Pliny the Elder wrote, in Naturalis Historia, a well-known adage: “Among [mortals] the only certainty there is is that nothing is certain.” Few know that Pliny made this statement in a chapter on the gods.
Dedicating his work to Vespasian, the caesar, who was in office between 69 and 79 AD, the Roman writer tries to argue that the gods are help, and so implicitly are helping Vespasian. In the context of the discussion, Pliny ridicules those who have no respect for the gods, either by picturing them through animal, obscene, or superstitious representation, or by believing the myths that the gods are like humans—they entertain excesses, they divorce, and they are capricious. It also exposes those who swear by Jupiter just so they may better hide their crimes. Pliny also identifies a contrast: between those who believe only in Fortune (luck) and those who submit to the deterministic influence of the stars. The second group believed that once God established the laws and course of the planets, He no longer interfered with them. Therefore, people tried to guide themselves by the evil omens of nature, which some soothsayers and prophetic oracles claimed to be able to interpret. In this context, says Pliny the Elder, “only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain.”
The absolutization of the above statement disrupts the whole process of knowledge. If nothing is certain, then nothing can really be known. But things are not in black and white. It is true that “Uncertainty is an unavoidable aspect of any scientific endeavour,” but let us first define what uncertainty is. In the simplest terms, uncertainty is a lack of certainty. There are two kinds of certainty, according to a study conducted in 2019 by Kampourakis and McCain: psychological certainty and epistemic certainty. The first refers to how strongly we believe something: a type of certainty that is not dependent on the amount or power of the evidence. Epistemic certainty, on the other hand, is attained only when the evidence is unequivocal. But because man is, by definition, susceptible to error, we can conclude that epistemic certainty in the absolute sense is not possible. Therefore, can we believe anything else? Can we be sure of anything else? The same authors answer that the best thing we can do is to believe in accordance with the best evidence we have, even if we are not absolutely certain of the evidence, or its interpretation.
Being religious is not the same as being free from uncertainty. Being a Christian is not the same as being sure of everything one believes. Christian uncertainties are often compared to or measured against the certainties of science. Yet science itself does not provide certainties. What it does is build a vision of the world and the universe. Science creates new concepts, and changes the old way of thinking, either because there is more information, or because it constantly reflects on old theories that have already been accepted. In other words, science seeks the surest way of thinking, according to the present level of knowledge. Likewise, Christianity is not an indisputable sum of truisms, but a vision of the world and life. The meaning of it cannot be easily denied.
In the essay “Is Theology Poetry?” which he presented in 1944 to the Socratic Club at Oxford, CS Lewis concludes his plea with memorable words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” To Lewis, Christianity is worthy of its certainties given its historical evidence that is much stronger than that of other religions, but also because it offers a vision that gives meaning to life as we know it.
In the end, I try to be practical. Can a Christian prove that God exists, that Jesus became incarnate and was born of a virgin, that He rose from the dead, that the planet was born as a result of God’s creative act, that there is a future life, and that humans will be saved? I don’t think we can talk about these things with any epistemic certainty. But we are not without any evidence that Christianity is based on a foundation on which we can safely build meaningful lives, guided by moral values.
The ancient text of the Christian Scriptures provides an explanation of the world and the universe that best answers the big questions, such as: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone in the universe? What is the difference between good and evil? And one’s adherence to the biblical story of life and the universe nurtures one’s assurance that, although we cannot prove it, most of the Bible’s claims have the strongest meaning when compared to other options.
Laurenţiu-Florentin Moţ, PhD, is an associate professor and rector of Adventus University.