There are some things that I know with certainty. The sum of two and three is five. All mothers are women. A triangle has three sides. My back hurts. I am currently writing a blog post and trying to think of another example that doesn’t sound too trite. I think most would agree that the degree of certainty which I have about these things is so high that I cannot not know them.
On the other hand, there are many things that I cannot know with certainty. Some of these things are fairly inconsequential, such as what Beethoven ate for breakfast on April 6, 1807. Other such things are infinitely greater significance, such as whether or not the woman who promises me lifelong fidelity at the altar will actually follow through with her vow.
Thinking about this last example may cause some disconcertion. One might try to resolve this by considering the possibility that there might not be too many vital aspects of one’s life that one cannot have certain knowledge of. Yet examples abound. When I give my credit card number to a sales agent over the phone, I have to trust that he is not going to use it for his own benefit. When I board a plane, I have to trust that the mechanics charged with inspecting the vessel have not cut any corners, allowing for the possibility of the wings snapping off during takeoff. It seems a tragedy that rational creatures should suffer from such ignorance.
But if you think about it, we reap many benefits from our ignorance. There would be no point in playing a baseball game or reading a detective story if you already knew the ending. These examples illustrate that though God made us with rational natures, he also made us with animal natures, bound in time, able to experience it only linearly.
This animality not only shapes the way we experience time, it also provides our rationality with a certain character. We perceive, act, direct, obey, love, etc., through our bodies. This means that while our intellect is indeed supposed to do all that it can in order to ensure that we are behaving as rationally as possible (for which reason it exists), it cannot do everything. Sometimes, its job is merely to ensure that our other faculties are functioning properly, such as when we decide to trust people on the basis of our hearts.
When I am at the altar with my bride, I am not going to demand proof from her that she will remain faithful to me throughout our lives. When I board an airplane, I am not going to interview all of the technicians in turn to ensure that they all did their jobs properly. Indeed, I am entrusting my life to these people. But on what basis? On the basis of my will which, being attracted to the good, has judged them trustworthy. My intellect, finding no evidence to counter this judgment, and knowing that my will is well-formed, assents.
And then finally there is the knowledge which is more important than any other knowledge: knowledge of the existence and character of God, which knowledge we call faith. Saint Augustine provided a terse yet profound definition of faith; faith is “to ponder with assent.” To ponder refers to a certain turning over of thoughts in the mind. It signifies incomplete knowledge, for when we have complete knowledge of something, pondering ceases. And yet assent means that we choose, by our will, to believe something. In this way, faith provides us with knowledge, since we have asserted that certain things are true, and yet, as befits rational creatures, we desire that this knowledge be as complete as possible, and so we ponder it. And why does one assent to such incomplete knowledge? Augustine’s answer is that God provides the grace for us to see that such assent is good. So the faithful, without knowing why, yet being able to see that it is good, assent to the creeds of the faith. In this way, we are acting with knowledge, in a manner in accord with the dignity of a creature created in imago Dei. But we are also not acting alone. And for good reason, as depending on God to move us to assent allows for the possibility of a relationship with him, instead of a cold, scientific determination of his existence in which we work purely as individuals. Now it seems a blessing that rational creatures should suffer from such ignorance necessitated by our nature.