Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Often that appears to be true. Looking to certitudes that have been proven false, ancient cosmologies thought the world was flat. Later the world was discovered to be round. But as late as the 17th century the Roman Catholic Church condemned Galileo for supporting the theory that the earth rotated around the sun rather than vice versa.

More than 350 years later pope John Paul II rectified one of the Church’s most infamous wrongs. Even today when many would like to think that mathematics can bring us certainty in science, Albert Einstein said, “As far as laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” While we would like to have the feeling of certitude about much of our lives, the inherent factuality of many of our beliefs are not certain.
In religion we often succumb to certitude in order to promote a more absolute answer to life’s questions. Desiring to know the absolute will of God, the Bible is declared to be the literal and inerrant Word of God. Contradictions in the Bible are thus overlooked, stories are turned into scientific fact, such as the creation of the world found in the Book of Genesis, and mankind’s developing understanding of the nature of God is ignored. Jesus, for one, didn’t take the Hebrew Bible literally or as inerrant. He often said, “You have heard that it was said…but I say unto you.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. (Exodus 21: 23-24) But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ ” (Matt. 5:38-39) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ ” (Matt. 5:43-44)
The more common result of striving to know everything about God is humility. We can mystically feel the presence of God in creation, in relationships, and within ourselves. But any accurate description of God is as Thomas Aquinas discovered after writing his Summa Theologica, nothing but “straw.” Awe and wonder leading to praise is the best we can do in our theological pursuits. The answer to life’s deepest questions will not bring a feeling of certitude, but a humble awareness of being a participant in a great Mystery.
On the lighter side, Isaac Asimov, an American writer and biochemist, said: “People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.” The Dunning-Kruger effect, however, notes that relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. So who is to be certain of certitude?
Editor’s Note: This column was originally published on May 12, 2016.