Garvey on Certainty

Garvey on Certainty

Published: Mar 9, 2007 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

I made it to presanctified liturgy this week, an evening which ended with a very interesting conversation over dinner. We started with a conversation about Natural Law theology (something I think quite a bit about as a student in an ethics department dominated by Catholic natural law ethicists), moved to Orthodox theology, and what we can know and not know about God and humanity. I was asked what I can say for sure about God, who does not change. Expressing hesitancy about whether God does change or not, I replied that in the end, all I can say is that God is love, whatever that means. A friend responded that the idea that God might change was frightening, which is a fair response, except that in the end, God is love, and change can only be in or ‘towards’ love, not away. The next morning I finally got around to reading my January issue of Commonweal over breakfast, and a column by John Garvey was particularly striking. While Garvey is speaking of the debate between science and religion, his conclusion is apropos to our conversation:

There are at least two problems with what should be, but is not yet, a genuine dialogue between science and religion. One is the inability of the nonbelieving side to look seriously at those deep traditions that might challenge their own set of certainties. There are essential differences between explanations and descriptions. Science is good at the business of description and leans, when it theorizes, toward explanation, but always tentatively. Wittgenstein got at something vital when he wrote, “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” The Orthodox tradition of apophatic theology, which stresses God’s unknowability-or what is called “negative theology” in the West-is essential here. Basil the Great said, “Anyone who says he knows God has a depraved spirit.” Gregory of Nyssa said, “Concepts create idols. Only wonder comprehends anything.” This could be a beginning.

On the religious side, there is a need for certainty that leads to fundamentalism and to such awkward “god of the gaps” lurches as intelligent design. It is only when we give up our need for certainty-a form of ego protection-that we can begin to find confidence, a trust that we are not wrong in our sense that love and compassion are built deeply into the center of reality, despite its obvious woundedness, and are not merely our tiny human contribution to a meaningless, if marvelous, universe.[/quote]