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Losing certainty, keeping faith

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As a kid, all I wanted was answers. As soon as I’d get one, I’d chase the next. Nowadays, I’m happy with holding onto questions. Rephrasing, examining, thinking. The answers I have don’t always add up, and my mania for meaning, for definitive proof, is abating.

Our most precious gift, time, is also the one that slips through our fingers. As years pass, we hope to gain distance from earlier, formative life crises. We also hope to extract some scintilla of something approaching wisdom.

Belief dances with culture through the eons, waxing, waning and evolving. I am increasingly aware that all of us, regardless of creed, creditworthiness, consciousness or credentials, lack definitive answers to life’s mysteries. As poor old Voltaire once noted, ‘Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one’.

We’ve faced innumerable questions in pursuit of meaning since the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Reformation all the way up to and through post-modernism. Can faith function alongside doubt? Can we avoid the hypocrisy that slithers in when worldviews aren’t examined critically, or when the actions buttressed by those worldviews fall short of the inherent ideals espoused?

Can we maintain a connection with a profession and pursuit of faith, when faiths of varying ilky shades demand call for special status and exemptions, or encourage anti-intellectualism?

In short, can we ‘belong’ without drinking whichever Kool-Aid is placed before us? Is acceptance worth the price of admission; a ceding of intellectual sovereignty and an acquiescing to the never-to-be slaughtered sacred cows? Can we comfortable with mystery while pursuing clarity and truth?


'Doubtless some of the current beliefs, self-evident truths and values we espouse today will be seen as risible in 100 years.'


Around our dining table, beliefs and questions get free reign. The rejection of literalism and the exploration of praxis — where the ideal meets the real — is where it gets juicy. Two adults and two teenagers discuss the coming federal election and its denouement; we talk about the fragile safety net, health care and policy showdowns; the demonising of groups, the denial of equality, and the wronging of rights.

This may seem heavy stuff to talk through over the Sunday roast, but windmilling away at justice, rabble-rousing and pontificating are in the DNA. What my wife and I have realised from these talks is that acknowledging context and perspective is crucial. We only pretend if we claim to have the answers. Stealing from Lord Alfred Tennyson, I want my kids to reason and to believe, as ‘there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds’.

It’s important to think about what someone says to you, and why they are saying it; then you can come to your own understanding. That’s the message I try to share with my children. Søren Aabye Kierkegaard said it much more ably, the show-off: ‘Every mental act is composed of doubt and belief, but it is belief that is the positive, it is belief that sustains thought and holds the world together.’

Thinking invariably and positively leads to conflict. Concepts that would once have seen people executed for dissent have been relegated to the realm of wobbly opinion, as scientific understanding and tolerance have grown. Consequently, stress, and that little gem, cognitive dissonance, comes about as the status quo is rocked.

For what it’s worth, we have dissed and disavowed many beliefs in our family; beliefs that throughout history were previously held by many (and currently held by some) to be sacred. Consider: the world is flat, watch you don’t fall of the edge. Or, the sun orbits the Earth, which is 5,000 years old. We could go on all day.

Happily, laughter (reason’s safety valve, and faith’s saving grace) often follows when you examine some old, discarded beliefs; doctrines that people used to swear and live by, or believe still.

Just as human knowledge changes, so our collective beliefs and creeds tend to adapt. What can help guard us against hubris — the retrospective arrogance that cancels and condemns previous thought and thinkers — is the knowledge that the same dismissal of past beliefs and views may well be applied by future generations to our beliefs and cultural norms. Doubtless some of the current beliefs, self-evident truths and values we espouse today will be seen as risible in 100 years.

For parents, I suggest we cannot protect our progeny from stupidity or cupidity. We can, however, encourage them to work through the issues. We can also model the fact that having faith in God does not meaning having to switch off their brains when the sermonising starts.

You may be facing the same issues with your children, or perhaps you’ve already passed through the ‘valley of the shadow of the daft’ (more strength to your arm). My hope is that place of faith, every extolling of grace, can be a nurturing, affirming place for my kids and for every human being; every child of God.




Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Line illustration of mountain climbers. (Tetiana Garkusha / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Religion, Faith, Belief, Questions



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Existing comments

Great quote by Voltaire, Barry. Also, your final sentence is a beauty! I sometimes think that doubt is the one constant in my life. And then I realise that my faith is stronger than doubt. It’s kind of like romance with all the uncertainty that brings and yet at the core is certainty. I’m also a believer in God doing most of the heavy lifting in our often faltering, yet somehow faultless, journey of faith.

Pam | 14 April 2022  

Thank you, Barry, for your delightful words. Love what you have to say and how you say it! Easter Blessings to you and yours as you continue your robust discussions over the Sunday roast!

Ann Rennie | 14 April 2022  

Thank you Barry, I very much enjoyed this article. I’ve often thought about the logical impossibility of finite humans defining an infinite deity. Surely only the infinite can fully understand the infinite? It gives the old statement that “ outside the church there can be no salvation” the necessary context to dispute it. How dare humans suggest that there are limits to the actions of an infinite God? So, once more Barry, as we ponder the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus this Easter, thank you.

Ernest Azzopardi | 14 April 2022  

Doubt is a healthy form of questioning for the thinking person.
My doubt around sitting in churches over a decade where I couldn't see Jesus in attendance encouraged my husband and I to start a non denominational community church.
Spiritual, safe and simple. We found our doubt increased our faith.

Jan Wright | 15 April 2022  

You can’t have faith in uncertainty. To have faith in what can only be glimpsed dimly in the mirror is to be certain of the outline but not of the details. To help with the details, the Church has the traditional four sins or sin-sectors which cry to Heaven for vengeance, two of which are guaranteed by the Holy Spirit to identify things which are intrinsically evil and two of which concern evils for which responses may vary because of practicalities and material realities.

roy chen yee | 16 April 2022  

I wouldn't consider myself an expert on matters of faith but suggest there needs to be some pretty close scrutiny to the syntax of the associated phrasiology, if Kool-aid is on the table it pays to listen closely for loose participles or stray conjunctions. I don't take exception to Barry's "I want my kids to reason and to believe" but suggest that in a world of losing certainty (often because we don't read the fine print or are willing to accept generality rather than certanty) perhaps there's a more precious and precise caution from Rod Stewart than Lord Tennyson; look to find a reason to believe. Rod was close on the mark but no cigar; this "faith" stuff we'd like to have in the bank takes some serious soul-searching and that should include the "soul" of who's advocating the reasons or the belief (or both). In my humble opinion the desired position is Knowing THE reason to believe. Take that one to the bank, but be prepared to mortgage it off over time if the "rock of ages" was just fashionable... I don't suggest questioning your faith... but be open to the concept the belief may be flawed if the reason proves misplaced.

ray | 17 April 2022  
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‘but be open to the concept the belief may be flawed if the reason proves misplaced’

Faith cannot be uncoupled from Reason but Reason ultimately begins from an assumption that one or more first principles which cannot be tested for empirical validity are the foundational truths from and by which other truths are established. If you don’t believe as a first principle that the Christian Scriptures are guaranteed to be true by the editorship of the Holy Spirit itself, you cannot be a coherent Christian. If you don’t believe that Muhammed was visited in a cave above Mecca by a Judeo-Christian angel which told him by the authority of Allah that, in essence, the content of Judeo-Christianity is false, you cannot be a coherent Muslim. If you don’t believe Jesus Christ went to America to preach a new testament, you cannot be a coherent Mormon. And so it goes.

roy chen yee | 24 April 2022  

The only time you can have 'dead certainty' about anything is when you're dead and that may well be too late. Best trying to make a go of it, as your attempt to bring up decent offspring is, Barry. It sounds like it may be working. It is hard yakka, but well rewarded in the long run. When you're actually involved in nurturing young people you need a light touch. I think the Quakers have it about right. 'Belief' is one of those things not best judged by affiliation to credal statements but by a person's life. Great intellectuals often get it wrong. Voltaire called for a priest on his deathbed; Erasmus didn't. I believe Erasmus to have had far better influence in his life and after than Voltaire. Voltaire was a wee bit too much of the French philosophe for me. Erasmus was, to me, a genuine Christian in a time when many professing that religion were anything but.

Edward Fido | 23 April 2022  

Isn’t the absence of certainty what faith is all about? Otherwise it's knowledge. I would love to be one of those people whose faith is so certain that they have no doubts at all about it. I am continually asking questions and, even at age 68, still open to considering new and different things about my faith. The Voltaire quote is something I can identify with.

It’s interesting to look at the Tim Harden song quoted by Ray (sung by Rod Stewart) in a bit more context. The fuller quote is “knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried/still I look to find a reason to believe”. The question is why should we believe, give me a reason. A cynic might say that faith here is wanting to believe something you know in your heart and mind is not true. Surely not a sound basis for faith. Or you can be more open to it and say that, despite the lie, there is something deeper and potentially stronger on which to base that faith, even with the doubts still in mind. It’s an individual decision and the second path may be the more courageous one. Faith built on this lack of certainty might even be a stronger faith, but it’s a faith that may have to change over time.

I hope Barry’s family has many robust conversations around the dinner table and Barry might share some more insights.

Brett | 28 April 2022  

Anselm's formulation, "Credo ut intelligam" (I believe in order to understand), following Augustine's counsel, implies a recognition by both eminent thinkers and believers of the insufficiency and ineptness of reason alone to engage with the inviting mystery of life to which faith opens fuller rational exploration and articulation. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a case in point. The Catholic synthesis of faith and reason offers a middle way between the poles of an Enlightenment overreach that epistemically recognizes reason only and a fideism that utterly denounces reason.

John RD | 03 May 2022