An interesting article recently appeared in the New York Daily News, by one of the “celebrity atheists,” Daniel Dennett: The Unbelievable Truth: Why America has become a nation of religious know-nothings. In this article, Dennett argues that non-believers — agnostics and atheists — are, generally speaking, more knowledgeable about religion than are those who believe.
I’m not quite ready to accept the triumphalist way in which Dennett interprets his data. He suggests that atheists know more than true believers about religion because faith requires either willful ignorance of religion’s inherent irrationality, or else the adoption of a complex, metaphorical/mythical understanding of theology. I think there’s more to it than that: as he himself says, atheists are more likely to investigate religious claims as part of their process of rejecting them; also, he doesn’t address the question of how personal spiritual or religious experience shapes the beliefs that people adopt. Still, whatever we may think of how Dennett interprets his data, the basic point: that Christians know less about their own faith than those who have rejected the faith — is something worth pondering.
Dennett also goes on to imply that many clergy have embraced the idea that faith is irrational (suprarational), but won’t admit it, either to protect their job or to spare their congregations the pain of wrestling with the difficult truth. I doubt if matters are quite that simple, but I would agree that many people in positions of leadership within the church — both clergy and ordained — often wrestle with finding a way to articulate a faith that has grown beyond the simplicity of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” I just don’t think such wrestling is evidence that clergy are either frightened or lazy (I think Dennett is being rather mean-spirited in his assessment of clergy). Rather, I think this points to the vastness of the Divine Mystery and the impossibility of truly putting it into words, especially words proclaimed in a 15- or 20-minute homily — which, for many people, is the only religious instruction they receive all week.
With all this in mind, here’s an interesting perspective that comes from Becky Garrison, a fellow author whom I met when I was in Oregon recently. Becky has begun to describe herself as an “Apophatic Anglican,” and this helps to explain what she means by this:
As part of a panel discussion at Journey Imperfect Faith Community, a number of us were asked to explore the faith label we use to classify yourself. I said I was an Apophatic Anglican, which I described as follows:
“The more I continue to enter the cloud of the unknowing, the more I realize just much I cannot know a God that is outside the time/space continuum But something happens when two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus. And the Anglican part is because I enter into the mysteries through the Anglican ritual. And Anglicanism is one of those traditions, where I can actually leave my brain intact. I don’t have to park my brain at the door when I come in to partake of the mysteries.”
I was asked to further describe “apophatic” as the tradition of negative theology by which you define God by what you do not know. (And BTW-and it’s not apathetic but apophatic. )
What does it mean to live out a faith where we live out the teachings of Christ while walking in the cloud of the unknowing?
More than once on this blog I have described my own faith as a sort of Holy Agnosis. I think Becky’s “Apophatic Anglicanism” is cut from a similar cloth. As an alternative to either defiant fundamentalism or cynical secularism, the path of the apophatic, or holy agnostic, rests comfortably in the paradox and mystery surrounding what we religionists hold to be true — even if such “holding” happens in a place beyond certainty.
Dear readers, what do you think? Are you a believer who doesn’t really know much about your own faith? Or someone who has learned what religion really has to say, and walked away from it? I assume the answer to these two questions would be “no” or else you wouldn’t be reading this blog. So… might you be an “Anglican Apophatic” (you can use your own faith tradition if it’s different from Anglicanism) or a “Holy Agnostic”? And what about Becky’s question: what does it mean to live the teachings of Christ in the midst of profound unknowing?