To be “open and free” with one’s views?

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the atheist critique of Christianity. Sometimes that gets directed at me specifically, as in this comment — by a skeptic who posted several comments here at the Website of Unknowing, and then made the following observation about this blog on the Darkness Forum:

One of the things that bothers me about this blog and many others is that there is no real discourse between spiritualism and scepticism. Many of these people are deluding themselves by believing they’re looking at both sides of a coin when in truth they cannot do so. It’s possible to entertain a new ideology on top of your own but not if that ideology cancels yours out…Else you destroy your own original ideology by doing so. I’ve never destroyed my atheism by thinking about the world in religious terms but I find very few ‘believers’ capable of thinking about the world genuinely as an atheist would. This would risk too much. This is exactly why it is all important that people are open and free with their views or else you get no communication between theosophical groups. Just as with ethnic divisions this is a dangerous situation that promotes conflict.

Well, this is interesting. I’m not sure how possible it is for anyone — believer or skeptic — to truly and completely adopt the viewpoint of another. In other words, I am skeptical of this man’s skepticism. I think he is probably as locked into his ideology as I am locked into mine.

He appears to recoil at the thought of one ideology “destroying” another. But isn’t that part of what metanoia is all about? Of course, true metanoia goes far beyond substituting one ideology for another: it is the adoption of an entirely new level of consciousness, where not only things look different, but truly the cosmos is experienced in a new way. But unless one has actually undergone such metanoia (what in Philippians 2 is referred to as letting the mind of Christ be in you), then this will strike the observer as only so much gibberish.

One thing I am fairly confident of, is that my non-believing critic appears to have no knowledge or appreciation of the fact that the Christian mystical tradition is by its very nature deeply agnostic — it is the spirituality of darkness and unknowing. It is what I have elsewhere called Holy Agnosis, to contrast Christian mysticism from its most ancient counterfeit, gnosticism. What I think most atheist agnostics forget is that there is a beautiful tradition of Christian agnosticism, where instead of saying “I don’t know, therefore I don’t believe,” one can say “I don’t know, and yet I still devote my life to love and praise.” Beyond that, I suspect we must only judge the trees by the fruit they bear.

Finally, one nitpick: I am neither an spiritualist nor a theosophist. I do hope this skeptic will do his homework in the future!

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • phil foster

    While in seminary there was a group of about 20 of us (out of about 300) who used to refer to ourselves as the Reverent Agnostics.

  • Liadan

    I’m ticked off that this poster dismisses that we could have ever looked at atheism and still chose a spiritual life. He implies that if we have ever looked outside our beliefs that we wouldn’t still hold our beliefs. He must be very young. Such hubris is really found in the elders.


  • judith collier

    What you believe in your heart, so shall it be!

  • ned

    What skeptics like this don’t realize is that many mystics (including some of the greatest ones) started off as atheists. I personally think that atheism gives you a very solid, common sense grounding in the material world, which is essential in order to progress on an inner spiritual journey without getting lost in flights of fancy.

    Moreover, skepticism is not something that is abandoned when you start having spiritual experiences because every vision, intuition, etc. is NOT directly from the Divine. I consider a healthy skepticism, along with an openness to higher spiritual experiences, essential on any path.

    Finally, from a mental perspective one can never go further than agnosticism. The mind takes you no further. But there are other faculties besides the mind, most notably what the mystics of various traditions refer to as the “heart”, which is generally covered over by mental neuroses due to the inevitable emotional wounding that results from being born into this world. The healing of these wounds opens up the heart-center which shows us new faculties of perception which are totally covered over by mental vibrations in the modern man. In short we are much, much more than what we outwardly appear to be.

    Faith, from this perspective, is not a blind belief at all but a *mode of perception*, which can be expressed mentally as both belief *and* disbelief (as Carl mentions, the Christian tradition includes many examples of the via negativa).

    “To see the composition of the sun or the lines of Mars is doubtless a great achievement; but when thou hast the instrument that can show thee a man’s soul as thou seest a picture, then thou wilt smile at the wonders of physical Science as the playthings of babies.”
    – Sri Aurobindo

  • ned

    Btw Carl, here is a great book to read in order to better converse with skeptical friends:
    Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century

    And here is a great journal being put out by Ulrich Mohrhoff, a quantum physicist from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which also provides nonmaterialistic perspectives on the sciences and humanities:

    My girlfriend is an agnostic so I have some experience with these conversations! ;-)

  • Travis

    Cynical as it sounds, in my experience, the individual who tells me that I need to be more “open and free” in my views is telling me that I am ‘wrong’ and that I just have not discovered my own delusion. This argument about being more open to other’s views is most often used as a ‘can opener’ designed to guilt someone into listening to what the speaker has to present – which is normally an argument against the listener’s belief system.

    It is one thing to be a skeptic but quite another to be dogmatic about it. It seems to me that this defeats the purpose of skepticism :)

    On another note, I find that this “not knowing” is the very thing that I am struggling with right now. More fruit for meditation.