Confidence v. Certainty

The Importance of What We Can't Know

At the end of The Wizard of Oz (still wonderful after all these years), the Wicked Witch of the West is confounded, a failure. Dissolving in puddle of water, she moans, “What a world, what a world.” I’m with her.

Many religious people feel a need for clarity. They need to have a sense that they are right, or at least on the right path and relatively sure of their direction. This is an understandable yearning, but what may be insufficiently appreciated is the important place for confusion and uncertainty in our spiritual life.

What we cannot possibly know or understand with certainty occupies much more of the universe than what we do know, and our uncertainties may be a more important part of who we ultimately will be. I think of the depth of what the Incarnation must mean for all created life, for all matter, and realize that the dogma as we know it, profound and deep as it is, is only the surface. What cannot possibly be put into words matters more than what can be.

The desire to be absolutely clear about the best doctrinal or moral path is understandable but probably misguided. I remember a time when as a young man I went to confession, trying to make sense of a moral dilemma that was a knotted mess. The old priest listening to me said, “Just confess it as it is before God.” No doubt this saved him some time, but it...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.