“It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.” (Luke Chapter 1)
It’s become increasingly common to hear insinuations that strong conviction and certainty are categorically bad things.
This sentiment is not new. It was Nietzsche, after all, who said, “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.” But the notion is especially ascendant at the moment, and not just among the secular elite. People of faith are increasingly making similar professions.
Popular interdenominational Christian magazine Relevant published last year on “Why certainty can be so dangerous to faith.” The late Mike Ovey, formerly with Oak Hill Theological College, reported on a prayer at a communion service asking to “forgive us our sins of certainty.” Shiao Chong, editor for The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, similarly suggested that certainty comes from a “not biblical” approach to thought and the world. Let’s avoid talking about ‘certainty’ as the villain.
Let’s avoid talking about ‘certainty’ as the villain.
Enns’s thoughts are considerably more nuanced than his title lets on—making the case that we ought to move from “a rigid certainty about God to a radical trust in God.” In doing so, he highlights the dangers of clinging more to “correct belief” rather than God Himself.
In this, Enns isn’t against certainty in God as much as overwrought certainty in our paradigms about Him. That can be a helpful distinction to make. Meagan Kohler, a frequent Public Square Magazine contributor, concurred—noting how “we can, unwittingly, create a model of God in our minds that is too flimsy for God’s purposes.”
All that being said, it’s not hard to read this as another part of the trend toward attacking clear conviction itself, as in the insistence that “claiming to know with surety is a bad thing” and “it’s wrong to claim to be very, very sure of spiritual things.”
Generating frustration towards those with conviction. Among other things, some of this blanket anti-conviction rhetoric holds the potential to condition people to be harshly judgmental towards anyone claiming a level of surety in their conviction. Peter Leithart writes in Patheos how even Enns’s critics have been “pre-classified” by some as “immature, fearful abusers of Scripture who want to press the Bible into their own modern molds.”
Latter-day Saint commentator Sarah Allen remarks on how common it is to see people online saying that “no one can really know that the Church is the true Church of Christ” to the point that these same individuals “get irrationally upset or just roll their eyes when people say that while bearing their testimonies.” She continues:
There’s a lot about our doctrine and history that I don’t know, I fully admit that. But God has told me in no uncertain terms that this is His true and living church, that the Book of Mormon is a legitimate ancient record, that Joseph Smith was His prophet, and that the Priesthood was restored to this earth.
It’s precisely these kinds of confidence reassurances that can elicit an eye-roll from those who now see strong conviction (especially if it borders on certainty) as naïve or harmful. BYU-Idaho Psychology professor Jeffrey Thayne wrote in a conversation about this issue, “In all the naysaying about certainty, we can inadvertently stigmatize conviction—full-throated conviction—the kind that leads us to bear pure testimony of God, his son, the Restoration, and of moral living is fully consonant with the Gospel.”
Belief and knowledge aren’t at odds. Implicit in this strange dynamic is the idea that cultivating belief is somehow antithetical to embracing any expressions of firm knowledge. Many Latter-day Saints, of course, see this very differently, thanks to Alma’s great sermon on faith and knowledge—where he details the beautiful way in which faith can evolve into perfect knowledge.
In another text sacred to Latter-day Saints, the Lord states that both faith and knowledge are gifts of the Spirit:
To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.
This angsty tension between faith and knowledge, then, seems on its face, to clash with some important scriptural teaching. In line with Paul’s New Testament teachings, The Doctrine and Covenants continues to elaborate on the fact that we all have different spiritual gifts and that all of them are necessary for building His kingdom: “For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.”
From passages like this, it seems clear that people who know with surety can benefit from those who aren’t so sure (but may still find within themselves the gift of believing) and vice versa. “So, let’s avoid talking about ‘certainty’ as the villain and ‘doubt’ as the virtue,” Thayne proposes, “This seems fundamentally off—and perhaps damaging.”
Conviction is not dogmatism. Given all this, to say something like, “Christ lives, and I have a conviction of this borne by personal experience with grace”—even if in shorthand, such as “I know that Christ lives”—is not only something worth preserving, it’s something disciples would celebrate. Much the same when it comes to resounding conviction about God’s word in scripture or the prophetic mantle in modern days.
Thayne goes on to say, “There’s a difference between steady conviction and dogmatism. And sometimes people attack dogmatism using a vocabulary that also—in the attack—targets conviction. When it seems like conviction is being critiqued, it makes sense that many people with conviction would react.”
Aspiring for humility rather than uncertainty. Professor Thayne goes on to say, “To be clear, conviction is not incompatible with epistemic humility. Conviction is a virtue, humility is a virtue, and pride, arrogance, and dogmatism are vices.” These kinds of clearer distinctions can surely only help the public conversation on these important questions.
BJ Spurlock, who runs the theology blog Things as They Really Are, suggests that one of the seeming paradoxes of the gospel is that “to gain certainty through the Holy Spirit requires us to drop the spirit of fundamentalism,” suggesting that “Moses wouldn’t have learned things he ‘never had supposed’ if he was too certain.” Conviction is not incompatible with epistemic humility.
Conviction is not incompatible with epistemic humility.
Doubt has a dark side. Latter-day Saint physician Gregory L. Smith suggests that any healthy discussion of faith and doubt needs to cope with things like Jesus’s statement, “Doubt not, fear not,” in restoration scripture. Or from 3 Nephi: “And there began to be great doubtings and disputations among the people, notwithstanding so many signs had been given.”
These cautions pertain to doubt in the person of our Lord, however, rather than doubt in something else. As my friend Nathaniel Givens has reminded us effectively, doubt in things that are dubious or deceptive can be an inspired virtue that is redemptive in our lives.
It is this precisely this distinction that too easily gets lost entirely by those who either demonize doubt without conditions or who glorify doubt as an unmistakable sign of greater enlightenment. This prompts one of my colleagues to warn of the “twin dangers of absolute skepticism and absolute certainty.”
In the same moment that we hold space for uncertainty, therefore, let’s not overly valorize doubt in a way that obscures its potential dangers.
Extreme uncertainty as a barrier to new knowledge. As a final direction of inquiry, it’s widely appreciated how epistemic humility can catalyze our learning, as we are open to truth and welcoming of uncertainty, etc. But when taken to an extreme, can these same sensibilities undermine and erode our growth in spiritual knowledge? Gregory Smith adds, “It is ironic how certain some are that certainty is not possible.”
More specifically, can an a priori aversion to any degree of certainty (or strong conviction) prevent people from ever seeking more direct reassurance, more definitive experiences, and more final and grounding forms of knowing? And in this way, can an overemphasis on uncertainty ultimately trip us up?
Meagan Kohler also adds, “while I agree that forging ahead in the face of uncertainty is a necessary part of our moral development, I think too many people stop there, and it can close them off to real possibilities for additional knowledge.”
This points towards a deeper conversation about how real people respond in matters of faith when uncertainties are encountered and whether they should continue to trust in their spiritual experiences or start to doubt them. Kohler continued:
God wants to reveal things to us, and I’m not sure what, if any, limits we should ever place on His ability to do that. I can’t always say how or when that knowledge will come, but everything in my life has led me to believe that He honors a believing heart with precious witnesses of His love and reality. President Nelson has said we all, like Joseph, can know for ourselves what is true, and I would love to see more emphasis on that. (See especially his 2018 remarks, “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives.”)
Staying open to being surprised by God. As one friend wisely said, “what I see as important in this is that we always keep greater faith and faithfulness as our goal in our journey,” adding:
We shouldn’t close ourselves off to road-to-Damascus moments when God calls us in a completely different direction and everything changes. But those are relatively rare moments. And as we continue on our faith journey, I think strengthening our conviction over time through spiritual experiences, wrestling with and overcoming doubts, seeking light and knowledge from God in prayer and in the temple, and striving to grow our faith is absolutely key.
Compared with the example of Laman and Lemuel early in The Book of Mormon, this brother highlights Nephi’s model of “start[ing] from a point where he does not believe what his father says, but he softens his heart and receives a witness of the spirit. He then acts on that witness with trust in God and does not give up when he encounters obstacles and challenges.”
So yes, we, as a Latter-day Saint people, see the potential holy value of wrestling with doubts and ambiguities. But we believe that process is meant to give way to additional knowledge—a knowledge that is meant to change us. “If we are willing to trust in His methods and timing,” as Kohler adds, “surely there is much more knowledge and even certainty available for us than we generally take advantage of.”
We may not always know what that will look like, but joining these friends so kind to allow me to cite them here, we encourage you to try the Lord. And see what He will reveal to you. If there is something God can’t give you at this time, He will surely still honor your strivings beyond anything you can imagine.