Faith and Final Truth
The pretensions of final truth are always partly an effort to obscure a darkly felt consciousness of the limits of human knowledge. Man [sic] is afraid to face the problem of his limited knowledge lest he fall into the abyss of meaninglessness. –Reinhold Niebuhr
I’ve been reading Niebuhr’s “Nature and Destiny of Man” recently. I share this particular quote more as a confession than a challenge, and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment. But first, a bit on the context.
Niebuhr pegs the predicament of humanity as the tension between freedom (the potential to transcend all limits) and finitude (actuality of our creaturely limitations). From this tension is born anxiety. Anxiety the experience of the human dilemma. On the one hand it is the concern that by actualizing our freedom we might transgress our creaturely limits and therefore be destroyed. On the other hand, it is the concern that in seeking to avoid the risk of our freedom we renounce something essential to our humanity and therefore undergo self-loss through inaction.
This, for Niebuhr, is the fundamental insecurity of the human condition. Anxiety (following Kierkegaard) is the precondition of sin as either pride or sensuality. I wont be dealing with sensuality in this post, but pride is defined as the attempt to escape our human insecurity by making ultimate our own finite and provisional “programs”/convictions/agendas.
In my own history, I’ve had a number of good friends who identify as atheists. They posed the threat of ultimate meaninglessness to me. Looking back, I can see how my desire to find a historical or theological argument that could be used as a final demonstration of truth was really the temptation of pride. Such striving never did solve my situation of anxiety; it only made it worse, for I never lost sight of my own limitations.
It’s an unfortunate thing that the culture of our day (including much Christian culture) identifies faith with the pride I’ve just described (believing things ultimately on the basis of provisional evidence). This is unfortunate especially since faith in its true meaning is the real solution to anxiety. Faith is the concern that grips us from beyond the point of view of a threatened finite self staring out into a world. Faith both comes to us and through us. It is the courage to accept our ultimate acceptance. Without such faith love is not possible, for when we live out of our anxiety, the encounter with another is a potential threat, rather than an opportunity for reunion.
This is why I post Niebuhr’s quote as a confession. What I had once called faith can be better understood as the sin of pride. Since then faith has become for me not the possession of a “final truth,” but the state of being gripped by something unconditional both within myself and within the world I inhabit. It is being embraced by a reality which includes but transcends both. And when the contents of this faith are centered on the crucified God, the fruit is not anxiety or fear, but faith, hope, and love.