Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty
Author: Gregory A. Boyd
Publisher: Baker Books
With Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd has written a personal, pastoral, philosophical, and theological book that aims to rehabilitate our understanding of faith.
This book is personal.
Boyd gives the reader an all-access pass into his life. He reflects on details from his childhood. He talks about his life-changing encounter with Christ as a 17-year-old at a Pentecostal church. He opens up about how he lost his faith a year later when he started college. He remembers how he was "overwhelmed by innumerable intellectual objections," and he could find no "adequate response" (97). He talks about how he returned to faith because of the utter sense of meaninglessness he found in a nihilistic view of the world. And he expresses in candid detail how his faith was altered after a night of screaming at the sky.
This book is pastoral.
Boyd is the senior pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN. It's no surprise, then, that his writing reflects the heart of a pastor who wants to see people live faithfully in the world. More to the point of this book, he sees the "certainty-seeking" view of faith as an obstacle to living faithfully because it's a flawed view that assumes the more psychologically certain you are, the stronger your faith is. Over against that view, Boyd offers what he calls "covenantal faith," which is "not about striving for certainty, but about faithful living in the face of uncertainty" (77).
One of his observations in this vein rings particularly true to me. Many churches combine a certainty-seeking view of faith with a House of Cards view of faith that thinks if any particular belief or doctrine is doubted or denied then the whole thing will collapse. Christianity becomes a package deal, a pre-selected set of beliefs that a person must accept (or reject) as a whole. I agree with Boyd when he comments that "it is this model that the church by and large continues to give young people, which goes a long way in explaining why roughly sixty percent of young people walk away from their faith sometime after high school" (42).
In Varsity Faith, I offered a similar assessment:
"Because many of these students have been taught to think about faith with only 'in or out,' 'all or nothing' categories, they feel like they have no middle ground on which to stand and think and pray and believe...so they leave."
While students leave their faith for a variety of reasons, I think Boyd is correct in naming an inflexible idea of faith as one of the culprits.
This book is philosophical.
Boyd is no stranger to philosophy. His book, Satan and the Problem of Evil, features significant and thoughtful engagement with a variety of philosophical views. In Benefit of the Doubt, he outlines numerous reasons why seeking certainty or equating faith with certainty is a quest in the wrong direction: it makes a virtue of irrationality; it has an un-Christlike picture of God; it makes faith into a kind of magic; it tends toward hypocrisy.
Boyd also turns to Charles Peirce, a 19th century philosopher who is remembered as the "father of pragmatism," to unpack what true faith looks like. Contrary to what many people think, beliefs don't exist apart from our lives in the world. If they did, then we could believe something and it could have no impact on how we live. Peirce argued that beliefs determine how a person responds to certain circumstances. "If a person isn't willing to act in a way that reflects their belief, they don't really believe it, even if they claim to" (129).
This book is theological.
Boyd was a professor at Bethel University for sixteen years, and he incorporates quite a bit of theology in this book. Ultimately, he wants readers to make Jesus the foundation of their faith, and recognize Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God's true character. Much like my own faith journey, Boyd explains how he finally realized that his reasoning about the Bible and Jesus had been backward: "Rather than believing in Jesus because I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, as evangelicals typically do, I came to believe the Bible was the inspired Word of God because I first believe in Jesus" (159).
As the book moves toward its conclusion, Boyd spends time explaining and defending his Christocentric view of God, outlining the connections between imagination and life, and looking a few verses in the Bible that seem - at first glance - to equate faith with certainty (or at least an absence of doubt).
I really enjoyed reading this book. Boyd and I have shared some of the same experiences with this topic, so I was very encouraged by the proposals and conclusions that he offers. Benefit of the Doubt has a lot to offer college students, as well as adults who experience cognitive dissonance when what they learn, what they see, and what they experience bumps up against the faith they hold so dear.
Disclaimer: I was provided a review copy of this book from Baker Books.
Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight
Book Review: Simply Jesus by N. T. Wright
The challenge for us is to not hide these things and act as if they don't exist when they do.
Hiding is easy;
honesty is hard.
It's easier to pretend that everything's okay than it is to open up, be truthful, and let people know what's going on and how you really feel about it. When we hurt, our natural reaction is to hide it.
We shut other people out.
We close in on ourselves.
We push people away.
In this video, a researcher named Brene Brown shares some ideas about what makes it so hard to admit when we're hurting and struggling:
Many years ago, it was observed, "Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear . . . It is easier to say 'My tooth is aching' than to say 'My heart is broken'" (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, appendix by R. Havard, M.D.).
That's still true. If someone shows up with a cast on their arm, everyone wants to hear the story about what happened. But if someone says, "I'm feeling down and can't seem to turn it around," everyone says, "Suck it up." But hiding your pain isn't healthy, nor does it make the pain go away.
What if our response to trouble and trials wasn't denying it or hiding it?
What if our response was joy?
That would be weird.
But that's how we're encouraged to respond in the book of James:
"Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow" (James 1:2-3 NLT).
Do you see that? Troubles are an opportunity for joy.
How can that be? Because when you face troubles, when you experience trials, when your "faith is tested," you have an opportunity, a chance, to grow in your endurance. Trials offer the chance to develop a more enduring commitment to Christ.
But it's only an opportunity. It's only a chance.
If you tune it out, and push people away, and close in on yourself, and blame God that your life isn't as easy as you thought it would be, then your troubles will work against you. If you persist in denial, then your trials will become a missed opportunity for great joy. And you'll miss the chance to grow in your loyalty to Christ.
So troubles are just an opportunity because growth isn't automatic. It's all in how you respond. Troubles can tear down your faith and weaken your faith. Or troubles can build up your faith and strengthen your faith. There are students whose parents got divorced and now their faith is torn apart. Other students came through those hard times with a deeper faith and greater endurance.
God wants you to endure, but how you respond is ultimately up to you.
"So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing" (James 1:4 NLT).
Hope & Despair
Brueggemann on Psalms of Vengeance
He's dead now, but the truth of his statement lives on.
What you think about God (the way you think he works in the world, what you think he wants for you and from you) is the most important thing about you. What I think about God is the most important thing about me.
He's right because, as a general rule, we make our choices and live our lives in sync with what we ultimately believe matters to God. If you think God is concerned with social justice, then you will work with or contribute to organizations that combat injustice. If you think God is pleased when you show up at church, then you'll probably make it a priority to be at church more. You get the point.
You make choices based on what you really think about God. We all do. And that's why the quote is so true: What comes into our minds when we think about God really is the most important thing about us.
But there are a lot of opinions about what God is like. Even in our own country (which some people still insist is a "Christian nation"), there are many different views. The latest research polls (from Harris Interactive, December 2013) found that 74% of adults in the United States believe in God. That means that 26% of Americans don't even think there's a God at all. But among those 74% who do believe there is a God, the views are quite varied.
In 2010 a book came out called, America's Four Gods. The authors are professors at Baylor University, and they did a lot of interviews and research on what Americans really believe about God. Based on people's responses, the book identifies four different views of God that Americans have.
View #1: The Authoritative God
This is view is held by 31% of Americans. People who see this God this way believe that God is highly involved in the regular events of our daily lives: he's always watching everything and everyone. They also believe that he rewards people who do right, but he is especially busy catching people who do wrong and punishing them when they do.
View #2: The Benevolent God
24% of Americans hold this view of a God who is engaged in our world in caring, loving, and supportive ways. The Benevolent God is involved in our lives, but he is not judgmental at all. He really just wants people to be happy and healthy. If the Authoritative God is like a cosmic policeman who wants to punish the world, the Benevolent God is like a cosmic nurse who wants to heal the world.
View #3: The Critical God
This view is held by 21% of Americans. It sees God as the ultimate judge and enforcer of right and wrong. But instead of punishing bad and rewarding good in this life, God waits until after we die to settle the score and give people what they deserve in the afterlife.
View #4: The Distant God
This view is held by 24% of Americans. It sees God as the one who started the universe, but now he remains uninvolved with how things go. He doesn't trouble himself with the little details of our little lives; and he doesn't respond to our prayers or praises or offerings. Benjamin Franklin, one of America's Founding Fathers, held this view. He once wrote that he couldn't imagine that a "Supremely Perfect" God cares a bit for "such an inconsiderable Nothing as Man." The Distant God is real; he's just up there, out there, somewhere (see America's Four Gods, pp. 27-34).
To cut through the clutter, I want you to consider one of the earliest titles for Jesus. The birth stories say that Jesus will be called "Emmanuel," which means God-with-us. Jesus is God-with-us. So if you want to know about God, if you want to know what God is like, then look at Jesus.
So for two thousand years, when Christians have been asked, "What is God really like?" We simply point to Jesus, God-with-us, because God looks like Jesus.
One day, one of Jesus' disciples (a guy named Philip) said to Jesus, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied" (John 14:8 NLT). It's like, "C'mon Jesus. Quit holding out on us. How do we really know that you are the way, the truth, and the life (see John 14:6)? A lot of people are saying a lot of different things about God. How do we know that you're right? C'mon. Show us the Father. Show us what God is like. That's all we're asking for."
And Jesus simply replies: "You've been with me all this time, Philip, and you still don't understand? To see me is to see the Father" (John 14:9 MSG).
Anyone who has seen Jesus has seen the Father.
Do you want to know what God is like?
Look at Jesus. Because God looks like Jesus.
So, what is God like? From looking at Jesus, we learn that:
God acts with compassion.
God forgives with grace.
God speaks with power.
God heals the broken.
God includes the excluded.
God loves his people.
God cares about you.
Helpless Scarecrows & the Living God
Quick Thoughts on Psalm 82