Reasonable Certitude

Would you stake your life on something that you did not have absolute certitude about?

Actually, you do it every day.

  • You drive across bridges that you didn't construct, haven't inspected, and don't understand.
  • You drive a car that could have a mechanical failure at any moment, all on the word of your mechanic that it's safe.
  • You eat food that you have no idea where it came from, how it was made, or if it could have been poisoned along the way.
  • You live and work in proximity with people who have ample opportunity to inflict harm on you based on an unverified assumption that they are not murderous psychopaths.

Are all of these reasonable actions?  Of course.  But they also lack absolute certitude.  The point of this is to say that, somewhere between complete ignorance and absolute certitude, we cross the line of reasonable certitude.  It is the line that distinguishes foolish behavior from reasonable behavior.  Without accepting this standard of reasonable behavior, we would be paralyzed in our daily decisions, and all the more so in the most significant life-shaping decisions we have to make.

What would it take for you to stake your life on God?  What would a reasonable certitude about the existence and character of God look like? 

My goal here is not to answer the question of exactly where that line is, but simply to identify that the line exists, just as much as it exists with a great number of the daily decisions that we stake our lives on every day.  Yet so often, it seems that many insist on the standard of absolute certitude when it comes to God.

Now, in some respects, this makes sense.  The higher the stakes, the greater degree of certitude we should require.  At the same time, embracing doubt can sometimes simply be a means of avoiding demands.

I was recently moving some furniture items into a garage and decided that a wood pallet would be helpful to keep them off the ground.  I conveniently found some out behind a grocery store next to the dumpster.  Just trash, right?  I wasn't sure, but I decided to grab it anyway.  Then a Smeagol-and-Gollum-like debate erupted in my mind as I drove for the next couple of blocks.

"Do you think they reuse these?"

"Nah, it was by the dumpster.  It's probably trash."

"But maybe they just store them out there."

"I guess we'll never know."

"We could go back and ask someone who works there."


In the end I did just that.  And the guy I asked said that they did reuse them, and if any were missing the store would get charged by the company that supplies them.  Now I knew.  Now I was stuck.  As long as I left the question unanswered, I felt I could continue in what I was doing.  After all, I didn't know for certain that it was wrong.  But once I answered the question, that answer required something of me.  I returned the pallet.

Where is the line of reasonable certitude with God?  Are you demanding a higher degree of proof about God than you do about other significant decisions you make?  And perhaps most importantly, is doubting God really just a cover for avoiding what would be required of you by answering the question?

If this last question makes you uneasy, I want to share with you these encouraging words from Pope Benedict XVI in his first homily as Pope:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.