Category Archives: Spirituality

Agnosticism As Spirituality

The popular understanding of agnosticism is that it is a weak disbelief in god(s), and to a larger degree disbelief in the supernatural. Those who embrace agnosticism are accused of being uncommitted or intellectually-lazy atheists. They may counter that they have consciously arrived at their understanding of agnosticism and attempt to define it in such a way that it is distinct from atheism. I would like to suggest that agnosticism is more than that.

The trouble with seeing agnosticism as a “lack of belief” in certain beings or claims of truth is that it misses the point of the term. Gnosis means “knowledge” or “knowing.” Agnosticism, then, means “not knowing” or more accurately, that knowledge regarding certain aspects of reality are truly unknowable. Agnosticism is not a claim about belief or disbelief, but a claim about what can be known – about knowledge. The distinction is not merely a semantic one; it is fundamental to the nature of agnosticism.

In an earlier post, I defined faith as only being possible when doubt is present. I would like to refine this even further here by suggesting that this understanding of faith requires agnosticism. To understand faith as being beyond reason means that matters of faith are unknowable. This is the central claim of agnosticism. Unfortunately, this understanding of truth leads many to the conclusion that since certain aspects of truth (or perhaps Truth as a universal concept) are fundamentally unknowable to humans therefore faith and spirituality is impossible. I’m suggesting here that agnostic spirituality is possible – and even advisable. But what does it look like?

Agnosticism as a spirituality embraces mystery in the sense of the Greek word – “that which must be revealed.” Just because certain truths are unknowable to us does not mean that they are unknowable to greater beings than ourselves, nor does it mean that these truths do not exist. We cannot possibly know for certain whether or not god(s) exist – unless this knowledge is revealed to us from a being with greater capacity for knowledge than humans possess. Theoretically, if god(s) do exist and possess a greater capacity for knowledge than humans, then it is possible that we could come to “know the unknowable” in a sense. True, we could not understand fully these truths, nor could we have arrived at them by our own means.

Whereas a typical person of faith feels that he or she “knows” to a certain degree that what they believe is true, an agnostic knows that such claims are impossible and foolish to make. Nobody can know whether god(s) exist, what they might be like, why the world came into being, what the purpose of life or intelligence may be, or any other question or issue which philosophers and theologians have debated for millennia. But this does not need to stop an agnostic from embracing spirituality. The key distinction is that an agnostic must always be first an agnostic. They may be an agnostic-atheist, an agnostic-humanist, an agnostic-Christian, or any other flavor of belief or nonbelief, but being an agnostic is primary because it influences how they perceive any truth-claims such as those espoused by various religious, philosophical, or non religious systems of thought.

Mystery then becomes central to agnosticism. That which is unknown and unknowable becomes holy. The beauty of life, of music, of art, of the universe are all mysteries. We can explain them to a certain degree, but cannot comprehend them completely nor can we explain why these things are. The experience of life which brings a sense of wonder and satisfaction becomes worship. Meditating upon nature, the self, a mathematical problem, or a song becomes prayer. Everywhere we go is a sanctuary. All of life is available to become a deep well for agnostic spirituality, but like any practice of faith it must be cultivated and nurtured.

Agnosticism is an appealing and satisfying way of perceiving the world, but it can easily lead to a meaningless existence. If Truth is unknowable, why bother seeking it? If all meaning is subjective, why bother with meaning? For most humans, this is an utterly dissatisfying and discouraging way to live. Human beings are wired for pattern-recognition, meaning-making, and pursuit of knowledge – including knowledge about the ultimate questions of life and existence. Although the agnostic acknowledges that such pursuits will ultimately never be successful, they are still worthwhile. Humans desire meaning and truth. This is fundamental to who we are and cannot be changed no matter how hard we might try to convince ourselves otherwise. I suggest that those who are agnostic continue to pursue truth and meaning while maintaining skepticism about universal claims of truth and skepticism toward their own understandings of reality. The pursuit of meaning is one of the greatest strengths and one of the greatest liabilities of being human. It is a strength because it propels us forward to seek understanding and to challenge our assumptions about reality. It is a weakness because we seek to answer questions which are orders of magnitude beyond our ability to comprehend. But we should attempt the impossible, because to be human is to seek truth, even if those truths are impossible to find.

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Doubting Faith

“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”

-George R.R. Martin

Like bravery, faith is not the absence of doubt and questioning. It is the decision to move forward in spite of and even because of doubt. Some would call this foolishness, but those who understand faith in this way are living according to reason in pursuit of truth.

Faith is neither unreasonable nor a matter apart from reasoning. Reason precedes faith. We can know something to be true with our intellect only (e.g. today is Sunday), but faith is a step beyond the simple knowing of factual information. It is a leap into the unknown which involves the whole of a person’s being. It is a an affirmation with our whole life that something is true even if it cannot be definitively proven to be so. It is trust in a principle, an ideal, a person. It is the assurance that we will not be disappointed if we live according to what we affirm.

If we know something to be true beyond doubt, then it is not a matter touched by faith. We do not profess, “I have faith that today is Sunday,” or “I believe that objects in motion tend to stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force.” These things can be proven; they are facts and there is very little room to doubt or question them. Faith enters the picture when something is unable to be proven. Faith is subjective. It is something which must be embraced by the individual for him- or herself and by nobody else on their behalf.

“I believe in God.” This is a statement of faith. Who can prove that God does or does not exist? Who can demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt what attributes this being possesses? We can make arguments and arrive at reasonable conclusions which appear to be consistent with our experience and empirical observations, but nobody can prove or disprove the existence and nature of God to the extent that most would agree on the conclusion.

Why, then, should we have faith at all if faith cannot be demonstrated to be factual? As stated above, faith and reason are connected although they do not overlap. Before taking the step of believing in something, we must first understand what we are to believe. We must ask questions of the object of our belief. What evidence is there that this is true? The object of faith is not something irrational. Belief in something we made up on the spot is not a proper subject of faith. Reason must bring us to the precipice of faith from which we make our leap. First comes searching, questioning, and using our intellect to explain the object of faith as clearly as possible. Next comes faith. Belief before reason is not faith. Belief explained by reason is not faith. Only belief which has been informed by reason and is entered into with our whole selves by going beyond reason can properly be called faith.

So then what is doubt? Doubt is the natural result of applying reason to the object of our faith. If the object of faith cannot possibly be proven, then we must have unresolved questions even while we take the leap of faith. To be clear, we have been talking about faith as a leap, but this does not mean that faith is irrevocable or a single motion only. Faith is the continuing trust that we place in the object of faith. It may waver or fail. Faith is never the absence of doubt, but rather the embrace of doubt with the resolve to move forward rather than stagnating until we hold absolute proof. If we wait to prove the object of faith, then we will never have faith. If we believe without ever questioning or allowing doubt to have its place, then we never had faith in the first place.

We must then conclude that in order to have true faith, we must also have true doubt. Since faith depends on reason leading us to an object of faith which cannot be proven, unresolved questions must necessarily exist. Can a person have faith if they doubt? That is the only time a person can have faith.

Life Before Meaning

Three years ago I began a new journey. At the time I was a seminary student, working for The Salvation Army as a youth minister. I’d always had questions about faith and had entertained doubts, but for the first time in a decade of calling myself a Christian, these questions and doubts began to disrupt the foundations of my faith. I stepped back.

I took a break from seminary and left The Salvation Army (a complicated story, perhaps for another time). I wondered where I’d end up and what I would do now that I found myself moving away from the faith I’d held to so closely. I wondered what I would do for a career. Did my education matter? Did it have any relevance to what I would do in the future? Maybe I had wasted my time.

I had an identity crisis. Who am I if not a Christian? Where do I belong if not in a community of faith? Who do I live for and what do I value if not what I had learned in all my studies? From the time I was 17 until my time of questioning I had diligently sought answers to life’s greatest questions. I wanted to know who I am, why I exist, what I should do, and how I should live. I wanted to belong somewhere and to be understood. I wanted meaning. Now I had lost it.

I realized that I had set myself up for failure in my pursuit of meaning. Though I had studied, prayed, received counsel and prophetic messages, and explored my own heart and mind I had not yet lived. I convinced myself that life was to be lived in a certain way for certain values, but I had not let my own life speak. I resolved to take a step back from my rigorous pursuit of meaning by intellectual and academic means. I decided to live first and let my experience of life demonstrate its own meaning.

I took a job as a maintenance technician. I tried hard to do the job well and learned a lot. I had some health issues which prevented me from working, so I took some time off. I found another job doing maintenance. After a few months I was let go. I realized that maintenance was not for me. My experience of life was showing me who I am. I felt a desire to work with people and for others. I began working as a Youth Advocate for a children’s home working directly with ten foster kids. I loved it. I felt passionate again. I excelled at my job and looked forward to it. I found that it was forming me to be a certain kind of person. I was gaining patience I had never found in myself. I learned to handle stressful situations while staying calm and reasonable. I was able to teach about hygiene and I loved it. My passion for life and for serving others was resurging within me because I was living life as it came to me and not trying to force myself into anything.

The time came for me to leave that job to be a stay-at-home parent. I began to reflect on the past years of my life. I asked the same questions which had troubled me three years ago. Who am I? Where do I belong? Who do I live for? What do I value? This time I was able to begin to answer these questions from my own life experience. I found myself drawn to those same themes I had read about and to which I held fast when I called myself a Christian. I value the Kingdom of God and its King, Jesus. I want to live for a world where the poor are comforted, the meek inherit the earth, those who hunger are filled, and the pure in heart are called God’s children. I belong in God’s Kingdom, doing his will so that love and justice prevail.

Who am I? I still am unsure. I have not abandoned my doubts or questioning. I am not persuaded of the whole of Christian doctrine, creeds, practice, and values. I don’t even know if I’m a Christian. What I do know is that I’ve made peace with doubt and questioning. My experience of life these past years is driving my pursuit of meaning. Preconceived notions and idealistic expectations have not driven me to a forced life of faith, yet letting go of these and living for the sake of living has brought me back to where I started. I believe in Jesus and the Kingdom he proclaimed. The remainder of my questions and doubts have yet to be resolved, but I know how I will find answers. I will go forward with life and let the answers find me on my way.