“Are you sure about this?” I asked myself for the tenth time in the past five minutes. With two wooden planks strapped to my feet, doubts assailed me as I stared down an ice and snow-covered mountain strewn with large trees and boulders. What was I doing?
We all like certainty in our lives. When I go skiing, I want to know that I will survive the next day with all my limbs fully functioning. I don’t even want to start a book unless I know it will be good. And the higher the stakes, the more certain I want to be. I want certainty in my career choices, my relationships and my faith. But as the saying goes, the only thing that is certain is death and taxes. Waiting until we are certain before acting often results in missing out on a lot of what life has to offer. If I had to wait for a guaranteed warranty1 on my day, I would never get out of bed. We need to know when to take the risk and “jump in” the deep end.
“So you’re certain that my stocks will go up this quarter?” he asked his broker. He had a lot riding on this investment. It could make or break him. If he did nothing, he would gain nothing. But if he makes the investment, he could lose everything. He needed to be certain.
As a Jesuit biologist, I’m often asked to give talks about the relationship between faith and science. After each talk, I ask for questions and I always carefully listen to the questions people ask. Once, after critiquing Intelligent Design and pointing to its many scientific and theological failings, one young man wanted to know how he could convince others of God’s existence using science.2 In his option, most people who do not believe in God share a healthy respect for science. Thus, if science could “prove” God’s existence, then his atheist friends would have to believe in God.
I responded by explaining the relationship between science and faith, distinguishing among the various meanings of “proof” and noting that science does not actually “prove” anything. It simply rejects the null hypothesis with a certain probability. And while my erudite exposition was impressive, it was in vain. I failed to address the underlying assumption behind his question. Namely, in the face of something so big, so incomprehensible and so mysterious (i.e., God), we crave certainty.
“Are you sure we’re good enough?” she asked her band mates. They had just scraped up enough cash from the last of their savings to pay for a recording session. If successful, the band’s status would change from being casual part-time amateurs to full time musicians. They would have to give up their day jobs and really commit to making the dreams of the band come true. But they had to be certain they were ready.
It’s such an easy assumption to accept. Of course we want certainty when we’re talking about God. Belief in God potentially can change our lives, perhaps in very drastic ways. After all, doesn’t Jesus explain the hardships of Christian discipleship? Following Jesus entails taking up one’s cross, persecution, mockery and being hated by all. Even St. Paul struggled with his call to follow Christ as and spoke of the afflictions that assailed him: “we were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor 1: 8). That doesn’t sound like a walk in the park. Given these risks, can anyone blame Thomas for doubting Jesus’ disciples and wanting “proof” of his resurrection?
“Does he love me?” she asked herself. If he didn’t, then she would look like a fool if she made herself vulnerable, putting it all on the line to tell him how she really feels about him. Is he ready to hear her say, “I love you”? How can she be sure?
Catholics must approach the mystery of God with balance. How do we come to understand something that is, by definition, incomprehensible Mystery? On one hand, we could simply dismiss the entire rational enterprise and accept the inevitable. God is Mystery and that’s that. We’ll never understand God, so why bother? The downside to this non-rational approach is that we check our brains at the door of faith. Once we do that, then belief in anything is possible. You tell me that God sometimes comes to Earth in the guise of a tiny pink elephant that steals socks from my dryer? Sure, OK. Now I know what happens to all my missing socks. God is Mystery so anything is possible once I stop thinking. God told you to rob the 7-11? Why not? God’s ways are too mysterious for us mere mortals to figure out. So knock over that convenience store and get me a Twinkie while you’re at it.
Hopefully, it’s obvious that we have to avoid this extreme. God gave us brains and we should use them, even to try to comprehend the incomprehensible. After all, knowing God better would allow us to love God more. But this line of reasoning can also be taken to the other extreme.
In this extreme, we attempt to completely rationalize God. Usually stemming from our desire for certainty, we want God to fit into our rational notions of who God should be. So we rationalize a God who is the Prime Mover, the Uncaused First Cause, or the Ground of Necessary Being. These are nice philosophical concepts, but they don’t necessarily draw us into a relationship – certainly not the sort of relationship for which I’d be willing to “take up my cross” and suffer. And I suspect that is why these philosophical notions of God can be so appealing: they are “safe.” God is neatly slotted into the little box we created. We’ve convinced ourselves that we have God figured out. There is no question we lack an answer for. We can simply take our God-in-a-box and with unfailing reason, figure out the answer.
When it comes to belief in God, I like what Thomas Cahill wrote in his 1999 The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels:
“For in the last analysis, one does not believe that God exists, as one believes that Timbuktu or the constellation Andromeda exists. One believes in God, as one believes in a friend – or one believes nothing. So, in the sense that this whole business depends on faith in God, each reader must be left to wrestle with his own, her own doubts and beliefs.”
As Cahill suggests, belief in God is more about entering a relationship. So when dealing with the Mystery of God, nothing is certain. We need both our God-given reason and humility, recognizing that our finite minds can never fully grasp the Infinite. St. Anselm defined theology as faith seeking understanding. In other words, theology is our rational attempt to explain God, which is ultimately beyond our reason. So a healthy respect for Mystery will keep us humble while allowing us to enter into that Mystery more fully. Because, let’s face it, no relationship comes with guarantees.
— — — — —
1. Editor’s note: there is one word in this clip which is NSFW, but it’s from Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, so it’s a classic.
2. Intelligent Design is not new. Rev William Paley argued in Natural Theology (1802) that if we were to stumble upon a watch and observe its intricate structure with multiple working parts (or “irreducible complexity” according to Michael Behe’s 1996 Darwin’s Black Box), then we would conclude that it was designed and thus there must exist a watchmaker or intelligent designer.