We experience a sense of certainty in relation to different ideas at different times in our lives. Often, those things that we believe to be true when we are younger cease to make sense as we grow older and life experiences expose us to different ideas and belief systems.
The experience of feeling certainty about a particular belief or set of beliefs is philosophically very interesting. We find some people who are wholeheartedly conservative, while others are passionately liberal. We find some people wholeheartedly dedicated to a particular religion, not feeling they can identify with the logic of other religions. Some believe wholeheartedly in God, while others are ardent atheists.
In my book God’s Grand Game, I go into some depth about what I term ‘modes of mind’. These are the thoughts that God gives us that determine our character and personality. There may be long-lasting modes of mind, such as an affiliation to a religious or political group, and there may also be more fleeting, transitory modes of mind, such as a preference for a particular drink or a favourite song.
Believing as I do that God is in control of all things, I understand our thoughts as being brought about by God. In one person, God may instil an assurance that a certain set of beliefs are absolutely true, and in another person He may instil an assurance that a very different set of beliefs are the absolute truth. And so we find ourselves in a world where we debate with one another, often feeling that we are absolutely correct and our opponents are in error.
So is there such a thing as absolute truth? Let’s take the example of the crucifixion of Jesus. From a Christian perspective, this absolutely happened, and is the cornerstone of Christianity. From an Islamic perspective, Jesus was not crucified, though it was made to appear this way. While those drawn wholeheartedly to Christianity will believe strongly in the former, those drawn to the teaching found in the Qur’an will believe wholeheartedly in the latter.
It must be the case that there is absolute truth in relation to whether the crucifixion of Jesus actually happened. If we were able to go back in time, we could witness the event either happening or not happening, and we would know for sure the truth of the matter. Seeing as we cannot do this, how are we to know which perspective to believe?
We can be quite certain that God knows the answer to the question. So I believe the wisest course of action for any human being in theological and philosophical matters is to go to God in humility in prayer with our questions and problems, and ask Him to guide us and reveal the truth. God has all power and is entirely free, so He may respond to such petitions in any way He chooses.
It is conceivable that God could respond to the prayers of a Christian in one way, giving them an assurance that the crucifixion happened, and to Muslims in another way, giving them an assurance that the crucifixion never happened. But if there is absolute truth to the matter, would God really give ‘false beliefs’ to one group and ‘correct beliefs’ to another?
Well, as the Qur’an repeatedly emphasises, God does whatever He will. I often come across Christians trying to vehemently defend the position that it’s impossible for God to lie, as lying is not ‘consistent with His character’. However, I personally believe in God’s absolute freedom to do whatever He wishes, and of course it is therefore not impossible for God to give different individuals beliefs that either accord with the reality of historical events or do not. God is unfolding a plan for creation, and part of that plan seemingly involves different individuals holding different beliefs that conflict with one another. They cannot all be right, but they do all come from God, as He is the animator of all our thoughts, actions, and beliefs.
I love the fact that the Qur’an is so emphatic about God’s absolute sovereignty. The Qur’an repeatedly says that God guides whoever He will to the truth, and leaves to stray whoever He will. The Scripture also repeatedly emphasises that God is the controller of all things, a view which fits my own understanding of the nature of God perfectly.
When I first read the Bible and made a commitment to the Christian faith, God gave me certain modes of mind that gave me absolute assurance in the truthfulness of Christianity. Even though there were some areas of Christian theology that didn’t fully make sense, I still felt a sense of certainty about being a Christian and that Jesus was the only way to salvation, and the only solution to the big questions of philosophy and theology. However, reading the Bible, though an incredibly powerful experience, always left me feeling certain subconscious conflicts, and within the Christian worldview I was never able to entirely make sense of the divine sovereignty versus human free will predicament, which is a problem that was solved for me when I read the Qur’an, which speaks clearly of God’s absolute sovereignty over all events. The Qur’an describes itself as ‘the Scripture that makes things clear’ and ‘guidance and light’ for all people. I personally felt a much deeper sense of certainty when reading the Qur’an than I ever felt when I was reading the Bible.
I have spoken with Muslims who do believe in free will, so the situation is not entirely black and white. The Qur’an (in the translation I have) says God ‘leaves’ some people to stray, rather than ’causes’ some people to stray, and it’s possible to make an argument for free will from this language, I suppose. But the control of God over all events, including all our thoughts, words, and actions, is something of which I am entirely convinced, and it is the cornerstone of my own beliefs. Therefore, I have to try to understand sacred Scripture in light of this certainty.
It could be argued that there is a logical contradiction in saying firstly that God is in control of all events, and secondly that God leaves some people to stray. But both of these ideas can make perfect sense depending on which particular modes of mind God gives a person as they are considering these matters. It’s possible for someone to believe in free will, and for that view to make perfect sense, and for another to believe there is no free will, and for that view to make perfect sense.
The absolute truth of the matter, in my view, is that when God ‘leaves’ people to stray, He is causing them to stray. I believe God included the word ‘leaves’ purposefully, because this wording reflects His grand game; the fact that within God’s plans human beings often have the illusion of freedom, and this is God’s will for them at those times. So, I might have a conversation with someone in which I describe my choices and actions, and as I am discussing those choices and actions I may have a very real feeling that they were undertaken of my own free will. But then later, I might be in a different scenario, reflecting on the sovereignty of God, and I might clearly understand that my choices and actions were not free; they were the will of God expressed through me. This is the absolute truth, although the sense of free will felt absolutely real when I was having the earlier conversation.
The sense of free will we often experience is a mode of mind under God’s control. We are not really free in any way. I believe this is the ultimate truth.
When we’re engaged in philosophical and theological discussions with others, we should be mindful of the fact that the beliefs of others can make perfect sense, from a certain perspective. God may have given the other person absolute certainty about their beliefs, though they conflict in some ways with our own. So we should try to understand why the beliefs of others make sense to them, while at the same time pursuing the quest for absolute truth, which is surely a noble endeavour.
As people of faith, we all want the same thing — to avoid suffering as much as possible, and to be recipients of God’s mercy; in this life, and most importantly, in the life to come. Our quest for truth and certainty should always be tempered and guided by this desire.