tells how created the world in 6 days and if he rejected that, how could he accept everything else? A perfect example of your statement about all or nothing.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Chas says:

    Tim, It might be that many of these people who are so certain have become so dependent on the Bible that they cannot imagine being able to manage without it. I have become aware of two who are known to me on a personal basis. They are unwilling to discuss even the proposition that the Bible contains contradictions. As a result, their minds remain prisoners in the Bible, with all of the limitations that places on them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I know that my mind was prisoner to an inerrant Bible, and it really locks a person in. If we have to harmonize everything in the Bible to make it all work together, it leaves little room for thinking.

      In addition, by harmonizing the Bible we no longer actually believe the Bible but the harmonized construct, which by necessity is based on interpretation. So what we believe in is not an inerrant Bible but an inerrant interpretation–usually someone else’s interpretation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chas says:

        Tim, the attempt to harmonize it would also require being able to lean over backwards at about 90 degrees, while simultaneously attempting several other contortions!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      Tim, as a follow-up to my previous comment about dependency, I also know of someone who is genuinely dependent on the Bible. He used to be alcohol dependent, but has now become dependent on the Bible; he reads it continually, to the exclusion of all else, but at least that is less harmful than being addicted to alcohol. However, it seems that the Bible has now become his god.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        That’s interesting, Chas. I don’t know if I have ever thought in terms of Bible dependency, but now that you bring it up I can think of examples of people who seemed Bible-dependent.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Chas says:

          Tim, I’d like to explore this question of dependency a bit more, because it appears that some people are using the Bible as a sort of spiritual ‘crutch’, without which they feel in some way vulnerable. That would suggest that their faith is in the words, rather than in God, which seems to indicate that they have missed something of the message. Since my formerly-alcoholic friend, who is now Bible-dependent, was once a tongue-speaking believer, what was it that he missed, or has he now stopped believing something that he once believed? At present, I can’t see what that might be.

          Liked by 2 people

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Chas, I think many believers DO use the words of the Bible (often without context and with suspect interpretation mixed in) as a crutch. I think people want ‘certainty’–they want clear answers. They have real difficulty with ambiguity, which we will discuss next week.

            As for your friend, I cannot say what he missed or stopped believing.

            Like

  6. mark says:

    Oh my but what a good and relevant topic TIM. It could even be titled..Nobody wants to be wrong. or My church is holier than yours…my pastor better…….yak yak yak..

    I like what Chas said…”bible dependency” Kinda like being “so heavenly minded they are no earthly good”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave says:

    Doubt is the beginning of understanding.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. revcamlin says:

    The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Steve says:

    Hi Tim,

    I enjoy following your blog. I don’t come from a fundamentalist background, but can identify with a lot of the topics you address. As my beliefs have changed I’ve realized that one of the reasons it’s difficult to change is that beliefs often show that you belong to a certain “tribe.” Changing beliefs can put that person in danger of isolation from their community, which is traumatic for such a deeply social species as humans. I’ve only experienced this in a minor way, but is still painful.

    Do you think it’s possible to have a healthy fundamentalism? In other words, is shunning other perspectives inherent to fundamentalism? Or can someone hold fundamentalist beliefs and still be loving and tolerant of other perspectives? Have you heard Mike McHargue’s (Science Mike) take on this? He was a fundamentalist, who began to doubt inerrancy and became an atheist, but is now a Methodist mystic, haha. I think you would really connect with his work. In his perspective, the problem is authoritarianism, which can exist in many different belief systems. Authoritarianism cares more about protecting the institution than the people in the institution.

    What are your thoughts? Thanks again for the work you do!

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Steve, I am glad you like the blog. I think you are right about being part of the tribe. Fundamentalists and other very conservative believers face exactly what you describe when they begin to question anything they have been taught–alienation, attack, and often exclusion from the group. It IS very painful.

      I can never say ‘never’, but I think it unlikely to develop a healthy fundamentalism. The core of fundamentalism is rejection of anything that violates the ‘fundamentals’, and in Christian fundamentalism those accepted fundamentals are anything but healthy.

      I can envision fundamentalists who are on a journey away from fundamentalism who are tolerant of other worldviews, but at that point they are probably in danger of ostracization from the tribe if they are verbal about it. Purity of belief is closely guarded.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      There are church leaders out there who are so intent on imposing their views they do not tolerate any other view and will exclude you from their churches to maintain this position. My first church excluded me for being ‘unteachable’, because I was unwilling to submit to the chief leader. He talked to me on a couple of occasions and I put my views to him, but he got the other leaders to do his dirty work for him, by inviting me to leave. They did not trouble to ask me their own questions, just took his view as representing the church as a whole. I was not surprised, as the chief leader was more interested in keeping to the end time for services than in making time to serve God.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Wow Chas, you are ‘unteachable’ because you continue to learn and think for yourself? However, I am not shocked; I have seen this too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Steve says:

        I’m sorry you went through that, Chas. I hope you’ve been able to find a more supportive community since then that still challenges you and encourages growth.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Chas says:

          Steve, no need to be sorry. As I wrote, it was no surprise, because I had already begun to see the quenching of the Spirit that the leadership was causing. I was already aware of a suitable alternative fellowship, in which I guess I have been more challenging than challenged. Unfortunately, this church has been remiss in spreading the Good News to others, because, although it is in the midst of a very mixed community, the membership is still about 97% Afro-Caribbean, as it has been for at least the past 16 years and most likely a long time before that.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. fiddlrts says:

    Great post. I have been working on a post of my own on Presuppositionalism, which is the root idea behind Dominionism. I believe that this idea has unfortunately poisoned so much of American Christianity, because it has made theological “truths” trump objective facts. I’m with you on the real purpose of apologetics, which is to inoculate fundies against doubt. I have a friend right now who has gotten into apologetics, and it has made for some friction between us. All of the symptoms you describe are present. I hope it will just be a stage.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. sheila0405 says:

    I went back & re-read the third part of your spiritual crisis. I c, &ould not remember how you resolved it. So, knowing what historians have demonstrated about the anonymous authors of the Gospels, & the likely forgeries of Paul, do you hold to the belief that Jesus is divine & still alive? Do you feel certainty within your faith in Jesus? Just curious. Not meant to be a challenge or argument. You know how much I love this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, I think this is a fair question. After great study and deliberation, I feel strongly that Jesus is the unique son of God, even if that might mean ‘adopted’ son. And I believe he is resurrected. But certain? How can we be absolutely certain? We can be mistaken about anything.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chas says:

        Tim, what makes you think that Jesus might be an ‘adopted’ son of God?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, there are some who believe Jesus was the adopted son of God. My point is that I think Jesus is the ‘unique’ son of God whether or not he was pre-existent. He is not the same as other influential people who teach love and peace–such as the Buddha.

          Like

  12. noelenesanderson says:

    ..Remembering that we are all ‘sons’ of G-D….Jesus being the greatest – most advanced – most in unity with the Great Spirit beyond and within, all life? Is Jesus still alive? I think He is, in His Spirit form. I can’t believe that Someone with such a love for humanity, would just be “sitting at the right hand of God” – doing nothing – not still helping via MIND and SPIRIT!! I sometimes wonder whether they meant, or should have meant, that He is God’s ‘right-hand-man” !!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Noeline, I think Jesus is alive as well. And I think the sitting at the right hand of God is a symbolic reference.

      Like

  13. Pingback: Embracing Ambiguity in the Bible and Theology | Jesus Without Baggage

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