The Agnostic

Agnosticism: it has been described to me as not really a position at all. As a matter of fact, it is really an outlook upon matters of immanence (a pesky word that refers to God’s presence in the material world) and transcendence that chooses to withhold judgement. What then does it really claim? It makes no claims, just an attitude one expresses towards religious truths.

Agnosticism on this view is blind, if not deaf. A “non-position” that makes a judgement to withhold judgements from religious claims misses the parrot of self-referential incoherence over its shoulder. Put simply, it shoots itself in the foot (e.g., parrot still intact). As someone with a basic college education could understand, Allan Bloom in his brilliant Closing of the American Mind gives us the observation that if something is to be a position it must as well be exclusive. In other words, it must exclude other positions if it itself is to be a position. Agnosticism clearly does exclude some positions (religious truth, etc.), and hence is itself a position taken against another. Is agnosticism then purely polemic (an attack against something else)?

No, and few fail to recognize this (including the agnostics). Though agnostics are not all similar to say, Pascal’s skeptic interlocutor in the Pensées (who wishes “not to gamble” on the quest for Happiness and Truth), there are some even more far-fetching in that they claim that religious truths can’t be known at all by anyone. Well then! What a claim all of sudden! This kind of person has been called many names (no, not “bad” names): hard agnostic, strict agnostic, religious skeptic, etc. It not only amounts to a mere positive claim, but it amounts so much as to almost God-like knowledge of the human condition: humans nowhere can whatsoever obtain a knowledge of God (please see my note below*).

This kind of agnosticism is easier said than done. This view, like the other strain discussed prior, again just shoots the other foot (e.g., parrot is still intact). To claim that no one can have a knowledge of the transcendent is itself a claim to know something about the transcendent (God-like in a way, right?). Generally if you meet anyone like this in the workplace or at school, I wouldn’t just throw “the fact of human experience” against their face.

Perhaps a better response might be to ask them why they hold that position. It is thence a responsibility on your part to really listen and hear what they are saying. Often, if you notice carefully, you can see that they may hold an implicit view of religious knowledge which says that it is not really knowledge at all, but sort of a realm of opinion and “personal belief” where religion resides. This is all well and good, and we may respect them for their articulation since it usually all done in the name of “tolerating diversity.”

However, people need understand that the beliefs we are discussing here are not just merely intellectual theories about the world, but real beliefs that concern the whole of the person, leading to answers of questions like, What must I know? What must I do? What must I hope for? Hence, we must shift out of the realm of “toleration” and pluralism too an honest, serious, and engaging quest for reality of Truth.

Conclusion: Is Christianity Against Agnosticism? 

This has to be met with a yes and no. No in the sense that we may forget that one of the first people to behold the risen Christ was an agnostic (John 20:24-29). There is an honest kind of agnosticism or doubt which shows that we still exhibit a responsibility for the quest of truth that is in fact, healthy. However, yes in the sense that the Bible warns against double mindedness (James 1:2-8). James warns – towards the end of the epistle – to avoid slander, adultery, fights and quarrels, but to “[c]ome near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (Jm. 4:8).

However, by “double minded,” James did not necessarily have agnostics in mind. The Greek expression used in that passage refers literally to a “divided soul.” James was more talking about those who had trouble between trusting God and the world; experiencing trials, failing to trust God, and being upset that they gained nothing from God amidst their experience. This seems to make sense of that great old book from Søren Kierkegaard, The Purity of Heart is To Will One Thing, and not To Will Two Things.

The relevance this has for that honest agnostic is to see the failure of being caught in between the hands of the world and the Hand of God. It is a totally different kind of ignorance, not intellectual or moral, but a kind of spiritual ignorance.

___________________

Notes

* – Given my view of what exactly a religious belief entails, I do not think that a metaphysical (or, anti-metaphysical) theory could possibly justify such a wide-ranging quantifying claim about religious knowledge for humans. Cognitive theories regarding man’s knowledge of the transcendent do not scratch the surface of the reality of which they are criticizing.

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About Steven Dunn

A believer of the Gospel; a broken mind being reformed in grace.
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