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Friday, September 27, 2013

"Benefit of the Doubt" (Gregory A Boyd)

TITLE: Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty
AUTHOR: Gregory A Boyd
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (272 pages).

Have you ever encountered someone who seems absolutely sure about something, that he is never wrong? What about an individual so cocksure about his belief to the exclusion of all other possibilities? We have heard the famous saying, "power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely." Can the same happen to absolute faith? How can people who stubbornly hang on to the absolute certainty of their beliefs able to relate to others in this pluralistic world? If one is absolutely sure about an opinion, is that person's belief considered perfect? Is there any room for doubt in such absolute certainty? After all, the saying goes: no one's perfect. Is it possible to have a healthy faith that is peppered with constructive doubts? How biblical is absolute faith that appears to cover all grounds? These questions and many more are dealt with in this autobiographical approach adopted by the author. Boyd, senior pastor at Woodlands Church in St Paul, Minnesota, believes that there is a need to understand false faith from true faith first before embarking upon an exercising of one's faith. Boyd's ultimate goal is:

"... to help readers apply this information and embrace a kind of faith that is intellectually compelling, passionately centered on Christ, and fearlessly efficient in negotiating the complexity and ambiguity of our postmodern age."

A) Identifying False Faith

The problem with a warped sense of absolute certainty lies in the manner in which doubts are managed. Boyd asserts that psychological sense of certainty renders oneself quite incapable of dealing with doubts, forces one to push aside questions, and makes it tempting to wear a false mask of certainty in public. Such a certainty raises questions like, "How much faith is enough?"

Boyd identifies eight reasons why such "certainty-seeking faith" is erroneous. Such a faith tends to:
  1. Elevate the virtue of irrational beliefs. If something does not sound right, talk oneself into believing it. It makes one overtake the reality or evidence set before us, as one responds in irrational ways. It forces one to accept something irrational, even considering it as virtuous
  2. Presupposes a wrong picture of God. In other words, it lets our faith define who God is, rather than God defining himself. 
  3. Replaces biblical faith with magic. People steep in such certainty will tend to believe that the more faith they have, the more magical results they will get.
  4. Make people stubborn and inflexible, especially in the face of serious doubts. This can put off seekers who are genuinely interested in the faith, but desires a rational answer to the questions about the faith. Worse, inflexibility can create impressions that one is a bigot. In other words, good Apologetics can be most healthy and life-giving.
  5. Causes selective learning. Such people tend to choose what they believe, even at the expense of rejecting truth in order to preserve their level of faith. People of absolute certainty are hardly teachable.
  6. Creates a sense of arrogance which also makes one hypocritical. For Boyd, an "unexamined faith is not worth believing." 
  7. Set up a dangerous situation of fanaticism. Many religious wars are basically due to people's staunchly holding on to a particular form of faith, thinking that God was on their side.
  8. Harp on a personal version of faith rather than true faith.  They are primarily concerned about their pattern or stand of belief, more than anything else. Such things then become more self-serving. 
Boyd calls such a faith "the idol of certainty." This is the most serious problem of all. Boyd goes back to the identity of the Triune God, the sacrifice of Christ at the Cross, the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, the centrality of the gospel to remind us that our faith must be anchored on these fundamental creeds of faith. Together with idolatry, one needs to watch out for the cravings of idolatry. Boyd also reminds us that even Christian things can become idolatrous when we apply such cravings in an idolatrous manner. For example, when studying Scripture, it is tempting to put additional weight on our efforts rather than the truth of the Word. The gospel is true not because we think it to be, but because it is real and that God says it is true. 

B) True Faith

After scrambling our minds, Boyd tries to bring things back together again to help believers identify true faith. He argues that biblical faith is covenantal and is grounded in authenticity. It is not about striving for certainty, but faithful living even in a climate of uncertainty. It may require us to wrestle with God, and to let God have the final say, not us. Authentic faith requires us to ground everything in Christ. It is to appreciate that the person of Christ is both divine as well as human. Acceptance of God's salvation is quite different from a stubborn belief in faith. The former is faith in humility while the latter is dogma in arrogance. Authentic faith frees us to scream at God. It moves us beyond mere contractual deals toward binding love. The former is legalism while the latter is love.

C) Exercising Faith

Boyd feels that the biggest problem for the church in America is that there is a subtle infusing of legalism, our psychological misgivings, and an arrogant way of framing our theology as superior. We can avoid these by adopting a few corrective steps. First, embody our faith through good works. As our faith becomes living faith, people will judge our faith according to our works, and not according to our certainty of faith. Second, our faith is visually real and honest. This will bring credibility back to the faith. Third, it builds community. Fourth, it allows us to have a healthy mixture of faith and doubt, that together helps us approach the greater truth. It encourages our faith to evolve from a small minute pebble to a giant rock on solid ground. Recognize the authority of Scripture. Affirm on Christ as our foundation of faith. Be flexible in the minors but be affirmative on the majors. Have a Christ-centered paradigm. Finally, maintain hope in God.

So What?

Boyd has touched upon a topic that can be easily misunderstood. Where is the line between the "idol of certainty" and true conviction? How do we understand the relationship between facts and faith? Is Boyd not stumbling people who have spent years living the faith in the way that they know best? I suppose whatever Boyd has suggested in this book must also apply to himself. As much as he cautions people not to be overly cocksure about the way they exercise their faith, Boyd needs to sip the same warning himself. In other words, even as he argues against being too certain of one's brand of faith, he must guard against being too certain about his line of argument. His target groups include those who are fundamentalists, extreme and often irrational believers, people whose convictions of faith are swimming in the waters of arrogance, and those who prefer think that they are absolutely right and others absolutely wrong.

We need to read Boyd's arguments fairly. Let me offer five thoughts about the book. First, Boyd writes this book from personal history, that experience alone does not determine what is true. Coming from a Pentecostal beginning, he knows firsthand, the power of an emotional experience that is a force for good, as well as a tool for bad. Experience itself is not necessarily truth. Truth is not necessarily clothed in manifold experiences. After all, one can feel good about something, and yet be absolutely wrong.

Second, Boyd understands that there are no simple solutions to the complex puzzles of life. He is disturbed about the way some Christians being too certain about their faith, that they become closed to reason and to rational arguments, especially those that question their faith. It leads them to put up a terrible defense anchored not so much on facts but more on feelings, their own feelings. Such behaviour can become destructive not only for those of weaker faith, but can potentially hurt oneself in the end.

Third, we must avoid the problem of a 1-trick pony in an increasingly pluralistic world. It is impossible to have one tool to fix the world's structures. We need a toolbox of understanding that different situations require different tools. We can be convicted about faith, but that does not mean we become inflexible in the exercising of that conviction. There are many complexities in this world, especially with an Interconnected society where all kinds of information are streaming all the time.

Fourth, being cocksure about one's manner of belief can become a negative influence for people around us. It may even lead to extremist behaviour that not only put off unbelievers, it becomes a stumbling block for people. Not all doubts are bad. There is a kind of doubt that leads to greater faith. This is what I call constructive criticism that builds up. There is also a kind of faith that leads to greater doubt. This is what I call a bigoted defense that is build around an illusion. For many things in life are learned best when we ask questions. Disciples of Christ must adopt a humble approach to learning. If there are things they are not sure, say they are not sure. If there are things they firmly believe, say so, but add in a clause: "Only God knows all truth." That will put us in perspective that whatever we believe or hold on to, are subjected to God's final stamp of approval. In other words, have a humble heart predisposed to learning from God, with the Bible as an anchor for us to adopt Berean-like attitude of Scriptural verification.

Finally, there is a very subtle difference between the ideal of conviction and the idol of certainty. The former is anchored on God's truth, while the latter is wrapped up on a personal version of God's truth. When one is anchored on God's Word and Truth, all other things are measured with the Bible. It covers one's way of thinking, one's behaviour, one's relationships with people, one's interactions with unbelievers, one's level of fellowship with believers, and most importantly, one's relationship with God. People with conviction are disciples who are constantly learning about the nuances of what it means to live as disciples. People with idolatrous certainty tend to be less inclined on learning, but more inclined toward telling people what and how to live their lives. My advice is this: Whenever we are becoming too sure about something, question ourselves and subject our beliefs to the whole Word of God, not just parts of it.

Read this book with an open mind. Do not be too quick to apply this book on others. First apply it to yourself, and let our convictions be built upon God's Word, manifested in fruitful living, wise thinking, loving behaviour, and Christlike humility. If in doubt, give God and others the benefit of the doubt. Then pray away for God to reveal a bigger picture for us to learn about.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Books and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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