The Problem of Certainty

Blogger’s Note: I posted a link to this blog from another blog I’m a part of – it’s generating a bit of discussion there, too. Click here to view those comments.

As a both church-going Christian and a student of evolutionary theory, one of the things that bugs me is a tendency among the non-religious to hold science up as Truth (with a capital T) – as though the prevailing theories in any field hold the weight of undisputed fact. Science is a way of attempting to understand the world around us based on what we can see and measure. It gives us possible explanations (often extremely well-founded) for why things work the way they do – think gravity – as well as tantalizing glimpses of what may be humanly possible.

But while science can give us a reasonable – and often likely and compelling – explanation of what is happening in the world, it can’t tell us what should be happening. And often, scientists are the very people who crack the unbreakable nuts and show how limited our understanding really is.

So while science often appears to bring us close to the truth, I’d argue it can’t give us Truth in terms of moral guidance. That comes from elsewhere – from a faith tradition, perhaps, or a family tradition, or our own discernment. (The faithful often argue that all three of these sources, if they succeed in leading us to Truth, flow from God – but that notion finds little traction with the atheists of the world.)

I’ve talked to a number of religious folks who feel this way – that the certainty and truth of science is overstated and “over-weighted” in public discourse and public policy. I wouldn’t disagree – in fact, the news story this week that scientists have succeeded in reconstructing an organism’s genetic material essentially from scratch and are now a step closer to engineering entirely new life forms is a prime example of science getting way ahead of the greater good.

But the problem of certainty runs both directions – and it’s here that I really struggle. My more devout friends speak with similar certainty about the teachings of the church and the path to salvation – a level of certainty my inner skeptic regarding both scientific and religious understanding just can’t muster.

The frustration deepens when I’m told (alternately, and sometimes collectively) that the answer is constant prayer and continued study, that I’m at a particular point in my “faith journey” that requires me to press on through my misunderstanding or confusion, or that I need to give up the notion that I can achieve grace on my own. And the problem is emphatically not that I’ve “hardened my heart” to accepting these ideas – rather, it’s that all of these responses ring true to me, but fail to address my fundamental question: How can all of these people be so sure that they’re right?

Let be clear: I don’t think they (or I) can be sure. I think that’s what faith is for – to enable us to believe that which isn’t certain or obvious from our limited human perspective. But increasingly, I encounter fellow Catholics who speak with enviable certainty about what is right and just and True – and the foundation for their certainty appears to be the Catholic Church itself.

The Catholic Church has a deep intellectual tradition that appeals to me on many levels – it’s one of several reasons I’m here today. (And believe me, I’m no Catholic scholar at this point.) But the Church is also, I believe, an institution shepherded imperfectly by regular people like you and me, and it offers one of several compelling ways to see the world. I’ve explored some of the other ways, and they appeal to me as well; in fact, their amazing similarities to our faith tradition have led me to a deeper Catholic faith as well as a broader understanding and acceptance of people who believe differently.

I do believe that certain things are black and white, right and wrong, but most (if not all) of these issues transcend any one specific religion. The questions I’m asking today are, how is Catholic certainty different than so-called scientific certainty? How is citing scripture or doctrine or the Pope anything more than a better-footnoted version of a cradle Catholic’s response, “That’s what I was taught”? And why, in the face of the Church’s long history, thorough teachings, and deep faith, are there still many arguments about what it all means?

I guess I’m struggling with the balance between discernment of Truth and acceptance of Truth. I feel – possibly incorrectly – that many of my faithful friends skew toward acceptance of Truth as revealed through the Church. This strikes me, frankly, as dangerous – not because the Church has any overarching ill intent, but because someone needs to “watch the watchers.” Even Christ warned against devotion to misled leaders and misapplied rules at the expense of doing real good in the world. We have to discern what is right – and maybe it won’t jive with what our leaders tell us. He came not just to unite, but to divide, as I recall. And I guess I’m just prideful enough to think that maybe a layperson could be fortunate and discerning enough to catch a glimpse of Truth that the Church has yet to see (or, at least, to widely share).

I get the feeling, though, that discernment makes some people nervous, because it could potentially lead a soul away from the Church’s teachings, and thus, the Church itself. In my case, however, over time it has nearly always led me deeper into the Church and its teachings. (And on the occasions it hasn’t, I’m still praying and discussing the issues with those who are willing.)

Nearly all of my comments (and my only previous posting) on the blog A View From the Catholic Trenches have centered around this idea from a past priest of mine: that God gave me the head on my shoulders, and as long I used it in an honest and continuous attempt to seek the Truth, I’d be alright. I believe he was right (not because it’s comforting or easy; the self-examination this requires is often neither) and I believe that, whether we’re seeking forgiveness of our sins or revelation in Medjugorje, we need to be open to Truth but also constantly aware of the limits of our own understanding and that of the lovably imperfect people around us. None of us should assume that we (as individuals or as a Church) have cornered the market on Truth. Even if you believe your path is best path, ask yourself, is it the only path? (And then ask, if it’s not the only path, how can I be sure it’s the best?)*

For me, there is great wisdom and honesty in the prayerful uncertainty expressed in the passage from … Mark, is it? “Lord, I believe; help me with my unbelief.” As I said in a comment yesterday, keep your eyes open and your God-given wits about you. Always.


*For even more fun, think about this notion of paths from the standpoint of different Catholics within the Catholic Church, not just between faith traditions!

10 thoughts on “The Problem of Certainty

  1. I think, from my own perspective, that we need make some distinctions. First, it is important to recall that Truth, is not a thing – it is a person, or more accurately, a communion of three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. Thus, any “truth” that we find in math, science, art, and philosophy are all imperfect reflections of Truth proper.

    Theology is slightly different. Jesus Christ is God's fullest revelation of himself. In other words, what God is, so is Jesus (the Son). Moreover, what the Father and the Son are, so too is the Spirit. In a particular way, the Spirit continues the work of Jesus. And the Spirit accomplishes this work through the Church, which remains the primary instantiation of Christ in the world. As a result, the Church's “pronouncements” of truth can be trusted, not out of some sort of rigid tightening of the sphincter, but because they follow logically from God's self revelation in Jesus Christ.

    That is too brief. I hope it isn't patronizing.


  2. Wow. I could have written this post. It's a mind-bender, for sure. I don't ever know what to do with these thoughts, so I lean toward confidence, extreme doubt and anger, then desperation and depression sometimes. It's then that I go to prayer and talking out loud to God to PLEASE end this constant argument in my own brain (doesn't always work…at least the way I want it to, by the way)! I'm always on the wall looking down and wishing I could just jump down, confidently on one side or the other and get it over with already! Sorry I can't really add to your post or offer any great insight. Maybe it helps to know you're not alone!?


  3. Laura — it definitely helps to know I'm not alone (although I sort of suspected I wasn't). But it feels pretty lonely sometimes, when you're surrounded by devout people whom you like, but who seem to regard your questions as misguided at best and dangerous at worst …


  4. Tyler, my friend, I knew I could count on you! I'm going to push you on a couple things, and probably let the world more into my thinking than I intended.

    First, the concept of Truth as the communion of three persons — similar to the poetry discussion, I get what you are saying, but it doesn't resonate in me. I don't know what to do with that particular mystery. Truth may be three persons in one, but they aren't like any three persons I've ever met or can related to. Personhood seems like a metaphor to help our very finite minds along in this case …

    Maybe what I'm talking about is Truthiness? : ) By Truth I was trying to designate something that can be discerned, bigger than what can be observed with the senses, but short of God, who I don't see as comprehensible.

    But okay, say I'm improperly equating Truth and theology or making too fine a distinction. I'll pick up “theology” and press on.

    The Church “remains the primary instantiation of Christ in the world” — alright, first, I take great comfort in the word “primary” which seems to acknowledge the possibility of secondary instantiations. (By the way, new word for me — quite something really!)

    And I can see that the Church would logically be the primary instantiation of Christ — but does it follow that the Church is the primary instantiation of God?

    I suppose it does, if you accept that Jesus is not only God's revelation of himself, but his *fullest* revelation of himself. Where does this belief come from? Again, my inner skeptic bristles at the thought that the Church seems to be its own evidence of primacy …

    You go on to say that, “As a result, the Church's pronouncements of truth can be trusted” — I don't see that. I see that the Church's pronouncements can be given the benefit of the doubt, certainly, but that we have to discern for ourselves if the Church is in fact on the right track in all things. Infallibility in any human endeavor, however divinely instituted, seems like a stretch. Don't we still have a role to play as thinking, questioning members of the Body?

    Finally — no, you weren't patronizing. But I'll admit some frustration that I still feel as though as though I'm chasing my tail …

    We need to get together sometime — sorry we couldn't the other day.


  5. One should never leave more comments on one's own blog that the visitors … that said, one more thing regarding Truth. Here's a better explanation of what I meant by Truth as bigger than truth (lowercase) but smaller than God — my dad lives a good and “Christian” life and says he's an atheist. I would argue he knows something of the Truth without knowing anything of our three-person God.

    Someone could argue that he knows God, but doesn't know that he knows — but then I might argue that isn't a particularly useful piece of information when talking about the role of discernment in recognizing the Truth …


  6. Serviam! — thank you! I'll definitely need to re-read this a time or two, but this is what I was hoping to spark in you and others. I've felt like, up to this point, each time I ask a question, I get responses more concerned with my own conversion and soul than an actual discussion of how the church functions in this world, today.

    The Church seems to be a very deliberate, reflective entity in a world that is anything but. I don't believe it should abandon itself to try to keep pace — but I do feel, at times, that it risks “practical irrelevancy.” Let me put it this way: speaking the Truth won't matter if people can't recognize it as Truth. It's a fine line to walk, but people who don't dig into the Church on their own and realize there is a lot of freedom there and a great deal of Good News (as opposed to archane rules and guilt) — those people won't hang around. They will find other traditions that espouse the same or similar values in a way that seems to better relate to the world they live in. I know people who have done this!

    And the same goes for people who can't feel they have a role in shaping the Church. That is my frustration — if everything in the Church is set in stone, settled, and certain — “this is the way things are; here is the path; follow if you can” — then 1) why is there so much discord even within the church, and 2) what is the role of intellect and discernment? Is it the case that my only opportunity to grow is to grow in obedience? Call it pride, but I feel like I (and you, and Tyler, etc.) have more to offer.


  7. Jim, this is getting too long to write.

    Some thoughts:

    1)That Truth be a communion of persons should not necessarily appeal to the intellect as obviously true. God is totus aliter, altogether other than ourselves. Our intellect can go only so far as to tell us that God is. To know who he is requires God's own intervention.

    2) Truth as we can perceive it is always going to be short of God. Nevertheless, truth(or truthiness) is always going to refer one back to God. Truth is contingent on God. If God were other that who God is, Truth would be different.

    3) We can know that Jesus is God's fullest self revelation based upon Scriptural accounts of Jesus' own personhood and his self knowledge. The prologue to John's Gospel is an apt example. Likewise, in the same Gospel, Jesus repeatedly begins phrases, “I am.”

    4)How are you using the word Church? If you use it to mean the institution of the hierarchy, there will always be something of a dichotomy between the Church and us. When Church is understood as people of God, however, this us/them language becomes we. One of the principles that theologians use in judging theological opinions is the sensus fidelium – the sense of the faithful. What do the people believe? While this principle is counterbalanced by the role of the hierarchy in determining what is authentically Christian, it does provide a place for you, your children, your friends, and the homeless man on the street to have some access to the discernment of the truth.

    5)Is Faith necessarily an “un-knowing” of something. Or rather, is faith a form of knowing that can be as accurately depended upon as mathematical proof? I'm not sure exactly, but I refer you to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on faith:

    6)Their is a hierarchy of Truths. Some things are more essential than others. For instance, while it is essential to the faith that one believe Jesus to be both Human and Divine, one need not feel compelled to accept the notion if limbo. The danger, as I see it, is questioning something without recognizing the manner in which it will affect something that we don't question.

    7)As concerns philosophical paradigms and the like, much effort has been made in recent years to rearticulate the faith of the Church in new categories. This was a particularly popular exercise in the years immediately following the council when theologians tried to come up with a new way to talk about transubstantiation. They failed. Likewise, there is new vigor in this area around trying to find a to articulate Christian faith, traditionally taught in western categories, for the eastern mind. Fr. Peter Phan has been one of the most outspoken theologians in this matter, and his work is currently being studied for error.

    In short, to reinterpret the faith into a new philosophical framework is hard and dangerous because of the potential for losing something essential. This is made all the more difficult when we are dealing with a topic about which we know so little. To do theology is like trying to install glass with greased fingers. No one wants to loosen their grip for fear of losing the progress we have made.

    8)Finally, don't discount obedience too easily. Would you write so well today had your 5th grade teacher told you to write however you wanted with no regard for any of the rules of grammar? Obedience doen't (necessarily) limit the mind, but rather, helps to discipline it.

    That's enough for now.


  8. Tyler,

    Thanks again — oooh, this is fun! Don't feel you have to say more unless you want to — I wrote this post to try to get some of my acquaintances talking with me about religion in a different way. I've never really had that problem with you.

    A quick reaction to what you've written now, point by point — again, feel free to defer this to some evening discussion some day …

    1) Agreed.

    2) Agreed, with point number 1 firmly in mind — it's gonna be hard for the rather limited human mind to really *know* the Truth — hence my concerns about certainty/infallibility/complete trust the Church's teachings as we understand them today.

    3 and 5) These tie tightly together in my mind — because it seems to me that saying we know “Jesus is God's fullest self revelation based upon Scriptural accounts of Jesus' own personhood and his self knowledge” assumes that we (I) know Scripture accounts are true and Jesus was exactly who who said he was. Someone, somewhere has questioned this thoroughly and has come to the conclusion that these accounts are true — but we are 2,000 years removed from the events, and have to take it on faith. I'm working through the link you gave me, but in the meantime — I see the type of knowledge reached through faith as something very different in nature than knowledge through achieved through mathematical proof, in that doubt seems to play a much bigger role in one than the other. Math and science are based on what we can observe — our results may not give us complete understanding, but they are verifiable within the confines of a given problem or experiment. How are issues of faith similarly verifiable, when the only constraints seem to be the limits of our understanding? Maybe if I stew on the link you sent, I'll get there …

    4) Sensus fidelium, eh? That makes me feel much better — : ) — and begins to help me with the questions of balance I'm struggling with. I understand that Church means a couple different things in different contexts — I was playing around a bit with that … Tell me more about this sensus fidelium? How is this discerned? : )

    6) Alright — I must admit I balk at the notion of “things we don't question.” Perhaps there are things we ought not question, but let me assure you, I do! This shouldn't be a problem, however — after 2,000 year, no doubt someone far smarter and better read than I has explored these “things we don't question” and has determined them to be unquestionable. I assume you study these great thinkers at the seminary, and if I continue to ask these questions and dig for answers, I can find them. So is there anything that we really *can't* question? Is it sinful to have these questions?

    7) I agree 100% — and I also find this fascinating!

    8) Agreed — notice I asked if my *only* opportunity for growth in the church is growth in obedience. Obedience is something I must — and do — attempt to work on all the time.

    I so appreciate your willingness to talk, my friend. Bless you!


  9. To question things is no sin. There are, however, things that, regardless of our capacity to understand them, demand the consent of our will and intellect. These are the things that we call dogma – The Trinity, The Dual Natures of Christ, etc . . . These are things that we choose to believe because of the authority of the one from whom we have received them. Keep in mind that there is nothing in our faith today that contradicts the testimony of those who knew and walked and learned from Jesus. These things are expanded, at times related to one another as the leaf of a tree is related to the root, but are, nevertheless, never contradictory to the faith that has been given to us by the apostles and has been preserved by their successors. While we are assured of legitimacy of the teachings of the Church because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, a second safety comes from the sensus fidelium. Do the teachings of the Church ultimately make sense? If I have studied my faith and I know what the Church is saying (as opposed to what I think it is saying) do I see how the faith makes sense and has application in my lived experience of Catholicism?


  10. Yes! This not only makes complete sense to me on the surface, but gives me something to chew on! Those last two questions you pose, Tyler, push me forward and give me even greater confidence that I can and should persist — so thank you!


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