The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity – Part II: The Quest for Certainty

The pursuit of authenticity, wholeness, and happiness, whether it be the shaping force in theology (the beatific vision, the pursuit of an “original authentic Christianity”) or the lure drawing customers to the mega-church industry, might also be described as the quest for certainty. Certainty or unmediated knowing is what the original sales preachers, the Proto-Gnostics, were peddling as a means of by-passing faith. The certainty of seeing God through the “mind’s eye” is the promise that Anselm’s ontological argument claims for itself and it is the sure and certain knowledge which Descartes claims to have captured in the cogito (I think therefore I am).  The modernist project is built upon the notion that certainty is available in the quest of reason and science. It gives shape to both theological liberalism, in which faith falls short of reason, and theological conservativism in its continual search for ever more certain apologetic arguments and evidences to arrive at a sure and certain sort of faith.  

The postmodern turn is simply the acceptance that the quest for certainty is a failed project and in this the postmodern has accepted the crisis of modernity as an epoch unto itself. The crisis inaugurated (or perhaps simply pointed out) by Kant and built on by Hegel and Nietzsche, only succeeds in fusing knowledge and mysticism, which was, of course, the original form of Gnosticism (mystic gnosis as certainty). Hegel’s notion that the Kantian antinomies are not problems to be resolved but the dialectic ground constituting reality, marks the passage of hard rationalism into pure mysticism.   Yet, this is not a unique moment, as Anselm’s turn to rationalism in the ontological argument produced a vision of God and the attainment of certainty that is precisely Hegelian in its final mystic vision of “darkness and nothingness.” Anselm, like Hegel, will equate this with having achieved the Absolute.  This rational mysticism, first systemically advanced by Anselm and found in its ultimate mutation in Heidegger, might best be understood as one prolonged permutation of Gnosticism. Here, certainty or absolute knowledge is at once a transcendent mystical sort of experience which uses the ladder of reason to ascend to a transcendent place from which the ladder might be kicked away.

The pursuit of certainty is characterized by two moments: the recognition that the body cannot attain to certainty due to its impermanence and mortality; the turn from the body and ordinary embodied language to the “mind’s eye,” ecstatic vision, the thinking thing, or pure thought or reason which achieves its own kind of transcendence.  It is precisely these two premises which will be addressed in the New Testament but it is an understanding to be had only against the background of a Jewish understanding.

To fully appreciate the biblical approach to the issue of certainty it seems necessary to “tarry with the negative” along with the Old Testament in its stark portrayal of the reality of death.  Here there is no platonic flight to the disembodied forms but lingering meditations on the realities of embodiment:

But man dies and lies prostrate.
Man expires, and where is he?
As water evaporates from the sea,
And a river becomes parched and dried up,
So man lies down and does not rise.
Until the heavens are no longer,
He will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep. (Job 14:10-12, NASB)

The Hebrew formula for approaching God entailed the refusal of the notion that one could take flight from the body, perhaps through death, to attain transcendence. As the oldest book of the Bible understood it, the realities of enfleshment were so final that judgment itself would require that God meet us face to face in the flesh:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.
Even after my skin is destroyed,
Yet from my flesh I shall see God;
Whom I myself shall behold,
And whom my eyes will see and not another. (Job 19:25-27, NASB)

The passage is remarkable in its refusal to turn away from embodiment and death, even before the conundrum that though the flesh is destroyed it is precisely from the flesh that he will encounter God. The writer longs for an unchanging word to this effect:

Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
That with an iron stylus and lead
They were engraved in the rock forever! (Job 19:23-24, NASB)

This is already a reversal of the historic quest for certainty in the transcendent forms beyond the world of human discourse.  It is an obvious messianic passage pointing to the incarnate Word.

The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ is the resolution to the irresolvable issue facing Job but it is also a direct overturning of the two premises posited in the quest for certainty.  The necessary flight from embodiment to an unchanging reality beyond language is a necessity and reality overturned by Christ.

To be continued.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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