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How can you be so certain?

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty,” Anne Lamott writes in Plan B: Further thoughts on faith.

If Lamott is right, and (spoiler alert) I think she is, why do there appear to be so many people who are so sure about issues of faith? How can people be so certain they’re right that they deny the reality I see in front of me? So confident in their positions that they are willing to sacrifice family and friends who disagree? So confident they are unwilling to remain part of a church with those who disagree?

It seems foolhardy at best, to believe there are simple answers to complex issues of humanity—like who we are or who someone else is. And arrogant to believe our reality is real for all time, regardless of our cultural, historical context. 

Yet we encounter them every day. People who are certain they understand the entirety of what it means to be human on planet earth in 2022 and are willing to impose that understanding on others. 

What appears as certainty may, however, be something else.

Repressed uncertainty

In a recent podcast episode, philosopher Peter Rollins shares insight into our tendency to assert certainties. 

Questions, he teaches, are part of who we are as human beings. “A dog doesn’t question what it is to be a dog,” Rollins points out with a smile, “but a human being is a person who asks what it is to be human.”

A moment later, he expounds: 

If this is the case, that to be human is to actually be inherently curious, to inherently ask questions, then when you meet somebody who doesn’t ask questions, it’s because they’re repressing their questions. It’s not because they’re certain. It’s because they have repressed uncertainty. Fundamentalism isn’t certainty, it’s repressed uncertainty.

I am drawn to this definition of fundamentalism. It seems to explain so much of what we are seeing in the church, politics and our public discourse.

In a world of increasing complexity, messiness, disorder and uncertainty, it makes sense that fundamentalism is on the rise. 


The promise of simple, authoritative answers to complex issues is seductive. So people assert things like Jesus is the answer. Just read the Bible. Follow faith over fear. 

These “answers” sound good at first, but may actually represent a repression of questions we’re too afraid to ask. Difficult questions about who we are, how fragile the world is around us, and where all of this uncertainty may lead. 

The more authoritatively we make these assertions, the less room we allow for dissent, conversation, or a difference of opinion. Which, I believe, is the point. 

By repressing uncertainty, we think we’re making sense of a disordered world. Actually, we may just be closing our eyes to the complexity.

Living with the questions

Anne Lamott’s quote continues, “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

Unfortunately, my faith doesn’t deny the chaos but allows me to find light within it. And calls me to do what I can, to make things better.

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