I was going to title this series “Three Books Every Evangelical Should Read,” but that seems more than I can rightly say. “Three Books I Wish Every Evangelical Would Read” is a more accurate title. But ultimately this is about books that have influenced me, so we’ll leave it at that.
I’ve read a number of good books over the years, but these three books were good in a way that I want everyone to experience them. I’ll point out the obvious: this is a subjective list. However, these books cover issues that I think can have deeply positive influence in the evangelical church.
The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment, Daniel Taylor (IVP, 1992)
I hope I can do this book justice. Last time I read it was more than 10 years ago. I’m due to read it again. But it had an enormously positive influence on my faith. This book helped me realize that my growing unease and, yes, uncertainty, about some of the beliefs and doctrines I had been brought up with did not mean I had to abandon ship altogether. I was a young university student not so much struggling with faith in Christ, but with some of the other doctrines and beliefs relating to Christianity and the Bible that in my tradition were presented as foundational—so foundational that I was reluctant to express my doubts about them. You might say this book saved my faith.
In The Myth of Certainty, Taylor argues that uncertainty is not the enemy of faith, but in fact a great help to faith, moving us to depend on God more than on our own intellectual certitudes. In fact, Taylor argues that the notion of faith (or trust) implies a level of uncertainty: “Normally doubt is seen as sapping faith’s strength. Why not the reverse? Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being. Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists.” (81-82)
Taylor isn’t the first person to make this point. I’ve heard it from Lesslie Newbiggin, Frederick Buechner, Anne Lammot (not personally, of course, but in their writings), and I’m sure that list could go on for quite a while. But Taylor was the first one to make this point to me at a crucial time in my life and faith.
Taylor takes it a step further—and this was also crucial for me in a university setting—by noting that all of us (in my case, all of the people I interacted with at the university) are on the same level, the same playing field, when it comes to what we know or believe. All of us have “question-able” foundational assumptions upon which we base our beliefs about this or that, and those assumptions are based on other question-able assumptions. Taylor argues (as I recall) that this does not lead us to despair, but calls us to risk commitment to some foundational assumptions, even if it is possible to question them. We all do this every day. This is both the myth of certainty and the risk of commitment.
(This might actually be Lesslie Newbigging breaking in to my memory. He writes, “All major theories…rest on fundamental assumptions which can be questioned. But the questioning, if it is to be rational, has to rely on other fundamental questions which can in turn be questioned. It follows…that there can be no knowing without personal commitment. We must believe in order to know.” [from Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship]. This certainly echoes the sense I recall getting from Taylor.)
Taylor writes, “The goal of faith is not to create a set of immutable, rationalized, precisely defined and defendable beliefs to preserve forever. It is to recover a relationship with God.” (123) In short, faith is not about intellectual certainty, it is about a commitment to a reasonable assumption: in my case, relationship with God in Christ, and from there the notion that the Christian faith presents an accurate and coherent understanding of our world.