Are You Clinging to Certainty?

“Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie.” (CCC 157)

Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” c. 1601
Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” c. 1601 (photo: Public Domain)

After we were received into the Catholic Church we got some snide comments from our former friends: “How nice for you. Now that you’re Catholic you won’t have to think for yourself anymore.”

Does one become a Catholic because one “longs for certainty” and is “uncomfortable with ambiguity?” Is the lure of Catholicism the attraction of dogmatic certainty in all things, an infallible pope and everything defined neatly in black and white?

Certainly there are some people who cling to Catholicism because it offers them “certainty.” They love dogma and legalism because it makes them feel secure. But then again, I can think of plenty of Protestants who also cling to “certainty” and “moral absolutes” in an unhealthy way. For that matter, lapsing into legalism is a pitfall within any religion or belief system. 

At the other end of the spectrum are those who eschew all forms of doctrine, dogma, rules, regulations and rubrics. One way is all law — the other is all chaos. One way is certainty in all things — the other is open-ended tolerance in all things.

Let us put all of them on one side — both the legalistic addicts to “certainty” and the freewheeling types who are equally comfortable with no dogma and moral strictures.

Instead, what is the real relationship between certainty and uncertainty? Perhaps a little parable will do: There was a boy who liked to lay on the hillside at night and gaze at the stars and dream of being an astronaut. “If only,” he thought, “I could one day fly up to the stars and dwell in those vast regions of beyond!” He dreamed of being an astronaut, but he never took the step. He resisted the discipline and daring that was required to be an astronaut. So he remained on earth and gazed at the stars and wrote beautiful science fiction stories about other worlds and star travelers, and he wrote poems of great beauty about the stars and the dark, unknown mysterious realms beyond his earth.

Then there was a second boy who also dreamed of being an astronaut. He worked hard at school and learned everything he could about physics and astronomy and rocketry and aeronautics. He worked hard and got a scholarship to the Air Force Academy and trained as a fighter pilot. He beat out all the competition and rose to the top of his class because he knew that only the very brightest and best were chosen as astronauts. Finally he was chosen, and then the real training began. He had to study even more technology and astrophysics. He had to be physically fit. He had to sacrifice much to fulfill his dream of being an astronaut. He struggled with hard realities. He learned how all the practical things ad difficult things and seemingly irrelevant things he had learned would help him ascend to the stars.

Finally the second boy sat in the rocket module and was launched into the great beyond. Off he flew into the dark, mysterious realms beyond all imagination.

This is it: the “certainty,” the dogma and the moral certitudes are not ends in themselves. They are means to an end. They are the hard facts that are in place to help us ascend to the stars. We need them not as the climb, but as the ladder we climb on. The certainties, if you like, are only there to launch us, like the rocket, into the uncertainties that are the dark and dazzling mystery of God. This is the true reason why Catholics need certainties — because they provide the map for the journey and the machine by which we fly.

Without them we remain on earth dreaming about the vast realms beyond and perhaps making up beautiful stories about it and maybe even flapping our arms like wings, but much more than that, without the certain certainties, we cannot do.

Alta Fixsler

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