Thoughts on Faith and Certainty

doubt_movie_image_philip_seymour_hoffman_and__amy_adams_as_sister_jamesLately I have been showing the movie “Doubt” to my Seniors.  Of course, it is hard to convince them that the movie is not really about whether the priest “did it” but rather about how we go about arriving at certainty as humans.  Having begun the class with selections from Percy’s “Lost in the Cosmos” though, this line from the opening homily of the movie helped to clue them in: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”  

The movie is really about doubt and certainty.  What is certainty?  At one point in the movie, Father Flynn tells Sister Alyosius that certainty is a feeling, that she has no right to make her entire judgment based on her own feeling of certainty.  Sister Aloysius won’t budge, and when Sister James says that she believes the priest, she responds: “You just want things to be resolved so you can have simplicity back.”

Some of my thoughts on knowledge, certainty and faith:

Certainty is a feeling.  When I am “certain” about something, what I am saying is that I “feel certain” about a position. It is a subjective claim.  In a perfect world, this “feeling” is based upon a certain amount of data.  For instance, I feel very certain that 2 + 2 = 4 because the data given to me is rather narrow and determined.  My feeling in this case corresponds to the limited amount of data coming in to me and the limited amount of contradictory evidence.  In this case, my feelings of certainty are confirmed.  

Jean-Luc Marion speaks of mathematics though as being “poor in donation.”  This does not mean that math is unimportant, but rather that what it “gives” to experience is poor in scope.  It is basic, simple, and therefore certainty in regard to math is easy.  The same is true of all the “hard” sciences.  We call them hard, because certainty about them is easy.  But something is lost when certainty comes easy.  What is lost is a certain “richness” of donation.  

This is why as you go up the hierarchy of being, certainty grows more and more flimsy.  Why is psychology called a soft science?  Because the certainty that we can have of human persons is nowhere near that of math.  This is because what is “given” by the person is rich in donation.  And on up to God, where we are confronted with mystery absolutely speaking.  

Of course, the confusion that Romanticism propagates is that there is no knowledge at all of people and God, but only feelings.  But this confusion is based on kinds of certainty and donation.  

Small amount of donation = Great certainty

Large amount of donation = Little certainty

But both are based on knowledge.  It is just that when I am knowing a person or knowing God, the amount of donation is so staggering, the amount of data and the depth of the data, that my ability of be adequate to it is limited.  

The classic definition of truth is “adequatio ad rei,” the adequation of the mind to thing.  But this adequatio becomes less and less possible as I know higher and higher levels of donation.  Before a mystery, I “feel inadequate.”  Notice the language.  I feel not adequate, the adequation is not there because of the sheer amount of donation being given to my mind.  This is still knowing, it is just a higher kind of knowing.  But the price for higher knowing is less certainty.  

Unless I accept faith.  This is precisely why faith is a “way of knowing” and not just a feeling.  Faith knows with certainty what the mind cannot “feel certain” about due to the staggering richness of donation of the content of faith knowledge.  Faith is a gift, a raising of the mind to adequation with that which is given beyond the mind’s capacity.  Thus, even insofar as all people share in the image and likeness of God, faith extends to persons, and indeed, insofar as God is in all things, faith extends to all things.  To know things truly, we must have faith.  Faith alone corresponds, provides an adequatio in the mind to the rich donation of Being. As Augustine repeated ad nauseum: “You must believe in order to understand.” 

16 Responses to Thoughts on Faith and Certainty

  1. samrocha says:

    Beautiful reflection. And I am excited to watch the movie now too.

  2. Thanks Sam, it’s an excellent movie, probably my favorite from last year. The acting and dialogue are superb. I had the experience of finishing it in the theatre and wanting to start all over again.

  3. Ellen says:

    I was thinking of Luke 10:21 while reading this: At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”

  4. I think one reason that children often understand so much better than adults is because for children, realities that are “rich in donation” continue to constitute objects of real knowledge. They have not been seduced by the religion of science with its rejection of metaphysical reality. They have no trouble swinging between wonder and doubt because they don’t have a controlling agenda towards that which is known. They simply want to know.

  5. samrocha says:

    Watched it last night. It was quite good, except that I think that locker scene ruined the plausibility of the plot. However, the major theme was well done. I especially liked the opening homily. I will be linking this post and adding some of my own thoughts later on today (I hope).

  6. Becky says:

    Thank you. This is exactly what I needed today.

  7. Father Joseph SJ says:

    This is far more uplifting than the satirical piece you had on yesterday which was rather offensive I am sure to a number of readers. I think most of us would expect that the quality of this blog to be beyond all other blogs of this nature.

    I saw the movie “Doubt” . mentioned it to my college class . .

    Once again, great blog today . .enjoyed.

  8. Father Joseph,

    Thank you.

    I presume you are referring to what Jeff wrote yesterday, not me.

    I liked his idea, though not the heavy handed delivery (my opinion Jeff).

  9. David, S.J. says:


    I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone in thinking that the question of the priest’s guilt is not what the title refers to. I had been thinking that whether or not the system (or any system) could truly deliver justice was what was being doubted, although your read on it is definitely appealing.

  10. Being doubted by whom? Sister Aloysius? You think that what she is doubting at the end of the movie is “whether the system could truly deliver justice?” I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.

  11. Michae! Magree, SJ says:

    Beautiful reflection, Nathan. Two things, and the first is a quibble: I don’t think certainty is a feeling, but a judgment. Yet this doesn’t affect your main point, which is that (as I would phrase it) some realities (e.g. God, people) are so rich in “donation” that our ability to pronounce judgment on them, and thus our ability to have certainty, is desperately inadequate. And I love how you use “aedequatio” to talk about this inadequacy. Great stuff.

    The other note: I liked the movie, and didn’t love it. In short, Christianity, and Faith, get used in “Doubt” as background scenery for the main point that you point out so clearly: a reflection on doubt and certainty. I was hoping for more about Faith. When will someone actually give us a compelling drama about faith? Is Duvall’s Apostle the closest thing we have?

  12. An important quibble though. I suppose you’re right. I think what I was trying to point to was the important role that feelings playing in unveiling to the judgment the salient features of a state of affairs. Well trained feelings correspond to my judgment about a certain amount of data about a state of affairs. Sister Aloysius judges based on feelings. And we may think that her well trained feelings do not betray her. They have revealed to her the salient features of a touch by Father to a boy’s wrist, or the implications of a ball point pen. In this case, feelings may be communicating real knowledge on which the certainty of judgment is based. Feelings are often confused with faith because of the important role they play in all knowledge that is rich in donation. Because these kinds of knowledge are so rich in donation, they stir up the feelings, which are often out first harbingers of something important out there. But the certain judgment that faith makes the person adequate to make is not a feeling itself, it is an act of knowledge of the entire person.

    So I guess I agree with you.

  13. David, S.J. says:


    yes. When Sr. Aloysius says at the end “I have such doubts!”, that is what I took her to mean- that she was unsure whether justice could be done, especially in this case, but in others as well. If her doubts turn out to be valid, it would mean that the “step away from God” in the pursuit of wrongdoing that she spoke of earlier is always (or almost always) going to be a step taken in vain. She understands this, resulting in her crying as she admits her doubts to Sr. James.

  14. Paul J Clifford says:

    Great food for thought Fr Nathan. I haven’t seen the movie but I am familiar with the writer’s other work – “Joe and the Volcano” and “Moonstruck”. He is a New York Irish chap by the name of John Patrick Shanley (I think).

    I wonder where concepts like “intuition” and “instinct” come into the equation? Some of us seem to “intuit” God more than others, and even then we may “intuit” God more at some times rather than others. Can instinct and intuition ever be fixed values? And how on earth do we measure them (that is, if they exist as realities…).

    Those who excel at the “hard” sciences always appeared to me to have an excellent (or rather very discriminating) filtering process of all available data. This is indeed a skill but can certainly rob one of the “richness of donation” as you so elegantly put it.

    Excellent post. Really thoughtful.

    PS, Fr Michael should check out a 1993 movie called “Fearless” which stars Jeff Bridges as an air crash survivor. It is one of the best Hollywood movies about “faith” in recent years.

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  16. Matt Nannery says:

    This was an excellent movie.
    The current discussion reminds me of the perennial question of whether or not Jesus knew he was God. In John’s Gospel, it seems he did. In Mark’s, it seems he didn’t.
    When I was in the seminary, I found most guys were very comfortable with the idea that Jesus knew he was God and thought it pretty irreverant to suggest he did not.
    I’ve always had a problem with the rejection of the Markan sense as it relates to the idea of sacrifice, especially from people who would be priests. Why? Well, if Jesus knew for certain that he was God, then it seems that his sacrifice would be much diminished because he’d know for sure that he’d be resurrected and everything would be rosy in a few days. However, if he wasn’t certain he was God, he could not be sure of what would transpire, his sacrifice would be huge, and his demonstration of faith by fulfilling the Father’s will would be clear.
    The latter sense is important because Jesus repeatedly tells us to have faith, and when he heals he, time and time again, tells us that our faith in God has healed us. Jesus, on the cross, was a model of such faith. The person we try to emulate. The person who puts everything in God’s hands. The person who’s with us in our personal struggles.
    Certainty and faith are two very different things. If one is certain about something, faith becomes less necessary. And, when that happens, men and women are given little opportunity to demonstrate their faith in God and very little opportunity to be comforted by God in times of great uncertainty.
    As Jesus said to Thomas at the end of John’s Gospel: “You believe because you seem me. Blessed are those who do not see me and still believe.”

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