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!