Tucked away on page 1,351 of N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, there is this gem of statement:
“To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps’.”
In context, Wright is speaking of the fact that for Paul, moments of unambiguous divine revelation were rarer than we might guess. They happened, but not constantly. Whereas pagans believed in divination, consulting the entrails of animals, and any number of other techniques for receiving certitude, for Paul it was different:
“As often as not, Paul sees the divine hand only in retrospect. For the present, the attempt to discern divine intent carries a ‘maybe’ about with it. Maybe, he writes to Philemon about Onesimus, this is the reason he was separated from you. To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps’.”
For me, “perhaps” is intriguing for a slightly different reason.
It seems to occupy a kind of sacred middle ground between the two extremes of doubt and false certainty.
On one extreme, we face the arrogant temptation of claiming to know more than we do. This can lead to dogmatic pronouncements on things that should probably held more tentatively. After all, in theology especially, we are talking about a mysterious and unseen God, not plotting the schematics for a circuit breaker. As Neil Plantinga writes, “besides reliability, God’s other name is Surprise.” And as Paul proclaimed, “we see now as through a glass, darkly” – we know “in part” (1 Cor. 13.12).
Yet the opposite extreme is equally unsavory. Across from false certainty is the sinkhole of pervasive skepticism. After the Enlightenment, empiricism demanded quantifiable data for every aspect of one’s worldview, and many were swallowed in an ocean of unbelief. In my view, this is not appealing either. Nor does it succeed in meeting its own criteria for verifiability. Here, the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet still have force: “There are more things in heaven and earth [O Richard Dawkins] than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
But the irony is this: Both certainty and skepticism have something in common: both bow before the idol of “proof” and make their sacrifices.
And in the middle, sitting quietly, is “perhaps.”
What exactly do I mean by this? In truth, one could easily locate faith or trust as the midpoint between doubt and certainty. This makes sense. Yet for my purposes, I take trust to be an act of the will (or heart), whereas perhaps is more an exercise of the imagination. Faith says “yes” to core convictions of the creed, while perhaps stands upon this platform in order to peer into more uncharted territory: the blank spaces on our maps.
In doing so, it offers a hopeful, humble, and biblically-informed “what if?” Yet unlike the proof-obsessed alternatives of doubt and dogmatism, perhaps does so with the proviso that “this could very well be wrong.”
It is a kind of sacred speculation, on the basis of more firm convictions.
In fairness, there are times when perhaps is not a helpful word. It can be used to indulge absurdity or unbridled speculation. “Perhaps, as some say, the earth actually sits on the back of a giant (unseen) turtle,” and if asked what this turtle stands on, the answer is straightforward: “it’s turtles man, all the way down.” Yeah… I doubt it.
Likewise, as a Christian, I choose not to endlessly mull over the “perhaps” of questions that have already been decided in my own mind. Thus I do not agonize continually over the possibility that “Perhaps God is not Love,” “Perhaps Christ did not conquer death,” or “Perhaps ‘morality’ is just an evolutionary adaptation.” While such questions are quite real for many, the anchor of my own faith keeps me from endlessly rehearsing them.
WHY IT MATTERS
Yet in other instances, the ability to entertain unlikely possibilities can be crucial.
Imagine, for instance, that you are a first century Jew who has been taught (from the Bible) that Yahweh is “One” (Deut. 6), that only God can forgive sins, and that no human should be worshipped. Then a traveling Rabbi visits your town, and starts saying things that seem to rub against all this.
“Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8.58);
“I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10.30); and
“[I have] authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mk. 2.10).
What do you do?
Apart from God’s Spirit, and a profound ability to say “perhaps,” the answer is clear: You reject the strange Rabbi, you join the throng of confident doubters, and you cite Bible verses to show that it is justified.
Simply put, none of the earliest Christ-followers could hold on to both monotheism and the worship of the risen Jesus without the ability to do some fairly thorough reimagining. At some point, they had to say something like the following: “Well…this doesn’t seem to fit at all with what we’ve been taught, but perhaps God is doing something we had not expected. Perhaps we shouldn’t just reject it.”
For my own part, this thought experiment is particularly convicting. I am a theology professor, which means that if I had lived in the first century, I might have been one of the “teachers of the Law” who frequently interrogated Jesus. Given this, I sometimes wonder what my response would have been to this strange Rabbi saying strange things.
I know myself. I am not optimistic.
I too have trouble remembering that God’s other name is “Surprise.”
So while sacred speculation is not without pitfalls, there is justification for Wright’s pregnant sentence:
Sometimes, to believe in providence, means learning how to say “perhaps.”