Agnostic n. A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.
A few years ago I was talking to a good friend about faith and doubt, and about the constant, annoying tension between what we believe and what we know. The subject of organized religion ( more specifically, pastors) came up, and my friend offered the following critique:
“Boy, it takes a lot of guts to get up there every Sunday and preach at people!”
Only she didn’t say “guts.” She used a more colorful word, one more befitting the gravity and intensity of the topic.
The idea that anyone would be so bold and arrogant and brazen as to stand before a group of their peers on a given day and dare to say, in essence, “What I am about to say? This is exactly what God is like, this is exactly what God says, and this is exactly how you should live and believe in light of it”, seemed to her to be the very epitome of “gutsy”.
I’ve come to agree with her.
Now, I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember; attending Sunday School and church services and prayer gatherings and youth rallies and Christian concerts galore. And as a minister in a local church for the past 18 years, I’ve been to seminary, led and attended thousands of Bible studies, participated in hundreds of small group gatherings, and preached weekly for well over a decade. Continually during that time I’ve read Scripture, consulted Bible commentaries, devoured great theological books, attended scores of ministry conferences and mission trips, and spent literally thousands of hours in corporate worship, prayer, and quiet reflection.
And yet if I am completely honest, if I remove the usual pastoral expectations and the expected accompanying party lines, I have to admit that the sum total of these endeavors has proven incomplete. None of them have yielded the kind of iron-clad, water-tight, knowing that most ministers and many Christians claim without reservation. Yes, these things have all given me a certain level of confidence at times, but even in my best days, it’s never given me beyond a shadow of a doubt surety.
And that’s really all any of us can testify to with any authenticity, whether we claim or denounce religion: something less than absolute certainty.
At the end of all our studying and praying and accepting and rejecting and feeling and dismissing and meditating and wrestling; whether we’re completely sold-out for Jesus, or unapologetically Buddhist or devout practitioners of another faith tradition or fully defiant in disbelief of any Deity—none of us really knows anything.
After all our pursuits and positing, we’re all really just Agnostics with suspicions.
Though we have strong (or rather weak) leanings in one direction or another, we don’t know for sure. We’re each using the evidence we’ve accumulated and weighed (evidence which will always be incomplete) and making the most educated guess we can regarding things and ideas which always remain just beyond our full understanding. To one degree or another we’ve all studied and had experiences and asked questions and sought truth, and as a result we have conclusions which we believe are fairly correct.
But we don’t get to know—none of us. Your pastor doesn’t know, your best friend doesn’t, your college professor doesn’t, your favorite author doesn’t, the finger wagging preacher doesn’t, your judgmental Facebook friend doesn’t either. That is the nature of life on this side of the grave, where we all stand and speak from. While here, there remain gaps in all of our spiritual hypotheses, no matter how earnestly and carefully and prayerfully we craft them.
I’m a Christian. Jesus has always been my experience of and understanding of and my path to God, yet I can’t ignore the fact that I was raised in this faith tradition and educated within it and served within it, and this all matters. I have been shaped by my upbringing and my geography and my education and my experiences.
Yes, I’ve had countless moments where I have felt what I believe to be the presence of God wordlessly speaking to me and proving His existence, yet those could also have been emotional responses to my circumstances, a manipulated state in a worship service, my mind ascribing to events or feelings what I desired to receive there, or simply the subjective lens through which I view myself, this world, and the world beyond it.
It could also all be exactly what I believed and hope it to be; I just don’t know.
I think those few words can be some of the most humble, most honest, most sacred ones we ever say. When we admit that we have something less than certainty, we aren’t shutting down anything, we aren’t denying faith or morally failing or falling away. We are simply acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers yet; that to quote the immortal bard, Bono, “we still haven’t found what we’re lookin’ for.”
I’m OK with not being certain about everything; even many things. People who are sure are much more likely to be arrogant or rigid or intolerant of dissent. They are far more likely to be insufferable jerks because they don’t consider the possibility of the wrongness. I think those with the honesty to admit that they have limitations on their knowledge and that their faith is just their best, most well-intentioned guess, make for better learners and listeners, and are generally just a lot easier to be around and talk to.
Whether you reference Science to deny the existence of God, or use the Bible to explain the character and will of God, or whether you simply go by a hunch on how you believe this all works, it’s always good to remember that you are still capable of being less than fully right.
Whatever your spiritual convictions, as you continue to read and pray and study and reflect and serve and seek and rest and move, may you hold both Certainty and Pride loosely, and cling ever more tightly to Hope and Humility.
Through all of your searching, may you be mindful that everyone you meet is on the very same partially lit road that you are, regardless of whether or not their current methods or conclusions match your own.
Admitting that you don’t really know more than anyone else about God?
Now that’s really gutsy.