Certainty ≠ Truth

Certainty can be one of the greatest obstacles to Truth.

That claim may shock many Christians, who feel like they are clutching tenaciously to what little certainty remains in our tumultuous times. But certainty and Truth are not the same thing. When we demand or cling to certainty, our quest for Truth gets abandoned, and the Truth gets lost or distorted.

Have you ever had a moment of reckoning – a moment in which your tightly-held certainty was shattered upon the rock of reality?

My older sister never tires of reminding me of my own six-year-old clinging to certainty. My favorite show at the time was The Price is Right – only I insisted quite emphatically that it was called “Win a Car.” No amount of argumentation on her part could sway me. I had often viewed the latter half of the show at my grandparents’ house after kindergarten. I watched contestant after contestant win a car – or be foiled in the attempt.

And then came my reckoning. I passed by the television one summer morning, saw the flashing lights, and heard the familiar voice of Rod Roddy: “Here it comes! Television’s most exciting hour of fantastic prizes! The fabulous, sixty-minute PRICE IS RIGHT!”

Rod called down the first four contestants, and informed them that they were the first contestants on The Price is Right. And those same words appeared on the screen, tiny at first, but swelling until they filled the screen. I stood agape, stunned at my error. I had been so certain – so very certain.

Reality changes us – if we allow it to. Hopefully reality changes us not just once, but day after day. With childlike wonder, we discover new depths of the mystery. The more we know, the more we desire to know. Authentic growth in wisdom actually yields more wonder and more desire, not less. Those who are wise recognize how little they know and understand.

Such was the wisdom of Socrates in the face of his accusers. When he didn’t know something, he at least knew that he didn’t know. He was not puffed up with false certitude. Such was the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, who stated that “an article of faith is a glimpse of divine Truth tending towards that Truth” (ST II-II, q. 1, a. 6, sc). Catching a glimpse of Truth is different than possessing it with certainty. Those who catch a glimpse of something they truly care about feel an ache to seek more.

In describing faith, Thomas reminds us that our faith does not point to the proposition, but to the reality itself (ST II-II, q. 1, a. 2, ad 2). And perhaps most shocking of all, Thomas asserts that our knowledge of God is a knowledge what he is not, but that what he is remains utterly unknown to us (SCG c. 3, 49, 9).

Thomas Aquinas is not a relativist, and neither am I. But he is even more a mystic than a theologian. He intuitively understands that God is infinite. The closer we get to him, the more painfully we realize the infinite gap between him and us – a gap bridged not by intellectual comprehension or certainty, but only in a communion of love in the new and eternal covenant.

Jesus Christ presents himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He invites us to enter into a relationship with him and to follow him as disciples. Through faith, we become fellow members of his Body. We begin an ongoing journey of conversion, in which we become changed more and more into him. He invites us into communion with him and his Father. He prays that all that is his will be ours. He invites us as his bride into a one-flesh union with him. We are invited to grow into that union throughout our life.

Our demand for certainty comes from our insecure hearts. To feel insecure is one of the most difficult human experiences. The solution to not the “certainty” of Christian fundamentalism, but the intimacy of communion, and the security that is received in that relationship.

The Truth is not relative, but it IS relational. I love studying ancient and medieval philosophy, and find enormous wisdom there. That great legacy of Truth-seeking did not happen in a vacuum. It happened within the context of community. It is only within secure relationships, and in respectful dialogue with fellow humans, that we can pursue the Truth – never as isolated individuals, but as fellow children of God.

There are two opposite errors here: relativism and fundamentalism. Each in its own way refuses to surrender to reality. Relativism dogmatically asserts that there is no Truth. Those who cling to relativism ultimately refuse to allow reality to change them. They also ultimately refuse to give themselves over in a loving communion with the living God who holds all the answers to our ultimate questions.

But fundamentalism, too, is an enemy of Truth. It pretends to offer total certainty about “the truth” in a way that kills curiosity and wonder – the gifts of God that truly draw us into his Truth. There is a vulnerability and a playful engagement in the curiosity of a child. The “certainty” of fundamentalism exchanges a vulnerable relationship with the living God for an illusory sense of control.

The obsession with certainty has been particularly strong in the modern era (the last few centuries). It shows up in both Catholic and Protestant circles in some form of fundamentalism. We see this clinging to certainty it in the “once saved always saved” approach of some Protestants. We see it in an exaggerated emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture or the infallibility of the pope. I believe in both of those doctrines as far as they go – but I find that most Christians seriously misunderstand or misrepresent them! Insofar as they point us to divine Truth, both are at the service of the living and enduring Word of God, who is a person inviting us into covenantal relationship with himself and his Father.

Through faith, we share in the dying and rising of Jesus. We are securely loved as God’s children, and are able to grow into maturity in Christ. With childlike wonder and curiosity, we can humbly acknowledge and keep surrendering to a Truth that is always larger than us. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” May we never allow the temptation of certainty to hinder us from the great invitation of the eternal Bridegroom: “Come further up! Come further in!”

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