Friday, March 19

Reflections of an Agnostic Christian

A friend posted this as a Facebook note, and I think it worth sharing.
Reflections of an Agnostic Christian

The Truth is out there but as we now see through a mirror darkly, "we grope for it"1. As lovely, inspiring and helpful as the Biblical text is, we go astray when approaching it as the definitive word of God.

While it is understandable and even desirable that there be a revelatory solution to man’s epistemological groping; in fact, a judicious assessment of biblical revelation warns that the flight to revelation advised by Christian authors and apologists2 is unjustified, unwise and often significantly hinders the very pursuit of truth which first engaged one’s interest in revelation.

Although science is no substitute for religion, the scientific method—i.e. the testing of hypothesis by repeated experiment and subjecting these to critical review etc.—offers a more profitable way of evaluating truth claims than a religious appeal to some ultimate authority, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Teaching Magisterium of the Catholic Church etc.

Many persons eager in the pursuit of religious truth, from the likes of Hegel, Spinoza, Paine and Bultmann to the reflective layperson, have felt truly compelled by the facts (and this often only have decades of struggle) to adopt some sort of critical approach3 to biblical revelation. Personally, it was only after some thirty years of resisting with all my heart, soul and mind, that I eventually adopted, in broad terms, the general paradigm of critical scholarship. Like most paradigm shifts, this shift in my thinking resulted from a whole host of facts and religious quandaries. Of course, now that I’m on the other side of this paradigm shift, I find the landscape much more pleasant than I had feared and, best of all, a great deal more congruent with my experience of reality. In short, I no longer feel at war with the truth, but rather surrendered to it.

For Protestants, the adoption of some sort critical approach to biblical revelation very often involves a concomitant loss of dogmatic confidence. For Catholics (& the Orthodox) the situation is a bit more complex in that Catholics while they, after many years of struggle, have both officially and on the popular level accepted the critical shift in biblical scholarship they continue to have recourse to another ultimate authority for truth—i.e. the teaching Magisterium. As they say, Catholics are not primarily people of the Book.

Personally, while studying at an evangelical seminary, and feeling the foundations of biblical authority give way under my feet, I myself found this recourse to another ultimate source of authority (i.e. the Church), a refuge (albeit, temporary), a resting place of traditional dogma as I continued my resistance to the onslaughts of the modern world, critical scholarship etc. And while I continue to find worship in this community very satisfying, my historical studies in Christian dogma have resulted in losing my confidence in dogma along the same lines that my biblical fundamentalism4, after much bumping up against reality, gave way to a more critical approach to the sacred text.

If not biblical authority nor church dogmatics, then what, relativism, atheism, what? While the new atheists would have us believe that atheism is the only alternative to biblical or dogmatic fundamentalism, there are other solutions. Hegel, Emerson and that god intoxicated man Spinoza, to name but a few, saw alternatives to Christian fundamentalism on the one hand and evangelical atheism on the other.

There are many alternatives to biblical or dogmatic fundamentalism and, while understandable and often a deeply ethical choice, atheism is but one among many. There are theists of every sort—from Pantheists and Deists to faith filled but liberally minded Protestants and Catholics. Some remain confident in more, others in less of the historic creeds of Christendom. You have some like Newton, Jefferson and Franklin who, while venerating Jesus Christ, believing in life after death, prayer etc, were or are quite doubtful about the manner in which Christology developed, and others who generally assent to the divinity of Christ, the Trinity etc. In short, a loss (or, as some prefer, a maturing out) of a Biblicism or dogmatism does not necessitate a loss of a faith—indeed, many report a strengthening of faith, hope and love—of feeling set free by the truth.

What is the role of reason in evaluating the role of the Bible or the various alternatives to biblical or dogmatic fundamentalism? Is reason, as attributed to Luther, really that [unfaithful] Whore?

First, nothing must be admitted that is contrary to reason. Reason is the one thing we have every reason to believe we have from God and the surest way for one to go astray is to admit things contrary to reason. Moreover, it is by one’s reason that one must stand before God—did I do what I knew to be right in my reason.

Second, many things exceed reason’s capacity. If God is a Spirit, we must worship him in Spirit in Truth. If God is ineffable, it makes perfect since that the natural man cannot comprehend the things of God. To quote Pascal, Reasons last step is to acknowledge that an infinite number of things lie beyond its grasp.

Third, since step one does not permit us to make claims about revelation that are untrue or highly improbable, proper responses to step two, while excluding any fidestic flight5 to the Koran, the Bible, the book of Mormon etc, may include certain forms of mysticism, agnosticism, prayer, faith or an agnostic faith life of prayer.

Yesterday I listened to a Muslim extremist and the Reverend Moon6 both justify their positions by appeals to revelations. And what of the revelations of Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Hindus, etc? Reason must evaluate such claims if one is not to live in their own little religious bubble of delusion7.

I have a revelation from God—the truth. And while not every truth is presently self evident to me, there are compelling reasons for believing that the common natural reason shared by all persons as opposed to special revelations given to particular people is man’s proper mode for discerning truth.

What role then for the Bible? While an impartial assessment of the facts requires one to reject fundamentalist understandings of revelation, one may nonetheless find in the sacred text a place of inspiration, truth and beauty. Not being a definitive revelation, a final word on every subject, nonetheless leaves ample room for other options. Books of poetry are not worthless simply because reason doesn’t permit one to read them as history or science.

The critical approach to the Bible is not so radical after all. Most Christians already, perhaps subconsciously, approach at least a good portion of the Bible through critical lenses. With little effort we can all think of various Old Testament passages or even books that we have found various justifications for not taking all that seriously and without really troubling ourselves about it. Then there are other passages, such as the wisdom books or sayings of Christ in parables, that while, we find them very edifying reading, we don’t approach them as literal history etc. In some manner, the critical reader is simply extending this approach to the whole text. The critical reader of the sacred text may daily interact with the text on a devotional and inspirational level without being entangled in the errors that bedevil his more literalist co-religionists.

The Unsettling & Liberating Nature of Truth

Last evening we had dinner with some good friends, a married couple, who, religiously, might be described as evangelical Catholics. The dinner conversation centered on the religious doubts the husband and I discovered we shared in common. After much discussion the wife expressed concern that my evolving religious outlook might leave me without any foundation for morality. These and other similar questions are unsettling to people. If your life has largely been constructed around a belief that I have this special source, be it a book or religious leader like the reverend Moon or the Pope etc, that contains all, in one neat place, everything I need pertaining to life and godliness, it can be unsettling to contemplate the loss of this conviction.

I responded to the woman’s query by saying I didn’t think this was the right approach to choosing what to believe. I shouldn’t decide for or against believing something because I do or do not like the implications of doing so. Nothing is surer to deceive than the need to believe a particular outcome from the outset. This lack of faith in approaching the truth needs to be replaced with a firm confidence that the truth doesn’t deceive but rather sets one free. While giving up a single source approach to discovering truth may be unsettling at first, a general confidence in truth can become a very suitable replacement. Man sees through a mirror darkly and he generally discovers the truth about things only gradually and with much effort. Man’s discovery of what is right and moral is not dissimilar to his scientific discoveries—he makes gains with much trial and error. By way of example, think of how long it has taken society to largely embrace our present ideals of democracy, of human rights, of peaceful coexistence- to shed notions of slavery, of woman being men’s property, etc.

In reality an honest appraisal of history and of contemporary fundamentalist religious communities indicates a strong correlation between fundamentalist beliefs in revelation and resistance to moral and scientific advancement. In short, strong revelatory based beliefs frequently prejudice persons and communities against new perspectives and realities.

There is every reason to believe that we are indeed in need of another religious reformation—one in which a strong confidence in the discoverability of truth through reflection replaces slavish and childish single source revelatory beliefs. A reformation in which fear gives way to faith, in which religious servitude to the past gives way to the freedom to discover whatever truths the universe is prepared to unveil at this moment in humankind’s history. Yes we see through a mirror dimly but the Truth is out there and it bids us come, to hearken to its voice wherever and through whomever it can be heard—through art, philosophy, science, religious literature, people, events, history etc.—in short the logos or reason of God is to be sought and welcomed everywhere it can be heard.

Choosing the Right (ideal) Path for Me, or The Importance of Particularity.

Being open to the logos or truth wherever it is found needn’t mean being endlessly adrift. Or to draw upon your reflections, loving the Universal should take on some Particularity. Acknowledging that my spouse is not the only suitable mate in the world doesn’t prevent me from saying she’s perfect for me, from making a lifelong commitment to her. Holding pluralistic views of religions needn’t prevent me from living out my life in a particular religious community. Rejecting fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, while perhaps complicating things, needn’t prevent me from hearing God speak through the sacred text—from hearing Christ bid me to give up my fears and get out of my boat, from hearing God speak as the good shepherd and guardian of my soul. Intellectually a person may find it difficult to have many convictions/certainties beyond a general theism and yet practically still choose a particular community to live out this general theism. I suspect there are lots of persons sitting beside me at Sunday Mass, particularly middle aged men, who, while having lost their previously held certitudes about the creeds of Christendom, nonetheless find the liturgy to be a beautiful expression of their religious sentiments. Perhaps in their youth they found such inconsistencies as unworthy of their commitment but with experience one learns the truth of Emerson’s adage:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

While the practical desire to live, to worship and to critically evaluate in an integral fashion may result in a practicing Christian (albeit my agnostic Christian), a just evaluation of the limitations of religious knowledge makes going beyond this pragmatic commitment to an all in sort of exclusive commitment to a definitive revelation seem, to such a person, rash and disproportionate to what can be known by him with any certainty. The desire to live shouldn’t mean a definitive ending to ones questions, a sort of fidestic commitment to one revelation or set of dogmas. Truth is not an item on one’s checklist, which one day is complete and now we move on. Religious truth, like every other human endeavor, must be subject to constant review and assimilation of facts and experiences. As tempting as it may be to see religion as somehow in an epistemological category of its own, not subject to the limitations and revisions of other fields of human inquiry, the facts and history of religion (i.e. including the evolution of Christianity out of Old Testament/ near eastern religion) demonstrate otherwise.

Even if Truth is Eternal and therefore, at least in some sense, absolute, our perception of it is provisional and therefore in many ways relative. Given our epistemological limitations, any once for all commitment to particular views, religious or scientific, seems foolish. Nor are such commitments essential to finding real meaning and stability in life. One needn’t live in denial of our limitations in order to make stable commitments. It is enough to commit oneself to the larger commitments of loving and serving the truth wherever one finds it and to whatever degree I can perceive some aspect of it at the present. I needn’t make exaggerated claims about what can be known with certainty. In a profound sense, our situation calls for a larger surrender, a deeper trust to the Universe, an acceptance to life as we find it rather than as we would have it.


1. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For 'In him we live and move and have our being,' Acts 17:26

2. For example, how Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, argues that because we are blind epistemologically God has given us the spectacles of His Word.

3. From Wikipedia: Biblical criticism is "the study and investigation of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning and discriminating judgments about these writings." It asks when and where a particular text originated; how, why, by whom, for whom, and in what circumstances it was produced; what influences were at work in its production; what sources were used in its composition and the message it was intended to convey.

It also addresses the physical text, including the meaning of the words and the way in which they are used, its preservation, history and integrity. Biblical criticism draws upon a wide range of scholarly disciplines including archeology, anthropology, folklore, linguistics, oral tradition studies, and historical and religious studies.

4. Wikipedia: For religious fundamentalists, sacred scripture is considered the authentic and authoritative word of their religion's god or gods. This does not necessarily require that all portions of scripture be interpreted literally rather than allegorically or metaphorically - for example, see the distinction in Christian thought between Biblical infallibility, Biblical inerrancy and Biblical literalism. Fundamentalist beliefs depend on the twin doctrines that their god or gods articulated their will clearly to prophets, and that followers also have an accurate and reliable record of that revelation.

Since a religion's scripture is considered the word of its god or gods, fundamentalists believe that no person is right to change it or disagree with it. Within that though, there are many differences between different fundamentalists.

5. Wikipedia: Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths (see natural theology). The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means "faith-ism."

Theologians and philosophers have responded in various ways to the place of faith and reason in determining the truth of metaphysical ideas, morality, and religious beliefs. The term fideist, one who argues for fideism, is very rarely self applied. Support of fideism is most commonly ascribed to four philosophers: Pascal, Kierkegaard, William James, and Wittgenstein; with fideism being a label applied in a negative sense by their opponents, but which is not supported by their own ideas and works. There are a number of different forms of fideism.

6. From Moon’s Website: At Easter time in 1935, Jesus appeared to the young Sun Myung Moon as he was praying in the Korean mountains. In that vision, Jesus asked him to continue the work which he had begun on earth nearly 2,000 years before. Jesus asked him to complete the task of establishing God's kingdom on earth and bringing His peace to humankind.

The young Korean was stunned by this encounter, and especially by the request that had been made of him, and at first he refused. However, after deep reflection, meditation and prayer, he pledged his life to that overwhelming mission.

After personally accepting Jesus' call, the young man set out to discover its very meaning. If Jesus called him to complete his mission, it meant that Jesus' mission was incomplete. Was not salvation through the cross all that man needs? What was it that Jesus had left undone on earth? If sin is not completely solved, then what is the actual root of sin?

Sun Myung Moon studied the Bible and many other religious teachings in order to unravel these mysteries of life and human history. During this time, he went into ever deeper communion with God and entered the vast battlefield of the spirit and flesh. Through denying his personal desires he overcame temptations of knowledge, wealth and physical pleasure. He came to understand God's own suffering and His longing to be reunited with His children. He learned the difficult steps that humankind would have to take in order to return to God and establish true peace on earth.

By 1945, he had organized the teachings which came to be known as the Divine Principle, and he began his public ministry

7. My son Jake showed me this YouTube video on the religious bubble of delusion.

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