Theological certainty is less comforting than you’d think

One of the strangest things about looking back at the past is noticing how certain I was about everything. It’s hard to explain, and people often have a hard time understanding it, but during the period when I really, truly believed, I was absolutely certain that I was never going to change my mind. I felt that I’d finally found the truth, and that could never be undone.

Prayer 3It wasn’t as if I was moving in line with a different worldview, more as if I’d discovered a new fact. People can change their opinions, but why would I ever think that France wasn’t a country, now that I knew it was? I didn’t usually talk of knowing, but that’s what it comes down to – I had special knowledge, and I couldn’t imagine that ever changing.

As an example of this certainty, I remember being told by someone with a “prophetic gift” (yes, I confidently accepted that as fact as well) that I was going to go through some rough times. I forget the precise phrasing, but my instant reaction was that this referred to a crisis of faith. However, the idea that I might ever have the slightest doubt was just inconceivable to me, so I ended up casting around for some other possible meaning.

Looking back, it seems ridiculous, but I genuinely thought there was no way I could ever doubt my faith, even though I just accepted the prophetic claim at face value. It all felt true – it really was as simple as that. In the end, I became convinced that something was going to happen to my wife (then fiancée), mainly because that scared me more than anything in the world, which seemed to fit the dire tone of the warning.

Over the next few days, I spent every free moment crying out to God. I stopped eating, and I didn’t even drink anything for over 24 hours. I thought of it as a fast, with the aim of asking God to stop whatever was going to happen, but it was really a clumsy, rather desperate effort without any clever theology behind it. I just knew that I had to do something.

Prayer 2Eventually, three days in, I got a sense that something had changed (more likely, I snapped out of it), and slowly started to eat again. But for that, which may just have been a basic self-preservation instinct, I think I would have gone on until I became quite seriously ill. And why did I do it? Because I got the idea, based on nothing at all, that something bad was going to happen.

Even after all that, despite that sense of change, I didn’t feel content or comfortable. I’d stopped because I felt that whatever would be would be, and there was nothing more to be done. The sense of fear and dread had lost its urgency and become less acute, but it was still there, gnawing at me. It faded in the end, but only after many months, and it scarred me badly.

When I have one of those moments when I start to miss the sense of certainty and purpose that I used to have, I remember this episode and remind myself that certainty isn’t all that great after all.

Images courtesy of EperAgi and mistermast, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

4 responses to “Theological certainty is less comforting than you’d think”

  1. Nicole Moseley says :

    I would call myself more of a person recovering from charismania (that’s what a friend called it). Sometimes people go around declaring to be the voice of God when they’re anything but. I’ve had some bad experiences with that. Sorry yours had to be one of those too.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I can’t really blame anyone else, it’s my own lack of critical thinking that got me into it. I think I might still be in that environment if I hadn’t been too shy and self-conscious to fit in.

      I often forget how strange it must seem to people who’ve never moved in those circles, so I’ll have to write a bit more about it.

  2. mgm75 says :

    And people wonder why Dawkins equates religion with mental health. Reading through this and seeing the anguish your faith put you under it is not difficult to sympathise with his position.

  3. jasonjshaw says :

    I’ve found that those who are “prophetic” are actually able to tap into greater understandings of how things work in order to formulate the future. At least those who are able to do it well. A little self-fulfilling prophesy through a suggestion can help their cause as well. Belief is a power thing! Being able to see how things balance can be useful too.

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