What’s wrong with wanting certainty?

We can never know the whole truth about God – He is a mystery, and will always remain so. To assert this is simply to assert the very nature of God as source of all being, and our nature as created, contingent beings – there is a necessary gulf between the two, and one that cannot, due to the nature of the case, be bridged. However, some would make the move from this basic principle of God’s essential nature as transcending our senses and intellectual faculties, to asserting that we cannot really know God at all, or that maybe we can in part, but with no real assurance that what we have understood about Him is definitively true.

Congruent with this position – that any knowledge we can have of God is fallible, and therefore subject to revision – is the argument that those who claim to be able to know something of God’s nature, and His will, with assurance of the truth of this information, are unable to appreciate the concept of mystery, and are committed to a static, dry version of truth that sucks the life out of it. These people are then contrasted with the questing, lively minds of those who embrace ambiguity and reject certainty. Mark Oakley, the current canon chancellor of Saint Paul’s cathedral, wrote a book in 2001 that captures this argument perfectly. It is in many ways a compelling and enriching book, but I disagree with his central thesis, which he states thus:

‘On the whole, religious people fall into two basic categories, First, there are those who want to resolve the mystery of God, to teach and preach it clearly, to spell out the facts as they are believed, to be like a reporting journalist (“our God correspondent”) and relay information in black and white language to those “not in the know”. On the other hand, there are those who, instead of wanting to resolve the mystery, seek to deepen it. Such people are uneasy with such words as “simply” or “easily”, they are willing to get tongue-tied, to say “I don’t know”, to embrace the evocative multi-layered languages of poetry and music in their search for God. They have come to believe that truth is not the same thing as the elimination of ambiguity.’

The Collage of God (2001), p.8, Darton, Longman and Todd.

            Basically, Oakley is here lumping everyone into two categories – dry dogmatists, and mystery-loving free-thinkers, as if one cannot believe in revealed truth and the essential mysteriousness of Christian faith at the same time. And to ram the point home, he later makes the same point using slightly more forceful language:

Like trying to intercept a butterfly to see its markings and luminous wings, extending a hand only to find it has gone, so is theology responsive to God’s revelation. Unfortunately, some confuse the butterfly pinned on velvet for it instead. It may be gorgeous, even reassuring somehow, but it is dead. An approach to God like this will start to define him but not experience him. Poetry, on the other hand, cannot be defined but only experienced.

ibid, p.43.

            Oakley’s insistence on seeing poetry and mystery as being somehow antithetical to dogma and the certainty of revelation is misleading. Of course, it is important to continually enter into the mysteries of the Faith, and deepen our encounter with those mysteries; it is also very true that much religious language is poetic, and that this is often the best way to enter into the mysteries. However, I would argue that the doctrinal formulae employed by Oakley’s dry, unimaginative dogmatists, and the certainty with which they are both formulated and promulgated, is not opposed to this process of engaging the mysterious. In fact, it is the creeds and dogmatic definitions of the Faith that provide its borders, its outer limits, without which it would swiftly lose its shape – to deny them would not deepen the mystery, only accelerate the slide into contradictions and chaos. As G. K. Chesterton put it:

If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.

Orthodoxy (1999), p.51, Hodder & Stoughton.

            Basically, if one is to take part in the Christian life, and enter into its mysteries, boundaries are required. If these boundaries are subject to alteration and/or doubt, one cannot even begin, and it is simply a Christian-tinged agnosticism that is being affirmed. This is why we need certainty, and that I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting it. I am glad that I can know with assurance the boundaries and contours of my faith, and am thankful that there are infallible definitions that are there to help guide me into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, who remains utterly mysterious yet still knowable. If I could not be certain about who He is, what He wills, how I am meant to live in a way pleasing to Him and most beneficial to me, how could I ever begin?

I shall conclude with a quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, in a letter to Robert Bridges, captured in essence the seeming paradox wherein the Church states infallibly certain and knowable truths pertaining to the great mysteries she holds and guards within:

You do not mean by mystery what a Catholic does. You mean an interesting uncertainty: the uncertainty ceasing interest ceases also…

 …But a Catholic by mystery means an incomprehensible certainty: without certainty, without formulation there is no interest…the clearer the formulation the greater the interest.

from a letter to Robert Bridges, October 24 1883.


6 thoughts on “What’s wrong with wanting certainty?

  1. I’ve questioned the sanity of those who are in possession(alleged) of assurance they are saved.
    Also am resentful of those so rabid with certainty they condemn the rest of us with alternative understanding as heretics and agents of Satan.

    • Yes, indeed – the pendulum swings both ways, and there are definitely some who would use their sense of personal assurance to condemn others. I am sorry if you have ever experienced anything like this personally.

      What I am concerned with personally is certainty regarding the truths of the Faith, rather than certainty of salvation. The doctrinal definitions developed and pronounced by the Church are there to guard its mysteries, in order to free people to get to know Jesus with an assurance that they don’t have to worry about working everything about Him out for themselves. We can only love what/who we know right?

      Unfortunately this assurance regarding the truths of the Faith, which should engender in us humility, reverence and love, does indeed often lead to pride, arrogance and self-justification. This is a shame.

  2. I liked reading that. I agree that Oakley has been too digital by providing only an either/or.
    Of course, the boundaries for me as as outlined by Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, erstwhile ABC – the catholic creeds of the faith of the church catholic.

    • Thanks for reading, and am glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I haven’t got around to reading the post of yours that you suggested, but will do soon – am having a bit of a hectic day to be honest!

  3. Pingback: Agnosticism is Not a Virtue | Journey Towards Easter

  4. Pingback: Listening to Heresy: How Error Can Refine Truth | Journey Towards Easter

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