Tag Archives: life

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.

How Do You Fill Your Days?

I hate being asked, “Where do you work?” when meeting someone. Whether I have a job, am a student, or am not working the question seems to imply that a job is the most important part of a person’s life. In some ways our jobs are central to who we are. For many people, jobs are a means to an end. We are not always passionate about our work and it does not always reflect who we are. “What do you do?” is a better question, but even that implies that it is somehow necessary for a person to “do something” which is beneficial to others. Doing important work is worthwhile and has its place; I wonder if we might be able to ask a different question instead.

When I meet someone I like to ask them something like, “How do you fill your days?” Asking in this way about what the person does takes the focus off of work and allows them to explain what their priorities are in life. I’m sure there is a better way to ask the question, but the answers I get are usually more interesting than asking where someone works. In some ways it is more important for us to be concerned with how we fill our entire day than what we do while we are “on the clock.” Do we define our lives by our family relationships, by our social groups, by our hobbies, by our passions, or by the work that we are paid to do? There is not a correct answer here; it is important to realize that each person has the right to define the meaning of their own life.

It’s important that we ask ourselves this question as well. How do we fill our days? Are we merely passive observers in our own lives, or do we take an active role from waking to going back to sleep? Are we doing the things, seeing the people, visiting the places, and experiencing what we desire each day? It is easy to get caught up in life and just try to get by one day at a time. What direction are we going in life? Are we becoming the person we want to be?

Perhaps the frustration and irritation we sometimes experience when asked, “Where do you work?” or, “What do you do?” comes from our lack of intentionality. Maybe it is long past time for us to switch jobs. Maybe we have lost the appreciation we once had for the work that we do. Maybe we value ourselves for what we can produce and have found that we never measure up to our own standard. Maybe we cannot work. What do we value in our own lives? If we can set goals and values for ourselves, we can work toward them and hold fast to them as we go through each day no matter where we do or do not work.

We need to think critically about how we value ourselves and others. Is the most important thing about ourselves what we produce, or is it something else? Maybe our relationships, our integrity, our passion, our consistency, or something else about us is more important than what we are paid to do every week. We might find that our work is the most significant thing that we do, and that is great! For those who assess their lives and find that something else is most important to them, perhaps it is worth rejoicing in that.

How do you fill your days?

Stuck in the Present

A picture is worth a thousand words, but they are lies. Photographs certainly do tell a story and can bring memories flooding back into our minds, but they can lead us into believing that they tell the truth about life. Photographs are static. In a picture we never change. We are forever the same age, knowing the same things, believing the same things, and doing the same thing. In reality we are constantly changing. Even from moment to moment we do not remain consistent.

I’m not trying to say that photographs are bad or evil, but we should pause to consider whether we view life through a static photographer’s lens or whether we are aware of how our lives are constantly changing. Do we feel that we are basically the same person now as we were a decade ago? Do we sometimes think that nothing in our lives changes? Do we feel stagnated and that every day is the same thing over and over? If so, then we have fallen into the trap of seeing life as a photograph and have failed to grasp the ever-changing present.

We might think of the cells in our bodies and how they are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. Perhaps we could talk about friends and family who move in and out of our lives. Maybe we could try to measure our mood from day to day and hour to hour. Looking only at these factors, we can see that we are constantly changing – how much more when we think of the multitude of variables in our lives!

We might agree intellectually that our lives are dynamic – that life is constantly changing and we are constantly changing. This does not change how we feel – stagnated. We want to experience something new and different. Sure, things are changing, but they are not the kinds of changes that we want to see. It might be the case that we need to put our efforts into making life change in the way we desire, but that is not what this post is about. Striving to make a change can be necessary at certain times. At other times, all we need to do is to change our perspective – to see the beauty at work all around us. Do we perceive the ways that we and the world around us are changing?

Although I do not have solid evidence for this claim, I believe that life always moves forward and upward rather than backward or downward. An evolutionary force is at work not only genetically but socially, emotionally, and even spiritually. That which brings forth more life flourishes, while that which does not fades away. Maybe we have our missteps and failures in careers, relationships, and our inner life, but we learn from them and move forward having been made just a little stronger, more clever, more mature, and more capable. Even our failures and our feeling of stagnation can push us to become better. Doing the same thing over and over might not be very exciting, but it is changing us.

I’m a stay-at-home dad. Every morning I wake up around the same time with the same routine. Every afternoon I give my daughter a nap. Every evening my wife returns home and plays with my daughter. Having a child is wonderful, but it can be dreadfully repetitive. What makes it wonderful in spite of all the repetition is that every day my daughter learns to do something new. Every day I find that I am a little more patient. Every day I love her a little more. Every day I learn how to care for my daughter a little better. If we were static beings in a static world, repetition would be boring, but we are dynamic beings in a dynamic world. Life is always changing both in and around us and it can be a beautiful thing. Sometimes the beauty is right there on the surface. Other times it is buried deep within pain, suffering, frustration, or even boredom. What is important is knowing that it is always there and we can find it if we are willing to look. Just be sure you don’t trust a photograph. It tells the truth about yesterday, but it knows nothing of today.