“Always Certain, Seldom Right”

Let’s revisit this damning dismissal



Know anyone who’s outspoken, opinionated, who calls a spade a spade?

I surely knew my father, to whom I owe more than I can ever repay. When the family was planning his funeral, my mother told the pastor “John was outspoken…too outspoken for most people.” Right. Some of us liked to refer to him as “Mr. Constant Comment,” though he wasn’t a tea drinker.

I suppose Dad was a candidate for another riposte: “Always certain, seldom right.” It’s a catchy put down, isn’t it? But let’s revisit this damning dismissal.

Better start with Dad. Thinking back, he was mostly, not seldom, right. And the crashing cadences of his proclamations, I suspect, often enough served more to allay his doubts than to seal his certainties. After all, he couldn’t have found it easy to live in a country in which, as he put it, “90% of the people are on the lunatic fringe.”

At any rate, Dad’s case is just the tip of the epistemic iceberg. Why so? Five points come to mind, and two of them are especially important if we are to keep our balance in a “post-Christian” world.

First, there’s a self-referential or “flip” point. Notice that it won’t work to say, “Well, probably she’s always certain, but she might not be right.” The initial criticism requires that the critic speaks with certainty.

Second, as soon as we hedge our bets and introduce possibilities, we presume some standard of certainty. Nor can we get far speaking of parts unless something is a whole.

Third, moral discourse depends on moral certainties. If someone says that “cruelty might be wrong,” or “honesty is probably silly,” the logic of moral evaluation collapses. Plus, there’s the worry that such a person has a corrupt mind.

Next come a pair of points on which Catholics insist. The more general consideration is that insofar as the object of faith is God, faith brings a certainty that goes beyond our other cognitive efforts.

It is from this certainty that some startling particulars follow. We do not proclaim “Maybe Jesus rose from the dead.” Neither do we hold the opinion that “Perhaps this really is his body and blood.” Nor do we speculate “There’s a chance that my soul is eternal.”

Just as there is a logic of moral evaluation, there is a logic of faith. And good logic is part of our living and proclaiming the faith. The word “logic” stems from the Greek logos, and John’s Gospel tells us that “In the beginning was the Logos, the Word.” Indeed, through this same word all things come into being. The created world has its intelligibility for this very reason.

And what would follow if there were no such intelligibility? Science would prove futile. Our lives, even if they were not solitary, brutish, and short, would still signify nothing.

To be sure, there is an abundance of false certainty. It is a counterfeit of grounded certainty. And, yes, we often fail to distinguish between the two. Some of us, indeed, have a propensity to do so. There is, as they say, “no fool like an old fool,” present company possibly not exempted.

Even so, we ought not rush to judgment, even in the case of “the fool who says in his heart ‘there is no God.’”


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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