Agnosticism is Not a Virtue

I was recommended a book some time ago – Learning to Dance, by the late Michael Mayne – and, after much deliberation, have finally gotten around to reading it. Whilst the book contains many insights (via a numerous and wide-ranging selection of literary quotations), and at times provoked me to a greater sense of awe and reverence, there was an unfortunate theme running throughout that prevented me from being able to fully connect with or embrace Mayne’s way of thinking. The general ethos espoused in this book is encapsulated in a passage from its opening pages:

Churches always tend to exclusivity, with their own special language and liturgies, often failing to connect to where most people are. Some reject on intellectual grounds the concept of God; others are rejecting images of God, gathered at random, which are a million miles from the truth. But there are many who are what have been called “wistful agnostics”, those who are aware of the mystery that faces us at every turn of the stair, and the sense of the “beyondness” at the heart of things, but who cannot put their names to creedal statements which list so confidently what God is like and what he has done, especially as scientists from Darwin to Dawkins appear to have demolished the whole antiquated structure.

Learning to Dance (2001), p.6, Darton, Longman and Todd.

            Whilst it is clear that Mayne was trying to reach out to those ‘wistful agnostics’ who find themselves feeling excluded from institutional religion, he seems to go too far in this direction, reducing Christianity itself to a vague groping after truth and endorsing agnosticism as something laudable, mostly on the basis that it is ‘honest’ (coupled with the implication that people who hold fast to orthodox teachings do not have a sincere faith). His discussions and arguments frequently rest on the supposition that one must choose between this ‘wistful’ agnosticism, which is enamoured of mystery and yearns for the divine, and a cheerless dogmatism barely distinct from fundamentalism:

…there are those…who want clear boundaries, who see life and belief and human behaviour in terms of black and white, and who need it clearly packaged and labelled; and there are others…with a more sceptical turn of mind, sensing mystery on every side, tolerant of religious and cultural diversity, knowing they seek an elusive God and that there is no easy way of escaping the dark…

…Those who opt for varying degrees of fundamentalism devise systems (and churches) which are exclusive rather than inclusive. They want certainty and control; a clear distinction between who is in and who is out, what is allowed and what is forbidden, what to believe and what not to believe.

ibid, p.214.

            It is supposed therefore that to be true seekers after the truth, we must actively encourage agnosticism – build it into our faith in fact. The problem with this argument is that it presupposes that to adhere to certain dogmatic formulations is to reject mystery, and to embrace mystery is to reject dogma. Mayne was very keen to go to people ‘where they are’, but seemed to want to do so in a way that would leave them there unchanged, on the basis that the true task of the Christian is to find the divine spark in each and every person, affirm it, and go no further. In fact, at another point in the book, faith is defined as something so all-inclusive that it doesn’t even have to be a faith in God:

We cannot have infallible proof of the One for whom (being made in his likeness) we intuitively search, for such proof would devalue our response. All we have is the coin of faith, of which the flip side is doubt; and it must always carry with it, to affirm our precious gift of freedom, a touch of agnosticism, of not knowing all the answers. For this is what God asks of us; this is what makes our reaching out into the dark of such value to him…

… Faith (that intuitive confidence, if not in God, then in life) is the belief that the forces on our side are greater than the forces opposed to us. It may fall some way short of the belief that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”, or the assured trust that “underneath are the everlasting arms”, but wherever it appears it is to be celebrated.

ibid, pp.216, 223.

            Lest one think that I am building too much upon the words of one man, I would contend that this is an attitude that has actually become endemic in Western Christianity. Priests and ministers are so terrified of being seen to be ‘exclusive’ or ‘propositional’ that what passes for catechesis in many churches has the feel of self-help courses with a bit of ‘God is love’ tagged onto the end of it, and an unspoken affirmation of ‘original blessing’ has replaced the much more realistic (and therefore helpful) doctrine of Original Sin.

In doing this, these clergy are not actually helping people though – by encouraging the agnosticism that is so characteristic of modern life, they are leading people further into muddled, self-indulgent thinking that ultimately will not bring them peace or joy; and by telling people that they are basically all good, they fail to confront their charges with reality and offer them the redemption that can only come through sober self-assessment and repentance. Saint Augustine once said that ‘our whole business in life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen’ – in telling people that their hearts are already healthy, we do them no favours at all.

The life of Saint Augustine also provides a good illustration of the proper relationship between mystery and dogma. The story goes that one day Augustine was walking along the beach, pondering the mystery of the Holy Trinity, when he came across a boy using a seashell to pour water from the ocean into a hole dug in the sand. He asked the boy what he was doing, and got the reply that he was trying to pour the whole ocean into the hole, bit by bit. When Augustine told him how impossible this was, the boy gave the retort that ‘it is no more impossible than what you are trying to do by attempting to comprehend the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your limited human intelligence.’ Saint Augustine stared in astonishment for a while, and then looked away – when he looked back, the child had vanished.

Saint Augustine then went on to write one of the most definitive treatises on the Holy Trinity in Church history, and his explication of the dogma is perhaps one of the most subtle and penetrating analyses in Western thought. Clearly therefore, he did not see any tension between dogma and mystery – instead he recognised that we need the lenses of dogma to focus our gaze as we peer into the cloud of unknowing. Dogma and doctrine provide us with the boundaries and contours that we need if we are going to know our God, to enter into a personal relationship with Him. Knowing God is a central part of most world religions, and is supremely the case in one that claims God has revealed Himself definitively in the man Jesus of Nazareth.

This perhaps is the fundamental point – the Christianity advocated by Michael Mayne and many others like him would reduce the Faith to the barest doctrinal affirmations possible, and leave the rest to what we can learn through experience; it is a Christian humanism with the emphasis very much on the latter term. The problem is of course that Christianity is a revealed religion, and the data of revelation need clarifying and refining – we need to do this so that we can know our God better. How can we be still before the Lord if we are constantly questioning what He is really like, or what His will for us is in this or that situation? It turns out that a Christianity with its dogma removed, a Christianity that encourages agnosticism, actually has less room for genuine devotion and growth in discipleship.

This is the great irony of liberal Christianity, as its basic thesis is that one can reduce the faith to the basic facts that Jesus is (in some sense) divine, He (in some sense) died for us, and that we live out our response to this by ‘simply’ loving God and neighbour. However, once you remove all the doctrinal accretions that the Church has built up over the years, doing this turns out to be a lot more complicated than is first thought, and the endless discussions about who Jesus really is can prevent people from entering into that personal relationship with Him which is at the heart of the Faith. When priority is given to experience over revelation, we have to re-make our religion in every generation, and this process is not conducive to developing a deeper faith.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer each day, asking that God’s will be done and that we be delivered from evil, we must presuppose that God’s will can be known and that certain things can always be known to be evil; when we ask that God’s kingdom come, we must be able to have some idea of what that kingdom is like – what God is like and what His intentions for us are. The doctrines and moral precepts built up over the ages were developed in response to concrete situations and borne out of long processes of discernment – to exchange this wisdom for a free-wheeling spirit of agnostic inquiry leaves us without a foundation, without a compass, and praying to an unknowable God.

This is why Jesus formed a Church – when He said that all the Law and the Prophets hung on the imperatives to love God and neighbour, and to do as you would be done by (Matthew 7:12; 22:34-40), He knew that the working out of these simple rules would not be simple in practice. He knew that, fallen and complicated creatures as we are, we would need guidance and boundaries, otherwise both our idea of God and our behaviour would devolve into the very agnosticism I have been discussing above. It was His great desire that we come to know and love His Father as He did, and also to love the will of the Father – thus, out of love, He gave us the guidance we need. Agnosticism was not a virtue for Jesus, and so neither should it be for us.

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