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I Am an Agnostic

I Am an Agnostic

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(And so are you.)

Here’s what I mean: Agnosticism refers to what we can claim to “know” (gnosis  being the Greek word for “knowledge”). An agnostic, then, is simply someone who doesn’t know something about a particular subject. The Latin equivalent of agnosticism is “ignorance” — if someone asks you whether you agree with the Iran deal that Obama recently struck, you could say, “Well to be honest, I’m pretty agnostic and ignorant on the matter, unfortunately.” In other words, there is relevant information that you don’t know. 

When it comes to supernatural things it gets tricky.

While a person may claim to know that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius and also claim to know that angels exist, those are two very different types of claims (even though they both invoke the category of knowledge). The first claim can be demonstrated by experimentation and empirical evidence, while the second cannot. Does this make the claim unreasonable? Of course not. After all, the majority of the claims we make are of the second variety, i.e., they’re claims that cannot be proven in the strict scientific sense (examples include claims like “Terrorism is wrong,” or, “Claims are unreasonable if they cannot be proven logically or scientifically”). 

Where do claims to supernatural knowledge fit in?

The standard Christian response is that we can “know” supernatural truths with even greater certainty than we can natural ones because the source of that knowledge is God and, more specifically, God’s ordained mouthpieces (the Bible, the Church, etc.). Thus faith, in this schema, is not some lower-level substitute for knowledge, but instead actually supersedes what can be naturally known. While general revelation can tell us with certainty that the law of gravity exists, special revelation can tell us with even greater certainty that the resurrection of Christ occurred. 

It is here that I get a little skittish. 

Events in my own life (together with a healthy postmodern suspicion toward hubristic claims of knowledge of spiritual things either by religious or atheistic fundamentalists) have made me rather hesitant about what I claim to “know for sure.” Do I believe  certain things? Yes, I do. I believe in the tenets of the Creed, for example. But do I know  that my understanding of those tenets is absolutely correct? No, I don’t. In that respect I am an agnostic. My faith, my believing, simply does not rise to the level where I am comfortable making such a claim.

Here’s the thing, though: There is a certain beauty (dare I say humility?) in embracing unknowing and uncertainty, together with the sense of dissatisfaction that accompanies them. When I encounter someone with different views than mine, I feel no pressure to convince them out of their positions and into my own. When I am confronted with claims about phenomena that I don’t understand or have no experience with, I feel no need to dismiss or discount them, but rather can see them as opportunities to learn something new and maybe even grow a little.

Much to the chagrin of my former colleagues in Presbyterianism, I did not just become a newly Catholic version of my old Protestant self. I am not the self-assured know-it-all that I used to be. I have no desire to be an apologist for the Christian faith. I don’t want to be an exemplar or walking billboard for holiness or spirituality. 

I am barely trying to hang on.

At this point it’s all about faith for me, even if that faith doesn’t supply me with anything resembling actual certainty or knowledge. In fact, I have way more evidence for God not giving two shits what happens to me than for his being “a present help in times of trouble.” My understanding of him simply hasn’t survived the last couple years’ worth of trials. 

But still, I believe, and I recite the Creed at Mass with fingers uncrossed. Whether God believes in me is another question altogether (and heaven knows I have given him every reason not to). Might I be wrong? Yep. But you might be, too. And rather than fighting about it, or seeking a level of certitude that will only make me into more of an asshole than I already am, I’d rather live in such a way that whether I was right or wrong about the things I believed, I loved God by loving my neighbor as best I could, and therefore won’t have any regrets when all is said and done.

Heroic and triumphant? Hardly. Realistic? You bet. And for me these days, “real” is enough.

 

24 Comments

  1. You write:

    “rather than fighting about it, or seeking a level of certitude that will only make me into more of an asshole than I already am, I’d rather live in such a way that….”

    I disagree! Im confident that you are presently not an ass hole at all :)

    ” My understanding of him simply hasn’t survived the last couple years’ worth of trials.”

    Was your previous understanding based off of evidence or faith? If faith, do you feel alarmed at your epistemic shift?

    “t this point it’s all about faith for me, even if that faith doesn’t supply me with anything resembling actual certainty or knowledge.”

    Sorry to get all analytical on ya, but your definition of faith here doesnt seem to match with the one given in the catechism. Reads more like “hope”. Is that accurate?

  2. Unsubstantiated knowledge claims are a fools playground if ever there was one, I get to say that because I was once a fool that made such claims.

    Epistemelogically speaking, outside of some miraculous experience with god that cannot be explained away as some psychosomatic phenomena – there’s no way to know with any real certainty that God exists or that your faith is correct and true, only to feel that way in folly because it’s never been tested concretely.

  3. Matt,

    We have certainty all the time with things that cant be tested. Knowledge of the past, belief in other minds, trusting the outside world exists/ is not an illusion, etc. These are called “basic” beliefs. Epistemologically speaking, many consider God to be properly basic. So that his existence needs no justification nor outside evidence to support it. Just as the memory of your last meal needs not be tested concretely for you to trust it. Our experience of God is just as real as your memory of breakfast. The fact that it “might” be some psychosomatic delusion is irrelevant. So might your memory of breakfast! But until someone gives really, really, really, good reasons to belive it IS in fact delusional there is no reason for me to doubt it. My belief has warrant. Even without a shred of concrete testable evidence

  4. Kenneth,

    Perhaps the base claim “God is” is epistemelogically properly basic – I don’t find that to be the case, but for the sake of argument I’ll agree to your premise until we break down other amendments to the claim.

    If “God is” as a basic premise is unprovable and unquestionable (how comfortable must that be?) is “Jesus was?”, how about “YHVH is” ? how about any of the thousands of contingent god beliefs that rely on the basic premise to be true in order to have any foundation to stand on? If we can’t test the basic, unprovable claim – can we test all those surrounding it in order to arrive at justified conclusions about god and who god is?

    I think surely they can, I’m sure you do too – and ultimately god fails in the ability to ascertain reliable, sensible, concrete details about the thing that must just be.

    If you, like me, reject Cornelius van Til, you might begin to recognize the folly of this position -however- once all the pet doctrines begin to fall – and like those of us unafraid of a little burden of proof, will accept it and the challenge of providing the evidence required to account for god.

    As for my breakfast, perhaps that memory is faulty – perhaps all sense perceptions are, but we don’t call it evidence for no reason do we? Sensory perception is the foundation of our scientific method and it’s the best we’ve got if we intend to measure anything – and if I’m to avoid nihilism there’s a point at which I am required to trust data sets – that point is in my ability to perceive that which is around me in meaningful ways.

    I’d bet that, equipped with the proper olfactory senses, you could tell by smelling my bum what I ate – but I wouldn’t.

  5. Matt,

    1. I don’t think that God is unprovable and unquestionable. Neither do I think that what you had for breakfast is unprovable and unquestionable. There might just be great evidence to support your belief that you had french toast. Dishes in the sink, a picture taken by family, the smell of your breath, etc. Ywt, then again, there might be no evidence at all. In the case that there is no sensory evidence to support your memory I believe that belief is still warranted until someone can give you excellent reasons that you are mistaken. Same with God.

    2. There is a very small difference between “God is” and “jesus was”. Both are revealed truths. Yet, if they have been revealed to me in a properly basic way, through the inner witness of Gods Spirit, what other warrant is necessary? Sure, others might claim the same experience with different results, but I can not speak for their experience. They could be liars, confused, deluded, etc. Or they might be telling the truth. When I meet with such a person, I am interested to see if they can provide reasons why my beliefs are mistaken. If they can not, and if they can only cite their own experience, then my belief is still warranted.

    3. I think that sensory experience can provide warrant for belief. Yet, I disagree with your initial premise that it is the ONLY way to warrant belief. Your memory, for example, does not provide you with any sensory experience, yet you trust it.

    4. In summary:

    A belief might be properly basic and srikl enjoy supporting evidence. However, even if it does not, I have warrant to continue believing until faced with evidence that I am mistaken. The issue of who God is and what God wants should bot be considered categorically different than the question of Gods existence in general. To the believer, both have been revealed through the witness of Gods Spirt. “My sheep know my voice”.

    God has given us tools to discern our beliefs and test the spirits. He has given us His Word and His Church. We have more than we need. Itbis important to remember that this argument is not meant to convince YOU with any certainty, but is only an explanation of MY certainty. One that is warranted so long as I have experienced God for myself.

  6. I very much enjoyed and appreciated this, Jason. You identification sounds a lot more sensible than Frank Schaeffer who calls himself a Christian atheist. I completely relate to what you are going through. Our emotional selves that crave demonstrations of God’s goodness to us, also equate lack of demonstration as either therefore He doesn’t exist or He doesn’t exist as a Father should. I used to wonder what the promises of God actually were.I mean, I have never hit my foot on a rock and not fallen down.Well, not over a cliff anyways where I would really need angelic assistance. Intellectually, I know that God is real but I have to work very hard to trust him with my life and my death. Something external to myself gives the impression that God is real and that he is Good. Internal subjectivity could never provide proof for the Catholic Church, which, like it or not ,you still represent by going to mass even it your fingers are crossed. Your just leastss of an assshole who is on his way by grace to being a saint.

    Thanks for you honesty, it works as an encouragement.
    Keep up the writing, and hang in there!

  7. Apologies for the typos. I’m writing from a phone. Also I missread you…….good to know your fingers are NOT crossed while reciting the Creed. Mine have never been either, not at any time, even though I trembled at first. I knew I was in the true church. I do stear clear of stained glass and potentially falling statues :)

  8. Kenneth,

    I had written, “My understanding of him simply hasn’t survived the last couple years’ worth of trials.” You asked:

    Was your previous understanding based off of evidence or faith? If faith, do you feel alarmed at your epistemic shift?

    I’m not sure I know how to answer that. I guess I had always struggled with “evidence” of any kind suggesting that God was immanent. He seemed more transcendent to me, remote. Then a couple things happened in my own life (one of which was wrestling for 4 years with Catholicism), and true to form, he didn’t really seem to show up or direct me in any way, so I just went with my gut.

    So now I believe he is there, even when he doesn’t feel like he’s here, if that makes sense.

  9. Thanks, Susan!

  10. Jason,

    Thanks. I guess we all know the stories of bible heros who have felt the same way. Maybe your story gets to run more like Job than Joseph. That sucks.

    Still, its not over till its over. Youve already made the gut decision. Youve already paid the price. Balls to the wall man. Run your race 100 and dont worry about hedging your bets.

    Ive always found that times of doubt were also the times my “relationship” with Jesus was at its worse. If I were to give advice, and im not really in a position to give any, it would be to read less and praise more. Dwell on Gods promises and love for His children.

    Praying for ya pal.

  11. Hi Jason,

    I really enjoyed this piece. I for a long time have struggled with my faith identity as I’ve come to many of the same questions and realizations about certitude and belief. The label agnostic fits me in so many ways, and not just in terms of spirituality. I think it fits all of us as humans, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

    The ironic part is that seeking to become an expert in one field can further your understanding of the huge gap in knowledge you have. For example, I am a classical guitarist by trade, and I’m currently doing my Masters degree in classical guitar performance. Since starting my studies at the graduate level I’ve come away with way more questions and uncertainties about performance practice, technique, repertoire choices, etc, than I ever had before I began my studies. In short, I’m far less certain about how to play the music I know so much more about.

    It’s refreshing to see someone who knows so much about theology and belief come to a similar place in regards to that subject, since it seems that far too often, those who study theology use it as a means to bolster their own certitude and condemn those who don’t agree with them. Thankfully there are also plenty examples of the opposite.

    Keep up asking the questions, and continue what you’re doing, because you’re making the world a more honest and loving place by extending respect to people regardless of what camp they fall in with regards to spiritual belief.

    Cheers from Canada

  12. Jason,

    First I want to thank you and say that I appreciate your candor and your willingness to be vulnerable. I can relate only in a small way to what you have gone through, in kind, but not in magnitude. Your decision has lead to public ridicule, loss of career, loss of friends, and (from what I gather of your living arrangements from the podcast) has impacted your family life. These are crushing (hopefully very temporary) consequences. Needless to say, you show up frequently in my daily prayers. I wish there was more I could do to share in your burdens.

    As you know, we aren’t promised a life free of suffering. Being united with Christ makes the suffering meaningful, redemptive.

    Echoing what Kenneth said in his last comment: “Still, its not over till its over. Youve already made the gut decision. Youve already paid the price. Balls to the wall man. Run your race 100 and dont worry about hedging your bets.” He’s right. The decision has been made; the price has been paid. Go all in.

    As for your blog post. I do appreciate post modernism for its value of other perspectives. Our view of reality IS colored by our personal lens. However, PM gets dangerous when it seems to say that there is no objective lens. God is sees things as the are.

    I don’t think being certain and being an a-hole are necessarily linked. I think you can be certain and also be gracious, charitable, and loving. I also think you can be uncertain and still be a raving a-hole. I get that you want to be charitable and loving, and that is motivation is simply wonderful. However, don’t let that motivation cause you to hold the truth you have too loosely. I’m reminded of a quote from your boy G.K. Chesterton:

    “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

    You had a open mind enough to find Catholicism. If you really believe it is solid, as you say you do, clamp down and go all in. If there are any benefits, they will only come from being fully in.

  13. Jason,

    I echo all of what Lane wrote to you above (especially the thanks for your candor here), and I’ll add a few thoughts to what he wrote, from my life’s experiences.

    At 42 years old, I have only had, *maybe*, two years of my life, in total, that have been free from either serious emotional pain, or serious physical pain, or both. That makes four decades of pretty dependable suffering. As you know, I was born with a physical disability, and my mom killed herself when I was nine, and even in the earliest years of my consciousness, fear, terror, and sadness were constants.

    I used to be absolutely convinced that the God of the Bible did not exist. I also thought that, even theoretically, if He *did* exist, He didn’t care about me, personally, and I wanted nothing to do with Him.

    Now, all these years later, I’m a Catholic Christian. The Catholic faith claims that we *can* have a certainty by faith that is deeper than that of empirical knowledge. This claim sounds arrogant and ridiculous to many, but the claim exists. I’ll be honest: I don’t know how to appropriate it in my own life very often. Maybe I’m just a person of very little faith. Maybe my traumatic life experiences have scarred me so deeply that I can’t see God and His ways in my life, and the lives of others, accurately, much of the time. My faith often feels like walking in the dark with a light to guide me that helps me see *just enough* to know that God exists, and that somehow, even with all that He has allowed me to go through, He loves me, and that, yes, despite all the suffering, I can know that it’s good to be alive for another day– not just for me but for anyone.

    Then, I read a news report about a little girl being kidnapped into sex trafficking and raped scores of times in one night, for months… and I feel like I’m in the dark again, crying out to God for understanding and the will to simply continue.

    Sometimes, I wish that I could meet with the Pope, tell him about my life and struggles, and ask him to explain these words to me from the Catechism. I accept them. I’m trying to understand them as best I can and live them out in my life. It’s not easy though:

    37 “In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:

    Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.13

    38 This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also “about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error”. 14

    From: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c1.htm

  14. Hey Mike,

    It’s refreshing to see someone who knows so much about theology and belief come to a similar place in regards to that subject, since it seems that far too often, those who study theology use it as a means to bolster their own certitude and condemn those who don’t agree with them. Thankfully there are also plenty examples of the opposite.

    Thanks for saying so, and I agree with you about what happens when you gain a measure of expertise in one field. For my part, it was Catholicism that knocked me off my high horse, and coming to embrace it made me promise myself I would never be so sure of myself that I couldn’t grow ever again. That’s a bad place to be.

  15. Great comment, Christopher!

  16. Thanks, Jason! Praying for you, man! I decided, some time ago, that it was better for me to be publicly honest, even painfully so, about my struggles with faith. I can’t really imagine being anything other than a Catholic at this point, partially because I’ve already been an agnostic and an atheist at different points! However, my faith is one of anguished prayers and tears, at least as much as it is one of theological study and discussion.

    On a brutally honest note, Pope Francis also really challenged me to reexamine certain aspects of my own faith, personally, when he said this to a group of bishops recently:

    “A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle. A pastor must show that the ‘Gospel of the family’ is truly ‘good news’ in a world where self-concern seems to reign supreme!”

  17. Sorry but I was a little late reading this. This was very well written. I do wonder why more do not grasp this. To me what you wrote is plainly obvious. What do you think causes people to be so sure? The more I read the more I realize how little I actually do know. It seems to me that the people who are most sure of anything are those who know so little about the subject. I know someone who is so sure that climate change is not real. I am okay with whatever people want to believe. But this person has no degrees in science, does not read any scientific literature, etc. What causes those with so little knowledge to be so sure of the knowledge they know nothing about?

  18. This reminds me of the interview in America Magazine with Pope Francis from a while back.

    “Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.”— Pope Francis

    He goes into this more.

    In my own uncertainty I find it hard to still practice many of the traditions of the Catholic Church due to the fear of being irreverent or dishonest. Maybe this is a form of Catholic guilt, but I feel it goes beyond that. Having grown up in the Church I may take many of the traditions for granted, but would like to know what keeps you going to Mass or practicing the traditions you practice. In other words my uncertainty seems to be driving me away from the Church rather than guiding my discernment “to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.” What keeps you continuing to practice? My apologies if this is to much to ask. Like you I find myself barely trying to hang on.

  19. Hey Bill,

    What causes those with so little knowledge to be so sure of the knowledge they know nothing about?

    I think it is precisely because they have limited themselves to 1 or 2 sources of authority. In my Calvary Chapel days, all it took was for Chuck Smith to interpret a verse, and then to appeal to sources that agreed with him, to give me the impression that the matter was settled and no dissenting voices existed.

  20. Hi Christian,

    I would like to know what keeps you going to Mass or practicing the traditions you practice. In other words my uncertainty seems to be driving me away from the Church rather than guiding my discernment “to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.” What keeps you continuing to practice?

    I guess the best answer is that, despite my leaving room for unknowing, I would prefer the Christian gospel to actually be true. And I do think it makes the most sense out of life as I experience it. Plus, incense is rad.

  21. For a period of time, right before I converted to the Catholic Church, I was intellectually agnostic about the Christianity. I wanted it to be true, but I couldn’t put my faith in a Messianic Leader whose modern witness was many many witnesses. Finding the Church that has been cohesively a thing since Pentecost, was what brought me back.Now when I feel my emotions betraying faith or my intellect arguing some supernatural aspect of Christianity, I mentally latch on to the Catholic Church as a witness to the truth of all that Christianity entails.So I am uncertain about what awaits me everyday, and about who all will be saved in the end, but not about what church is true or church doctrine is true, otherwise I wouldn’t identity a Christian and go to Mass. If I am uncertain about Jesus and Christianity, I most certainly won’t seek to be an example of Jesus or teach my children the tenents of the faith. I hope what I’ve developed because of my conversion is less self interest and more charity for my neighbor.But I wouldn’t have grown in this way if I hadn’t become Catholic.I used to think it was impossible to, as the JW’s say, walk in the footsteps of Jesus, but now I understand that this is what the Christian faith demands of us. But this demand, while hard to do, isn’t a chore, it’s what makes Christianity so attractive.What would the world be without the certainty of Christianity, a faith that demands that we love?

  22. Susan,

    “But this demand, while hard to do, isn’t a chore, it’s what makes Christianity so attractive.What would the world be without the certainty of Christianity, a faith that demands that we love?”

    Right! To love God and love our neighbor (including our enemies!) properly IS difficult. It is difficult, because it is risky. We put ourselves, our selfish interests, in danger when we take the risk to love (both passively AND actively love). I mean look at what it cost Jesus. It is Faith that gives us the desire, the ability, the courage to love as we must.

  23. Jason, we have not seen each other in over twenty years. My faith came alive at Calvary Costa Mesa during the early 90s. I was part of the non-Calvary High School clan of Mark Shaffer. I worshipped with you at Bruce and Patty Drowns’(remember those days?) and went on mission trips to Russia with Kyle Eckhart. My wife, Pearl Rodriguez(class of 93) have been married for 17 years. Although we attribute Calvary for our bible training, we have not attended a Calvary for over 15 years. We would not change those formidable years for anything. We have danced around different faith circles since then. I would not call it “church hopping” out of convenience with a “what’s in it for me” disposition, because we’d give each church a good “go” for at least 5 years in a stint. Pearl and I watched your interview last night on Journey Home a couple years ago. I was intrigued on your faith journey and quest for truth. I also have changed what I believe in the last 20 years, but I would not say that I ever waivered in my faith. If some were to see my bookshelf they would think I am one confused dude, but I have found Christ in the writings of Pink, Piper, Watchman Nee, Oswald Chambers, John Owen, Richard Wurmbrand and other authors who would not sit at a table(theologically…and probably literally!). I admire your relentless quest for Who God really is.
    Bless you!

  24. Hey Danny, good to hear from you (and yeah, I totally remember you, and Pearl was like a little sister). Glad to hear you’re doing well!

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