Where does the absolute certainty come from?
by: John Tyrrell
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I was reading a book review this morning and came across the following anecdote. The Catholic Church required those who had followed Jansenism to sign off on a document renouncing five beliefs attributed to Jansen. One dying nun, after refusing to sign, was told by her confessor, a Father Longval:
"Since you are absolutely determined to do nothing and since you wish to remain in this state of disobedience, I declare to you, on behalf of God, taking his place before you, that you are not in a state of salvation. Through my mediation, He is giving you a way to return from this disobedience, and you refuse Him. ... I say to you once more, on behalf of God, you will be damned along with all the devils. I call you before God's judgement, where I will be your judge, and I will condemn you." (emphasis added)
My reaction on reading this was "How can this priest be so certain? How can he be so sure in his belief that he can talk on behalf of God? Has he no recognition of the possibility that he might be wrong."
Over three hundred years later, religious leaders still speak with the same certainty. They, and they alone are right and everyone else is wrong. The absolute ownership of spiritual truth is still claimed by the Catholic Church, as it is claimed by various (but not all) Protestant denominations. The same claim is made by the Sunni and Shiite strands of Islam, Orthodox Judaism, and Hinduism in nearly all its incarnations, not to mention the thousands of cults, each led by an individual with a direct line to a deity (if not space aliens), and an exclusive right to speak on that god's behalf.
But, looking around at all the competing claims, how can anyone be sure their claim is the right one?
The certainty of the deeply religious is beyond me, particularly when there are so many varieties of religious belief. I can understand following a religious belief. In part, it provides the security of a perspective into the unknown.
But still, in the end, the unknown remains unknown.
And when someone claims to speak on behalf of God, how do you possibly know if they are correct? And how can they know?
- Among the ruins of the new, by Nicholas Hammond; The Times Literary Supplement, 29 April 2005, p 32: A review of Dictionnaire de Port-Royal
- Otherwise I had nothing to write about.
- The first of the five was that it is impossible to keep some of God's commandments - it looks like I'm part Jansenist.
- For further information, see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Jansenism.