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Book Review: Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, by Lesslie Newbigin

Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (see more about it here), is a book about epistemology by the very influential Anglican theologian, missionary, and bishop Lesslie Newbigin.

This book is a rather slim volume, indeed Bp. Newbigin calls it an “essay,” but it says an incredible amount.  My fluency with philosophy is still rather elementary so, despite Newbigin’s efforts to make his book as simple as possible, I am still working through his points.  As a result, my explanation of them is still a work in progress.

Newbigin’s focus is “certainty” of knowledge and whether a person can have absolute certainty of any piece of knowledge.  Newbigin goes back to Descartes as the origin of the current confusion over certainty.  Ironically, Newbigin points out, while Descartes’ intent was to battle the atheistic philosophy of his day, he inadvertently laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, which then led to the modern humanism and/or atheism in our own day.

Newbigin’s point is that our search for certainty in knowledge is wrong headed.  Flowing from the Enlightenment was this idea that only scientific conclusions are “certain” (ironically this is despite the fact that most scientific conclusions are reached through the shaky foundation of inductive reasoning and are only as certain as the most recent experiment).  Modern perceptions of knowledge – and certainty – is one of (allegedly) objective “facts” and the individual’s seeking for them.  Ironically, the conclusion of the modern effort has found that such absolute certainty is impossible, which has led to relativism and the denial of truth at all, making nothing certain at all beyond one’s own thinking mind.

Newbigin recognizes that absolute certainty is impossible and all knowledge is mitigated through our subjective consciousness, however he rejects the idea that absolute truth does not exist; he merely recognizes the reality that truth is filtered through one’s subjective mind.  Instead, Newbigin asserts that the modern approach to certainty is flawed.  Its assumption that objective facts exist “out there” for us to discover is only partially true.  There are also facts revealed to us that are also true.  For example, a friend’s revealing to us something about his inner-life is not something discoverable by someone on the outside, but that does not make it less true and knowledge of it less certain.  Furthermore, Newbigin also indicates that the modern approach to knowledge (described above) must be recognized for what it is: a culturally created paradigm.  By contrast, Newbigin says that another way of looking at knowledge is as a story in which we are in the midst.  As we are participants in the story, future knowledge is still unfolding in which we must have faith but of which we never have complete knowledge as the story still is being revealed to us.

Ultimately, for Newbigin, the fact that absolute certainty is impossible reveals the role of faith in one’s life to fill in the gap left open by that lack of certainty.  Faith is ultimately trust and we place our trust in things, people, and sources of knowledge we find trustworthy.  In that context it is perfectly acceptable to have doubt and the issue becomes whether one’s faith – which is to say trust – is sufficient to overcome that doubt.

I found this book extremely helpful in that it provided me a better way to view knowledge, more realistic expectations with regard to certainty of knowledge, and a better way to understand the role and purpose of faith.  As I intimated above, I am still learning about philosophy so my understanding of its concepts and my understanding of Newbigin’s points are still developing (so, I am sure, this review could be clarified and/or modified based on greater understanding in the future), but I think the above gives an adequate overview of what one should expect from the book.

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