“We live in an age that is frightened by the very idea of certitude,” Richard Weaver observed in 1984. Insofar as the certitude to which Weaver referred was spiritual and religious, he was right. Since the late 1800s, the ascendant belief has been that “progress demand[s] life in the tentative mood, incessantly questioning,” according to James Turner in his excellent study Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (1985). Indeed, tentativeness and uncertainty are now commonly the mark not only of secular scholars but of theologians as well. Writing in Commonweal recently, philosopher Donald Evans commented on how thoroughly “relativistic Kantianism and a common-sense empiricism” have banished from theology the possibility of certainty concerning spiritual realities, such as the soul or angels or archangels. “Theologians,” observed Evans, “are reluctant to accept any knowledge-claims concerning spiritual reality.”
And if theologians are unwilling to endorse religious certainty, other interpreters of the contemporary world are even more skeptical. On the editorial pages of the New York Times, for instance, “tolerance” has been transformed from the civil margin around conviction that it once was into an absolute open-mindedness that itself constitutes the supreme virtue. Since the rise of the New Right, those few who claim religious certainty are less often pilloried and caricatured as “bigots” and “rednecks” in the national media and popular entertainments than they were a decade ago. Even narrow-minded Southern pulpit-pounders are less likely to be overtly ridiculed by leading commentators than they were. Still, the depiction of religious surety in a positive light is rare.
Among the many reasons that religious certainty is now suspect, none is more fundamental than the pervasive assumption that society requires no transcendent source of truth or moral guidelines. In his book The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968), J. Hillis Miller observes that 19th-century novels show “a movement from the assumption that society and the self are founded on some superhuman power outside them, to a putting in question of this assumption, to the discovery that society now appears to be self-creating and self-supporting, resting on nothing outside self.” One of the necessary consequences in this shift in perspective is that all doctrines — moral, cultural, and religious — are now grounded not in the mind of God but in the collective mind of society. Vox populi must be vox Dei because there is no God but the people. In the words of the leading scholar of semiotics, Umberto Eco, “Even prophets have to be socially accepted in order to be right; if not they are wrong.”
Once truth has been thus socialized, torn from the mind of God and relocated in the social consciousness, certainty no longer comes through “the still small voice” that spoke to the prophet Samuel (I Kings 19:12). When truth has become a social construct, it is likewise impossible to understand how the Apostle Peter could know of Christ’s divine identity through “the more sure word of prophecy” given by the Father at a time when most men thought Jesus merely “one of the prophets” (cf. Matt. 16:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:19). Similarly excluded as permissible grounds for certainty is the kind of overwhelming manifestation of God’s power described by Pascal as “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!” Consequently, the choice of solitary individuals to affirm religious conviction has today become both a mystery and an offense. Anyone who now says with St. Cyprian, “A good mind, which knows God, it is impossible to change,” may not be martyred, but he is unlikely to be canonized.
Yet the inherent human craving for certainty has not disappeared simply because God is no longer a respectable source for it. Doctrines, ideas, and visions must now receive the seal of certainty from society itself. Such socially sanctioned surety may take one of two forms: irresistible political power or mass popularity. In either case, an idea is “certain” to the degree that it is socially powerful or ubiquitous. In totalitarian communism, the existence of any opinion not in harmony with the party line cannot be tolerated because it reduces official positions from certainties to probabilities or even possibilities. For if society itself is, according to communist dogma, “the pillar and ground of truth” — to misapply what Paul said about the Church (1 Tim. 3:15) — then those holding deviant opinions must be “excommunicated” or destroyed before the pillar sways and the ground becomes quicksand. Declaring that “our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people,” Mao Tse-tung could only conclude that “not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul.” Better that a few million bodies should perish in a Cultural Revolution for the souls of the collective people, and that the whole nation perish not in unbelief (cf. John 11:49). The problem with dissidents in a communist regime is not simply that they hold an opinion not sanctioned by the regime; the problem is that even if dissidents are purer-than-thou Marxists (whom both the Soviets and Chinese have jailed and executed frequently), their confidence in their own views raises unsettling questions about alternative epistemologies, about the possibility that truth is not rooted in society and its proletarian spokesmen but is transcendent and accessible to the individual mind.
Few religionists appear more certain of their views than the soi-disant “liberation theologians.” But their particular reading of the gospels relies heavily upon “the voice of the people,” and they have repeatedly expressed a willingness to join forces with Marxist atheists. To see a variant of liberation theology in action, we may turn to Zimbabwe, where government officials are trying to create a “people’s Church” by recasting Christian doctrines into Marxist orthodoxy. The Rev. Canaan Banana, a leader in the effort, declares: “As for me I am not ashamed of the revolution, for it is the power of the people unto salvation” (cf. Rom. 1:16). It is hard not to suppose that in power, such liberation theologians will always come to share Mao’s skepticism about the souls of the politically deviant.
In the West, the quest for socially certified certainty does at times result in government-encouraged propaganda and thought-control (such as the feminist rewriting of textbooks), but more often it manifests itself as a rage for popularity and celebrity. The surety of any idea — whether it is the social thought expounded by Phil Donahue or the political slogans chanted by demonstrators in front of the South African embassy depends upon how many headlines, television carrier as , and millions of viewers are captured. Though it requires large audiences, this kind of certainty is not the product of raw populism, since it must be orchestrated by an elite group of journalists, movie-makers, and television stars. As columnist Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune has repeatedly observed, journalism has increasingly become a matter of first creating, then chasing, celebrities.
Once properly ordained and installed, celebrities are given license to pronounce upon anything — Shirley MacLaine on religion, Mike Farrell on Central America, Sissy Spacek on agricultural policy — precisely because they are celebrities. No argumentation, documentation, or substantiation is required or even asked for. And though we may find the modern fear of certitude among theologians, we find little of it among celebrities expounding on nuclear power, women’s rights, censorship, or disinvestment. Fame is no longer — in Alexander Pope’s phrase — a “fancied life in another’s breath”; it is instead a guarantee of infallibility. What was scandalous about the Beatles’ famous remark that they were “more famous than Jesus” was the implicit assumption that such popularity made their views more reliable and truer than Christ’s. As celebrity-makers and therefore the real holders of the keys of modern certitude, newsmen, not surprisingly, grow arrogant. Even in the 18th century, when the socialization of truth was far less complete, Pope could not resist feeling proud at his power as a satirist to humble those beyond the reach of clergymen: “I must be proud to see/Men not afraid of God afraid of me.”
As celebrities, political activists, and newsmen grow ever more assertive of their claims upon a socialized truth, many religious leaders, scholars, and even scientists are willing to take their cues from them. In his new biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard W. Fox notes that America is no longer producing “theological celebrities” like Niebuhr. The reason should be obvious: celebrityhood is now itself the new “Theos.” Trendy bishops and pastors do not admit that they worship this new deity, yet somehow they always make sure the TV cameras are present. Only when posing as media celebrities do religious leaders seem to recapture a posture of certainty. As Thomas Molnar has observed, “Mighty Churches … model their views and actions in such a way as to present aspects approved by the media.” Scientists are perhaps more candid than clerics: writing in Natural History a year ago, bio scientist John Maynard Smith admitted that he was giving up on purely objective science, since such science offered no basis for supporting feminism and homosexual rights. The time has come, Smith explained, for scientists to follow the lead of those social, ethical, and political movements that are “making some ideas seem worth pursuing and others implausible or unpromising.” Is it any wonder that because they have tried to approach feminism with scientific neutrality, people like E. O. Wilson and Alice Rossi find themselves under attack in the profession? In literary study, things may be even worse. A recent article in the Boston Review by Michael Ryan reported that literature professors are “getting away from literature, but . . . getting closer to . . . cultural criticism,” as “a new political ethos” emerges at the center of the profession. As long as this trend “seems to be gaining ground with the new guard,” appeals to older standards of truth are apparently pointless.
In politics, it is surely a sign of the times that one of the standard-bearers for traditional and religious values is an actor, another a former professional football player. Neither is known as a deep thinker, but President Reagan succeeds as a consumate “communicator” to mass audiences and Congressman Jack Kemp retains the charisma of a photogenic athlete.
But it is in Mikhail Gorbachev that the two faces of modern certainty are best combined. In his own country, Gorbachev maintains the dictatorship of the proletariat as rigidly as his predecessors; facing the West, he metamorphoses (with the willing assistance of the media) into a celebrity. It does not matter that Gorbachev continues to send dissidents to psychiatric hospitals and orders carpet- bombings of Afghan villages. Pravda and the KGB will maintain the certainty of his ideas in Russia, while in the West his suave TV presence and attractive wife, Raisa, make his views almost invulnerable to religious protests, scholarly critique, or hostile criticism. Some observers have hailed the emergence of the urbane and charming Gorbachev as a surprising and hopeful development. Given the two different ways truth has been socialized in West and East, the appearance of a Janus-faced dictator/celebrity was inevitable — and not at all heartening.
No doubt those ideas to which society widely assents will always seem to be true. What is needed in our time is a leavening of skepticism concerning the social will, a skepticism born of faith in Christian transcendence. The notion that truth is some private gnosis inaccessible to others has over the centuries caused great turmoil and endless schism. Yet the modern hope that certainty can be found in political power or mass popularity has perhaps been even more destructive. Christians need not subject all socially grounded ideas to iconoclastic assault, but any serious faith in a God beyond history and above society must foster a measure of agnosticism concerning prevalent wisdom. Christ, after all, taught that the way to eternal life is narrow and traveled by few, while the way to damnation is broad and popular (cf. Matt. 7:13-14). He also told his apostles that He taught in parables precisely so that the masses would not understand (cf. Luke 8:10). Are liberation theologians only temporarily ignoring these scriptural teachings, or will they resurrect them in time to justify the dictatorial leadership of a Leninist “vanguard”?
Nor is it just in religion that we must regain a de-socialized certainty and some sense of — in Milton’s words — “How few sometimes may know, when thousands err.” In politics, we must regain an understanding of democracy as a diffuse theocracy, in which ballots decide office holders but religiously grounded principles remain beyond popular debate. In scholarship, the trend toward democratizing and politicizing knowledge must be reversed in favor of disciplinary rigor, excellence, and esoteric achievement. Richard Powers of the University of Massachusetts has rightly noted that “participatory democracy” can only weaken universities and schools, because “all things cannot be demonstrated to all men.” (In a referendum, the gloomy Second Law of Thermodynamics would probably go down to defeat.) It will never be popular doctrine, but those who earnestly seek truth in religion, politics, or scholarship must be, with G. K. Chesterton, devoutly certain that “right is right even if no one does it, wrong is wrong even if everyone is wrong about it.”