President Emeritus Bill Robinson

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Home > President Emeritus Robinson >

Whitworth College Spring 2006 Convocation Address

Jan. 31, 2006

Last fall I told you I would talk about the difference between conviction and certainty at this convocation. Easy for me to say last fall. When we speak of convictions, we refer to our most deeply held beliefs. Behind our moral, political and religious ideas, we find a set of convictions about how we see the world. And no matter how strong our convictions may be, they are, at least in part, subjective. Certitude, on the other hand, can boast objectivity. Certainty requires neither guesswork nor speculation – just the facts. Last semester Kyle Orwig opened his lecture on stem-cell research by quoting Daniel Moynihan: "Everybody is entitled to his or her own set of opinions, but we are not entitled to our own set of facts." Convictions often start with facts, but they include inferences that take them beyond what is certain.

Since we're emphasizing art this Heritage Week, I'll use an art metaphor to distinguish between certainty and conviction. We speak of a conviction when we have seen part of a picture and we are really confident we know what the rest of the picture looks like. But to claim certainty, we need to have seen the whole picture, all of it. Now, you didn't have to come to college to find out the difference between being certain and being confident. But unfortunately, college doesn't always help. In fact, there are certain seasons in education that seem to blur the difference between confidence and certitude. For example, first-semester college-sophomore males are certain about everything. Their carefree brilliance gives hope to all freshmen that they too might become college-sophomore males. The other group of people who seem to feel their opinions are on common ground with certainty would be all graduate students east of the Mississippi. (I was one of those three times, so that's the only group I know about.) And just when they think there is absolutely nothing left that they don't know, they have a couple of drinks and become smarter than ever.

We all try to pass off our prized convictions as the whole picture. Usually it's a rhetorical gimmick. When people begin a sentence with, "I am absolutely positive…" they generally end the sentence with an opinion rather than anything about which you can be absolutely positive. Consider these statements: Judge Alito will figure out a way to reverse Roe vs. Wade. The election of the Hamas destroys any hope for peace in the Middle East. You must believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved.

I have heard all three of these statements. They are expressed as fact; they are offered as certain. But the statement on Judge Alito is a prediction, the statement on the Hamas is an inference and the statement on Jesus is an expression of faith. These claims do not meet the definition of facts; they are convictions. The people who make them have not seen the entire picture. They have seen enough of the picture to feel deeply convicted that they know what the rest of the picture will reveal. Good for them. We need people with convictions. We need people with passion. I saw a movie last night called End of the Spear. It is about five missionaries who were killed in 1956 by the Amazon Basin's Auca Indians. One of those people, a pilot, was a family friend of ours who had worked with my father to perfect a missionary aviation technique in which a tethered bucket was dropped from an airplane. I was a small boy, but I remember our family's grief hearing the tragic news. When I heard about the movie, I sent an email to my oldest brother. He was in his late teens at the time the missionaries were martyred. He replied to me, " I remember listening for daily ham radio reports as a sophomore at Wheaton at the time the news broke.  From an anthropological standpoint, they messed up.  But from a missions standpoint, they became the greatest missionary heroes of my generation. They died for their faith in Christ." It is people with strong convictions who put it all on the line. Someone has said it's easier to slow down a zealot that to speed up a corpse. Convictions are good. But when we start to treat our convictions as if they were proven facts, we end up thinking we see the whole picture in perfect focus. We become so sure of ourselves that we stop listening, learning and respecting those who differ from us. So, how do we become certain about beliefs that should be treated and expressed not as facts, but as convictions?

First, we can develop the illusion of certainty when have not seen as much of the picture as we think have. Sometimes, failed relationships are the result of thinking too soon that we've seen the whole picture. Second, we get a false sense of certainty when there is a disconnection between the part of the picture we've seen and the part we haven't seen. Most of us have been educated in Western, linear cause-and-effect thinking: "If A, then B." But, with all due respect to Aristotelians everywhere, stuff happens between A and B. In my job, I don't get to give assignments, but if I did I would ask you to study physicist Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and ask yourself three questions: 1) What does quantum mechanics have to say to the humanities? 2) Did creation come with all of its software built in, or did God turn into a programmer on the 8 th day? 3) Are there bugs in physics? The third problem we have with seeing the picture is not the picture's fault. Sometimes we don't see so well. There's a lot of stuff that affects our vision. If you haven't already, read Plato's metaphor of The Cave. Finally, we see some pictures through a glass darkly. I Corinthians 13 isn't just about love. The Apostle Paul ends the chapter by noting that God chose to show us part of the picture now and the rest of the picture later. Faith is trusting what God has to say about the part of the picture yet to be revealed.

The great danger in confusing certitude with conviction is that we think we've seen the whole picture, that there is nothing left to see. In the 1840s Europe was stricken with a plague called puerperal fever. At an alarming rate, mothers in particular areas died during childbirth. In 1847, a Vienna physician named Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that the number of women dying in labor was much higher in wards whose doctors who had been teaching with the use of cadavers. He also found out that the cases of this fever were drastically reduced if the doctors washed their hands carefully before delivering babies. So he began to lecture and write about his discovery. But at that time in our history, we didn't know much about germs. They weren't a visible part of the picture. Semmelweis's theory contradicted the prevailing scientific opinion. Physicians also argued that it was too time-consuming to be washing their hands all the time. Semmelweis spent 14 years developing his ideas and lobbying for their acceptance, eventually writing a book in 1861. The book got bad reviews, and Semmelweis basically went berserk. In 1865, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an insane asylum, where he soon died from blood poisoning. Today, there is a statue in Vienna of Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis, discoverer of the cure to puerperal fever.

Maybe certainty is overrated. Maybe we haven't mined all the riches of uncertainty. I don't blame anyone for wanting to be certain. The slippery surface of relativism offers no traction for even our best moral arguments. Many of today's relativists engage in a reverse arrogance by denying the existence of moral certainty, which, of course, makes moral convictions little more than personal opinions. They argue that you can't form convictions about the unseen part of the picture because you can't be certain about the seen part of the picture – that is, if there is any picture at all. But as good relativists, they can't be certain about their uncertainty.

So we campaign for absolutism, for certainty. And I think we should. I'm a big fan of universal laws of nature, of eternal truth. When you read "Thus saith the Lord," believe it. Go to the bank on it. Live for it. Die for it. But here's the rub. The most important truths we can only know by faith, by conviction. There is no room for smugness or condescension. We hold these convictions with faith, hope and charity. I believe fiercely in the existence of absolute truth, in the existence of certainty, in the existence of God revealed in Christ and experienced in the Holy Spirit…but I believe by faith. I can have convictions about what I believe to be certain. But I am a finite person and do not have access to the infinite.

God had a good reason for not revealing himself totally, for not giving us access to the infinite, for saying "My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts." By withholding access to the whole picture, God presented us with the gift and obligation of humility and curiosity. Origen, one of our great church fathers, argued that God revealed himself in mystery so that we might be driven to pursue God in the hope that ultimately we will "glory in the uncovering of the infinite mysteries of the eternal godhead" (On First Principles 2.11.6-7). Hold up your convictions as strong, and important, and sound, but hold down your convictions as unfinished and hospitable to what you might find from new parts of the picture.

I've probably said more than I need to about the difference between certainty and conviction. You know the difference. I just hope you will be confident in your convictions, but humble in the awareness that a conviction is a matter of faith, faith that asks you to be humble and hungry. Humble because you don't know everything, and hungry because you don't know everything. And our Christian convictions should be like Jesus, full of grace and truth. We hold our convictions with grace, we open our convictions to truth as we pursue the unseen part of the picture. Maybe part of the picture we don't see is Jesus leaning over to St. Peter and saying, "Look at those Whitworth students down there. Ha! They keep trying to figure me out. That's just what I want them to do. They're smart – in fact they're my smartest college students – but they don't have what it takes to reach me. It's a good thing…that I reached them." In this second semester, I urge you, with fierce conviction, with deep humility, and with insatiable hunger, to draw nigh unto God, and God will draw nigh unto you.