The modernist likes to blame the Catholic–especially the Catholic convert–for ‘needing’ certainty. It is assumed that the person who becomes a Catholic is rather like a little child in the dark who needs a hand to hold. He is an intellectually and emotionally immature person who does not have the courage to ‘go boldly’ into the desert of uncertainty and practical agnosticism that is the modern religious landscape. Instead he takes refuge in an unthinking fundamentalism–an authoritarian religion that gives him all the neat little answers in the form of theological dogmas and moral regulations.
This is certainly a charge that has some merit, for there are indeed, many people who take refuge in one form of fundamentalism or another. Many people of different opinions and views turn from the rigor of intellectual questioning and opt for the unexamined life, safe in their little belief systems and comfort zones, and to be sure there are some Catholics who do just that. However, this problem is bigger than Catholicism, and it does not represent true Catholicism. Instead, the problem exists in every religion and belief system. If a ‘fundamentalist’ is the sort of person who bolts for the castle refuge of religious certainty, then we can spot that sort of behavior most everywhere. There are ‘fundamentalists’ in every religion, and in every belief system. The atheist who is locked into the certainty of his secular atheism without thinking or seriously examining the religious claim is just as fundamentalist and closed minded as any religious fundamentalist. Likewise, the urbane, modernist religious type who ‘goes boldly’ into the uncertainty and open endedness of the religious experience can be equally fundamentalist in his denial that any for of certainty can exist. This too can be a form or religious laziness and complacency and false security just as much as any narrow minded conservative Catholic or Protestant.
What then, is the balance between religious certainty and un-certainty? The Catholic faith does teach that there are certain certainties. We believe that the Christian faith is a revealed religion. There are certain truths, revealed in Scripture and expressed in the creed and in the teaching of the church which are immutable and certain. There are some aspects of our religious practice which are certain and reliable and true. There are moral precepts, drawn from revelation and natural law which are certain and true. They are objective and do not rely on personal experience or opinion to validate them. These credal, sacramental and moral certainties are the bedrock on which the faith is built and we can know these things for certain not only because we say so, but because they have been proven to be reliable and sustainable for 2000 years of human religious experience.
Nevertheless, there is also much within the faith that is not certain. Indeed, the whole faith is built on the concept of ‘mystery’. St Paul’s writings are interlaced with this word ‘mystery’ in every epistle. It is a fundamental concept of the Catholic faith. The essential core of the ‘mystery’ is that it is something that can be experienced, even if it cannot adequately be explained. The ‘mystery’ of Godliness draws us beyond the dogma and the sacraments and the moral precepts into an experience that is built on certainty, but takes us far beyond any kind of human certainty.
This ‘mystery’ however, is not simply the vague agnosticism of the modernist Protestant who has no foothold. The via negativa is a spiritual path which focusses not on what we know about God, but what we do not know. God is understood as the ultimate mystery and the one who is essentially un-knowable by our human intellect. I have heard some agnostic religious leaders espouse the via negativa as a venerable explanation for their agnosticism. This is not only dishonest, but astounding in its ignorance and arrogance. The via negativa is a spiritual path that is entered into only by the most holy of spiritual masters. It is like the dark night of the soul. This cloud of unknowing can only be embraced by those who have built a strong foundation on the ‘knowing’ that is Catholic dogma, sacramental life and moral certainties.
The mystery therefore is experienced through the certainties. The certainties are the launching pad for the great adventure into the unknown. The certainties are the map. The mystery is the adventure.