Agnostic Christianity: Faith for a New Year

The responses both here on the blog and on Facebook to the e-mail I shared yesterday is indicative of the significant number of people who have the experience of finding their faith and religious beliefs changing in response to new information. In many cases, that new information is not so much “new” as new to them. This highlights one negative aspect of fundamentalist attempts to shield people from critical scholarship: when someone from such a background eventually discovers it, instead of merely being part of the natural process of learning and growing, it often triggers some sort of crisis of faith.

On the other hand, finding people of faith who embrace critical scholarship can helpfully counteract at least some of the trauma, although there will usually still be resentment that so much of what we know and understand about the Bible was hidden from you. But hopefully there will also be relief, since a system of thought that is shielded from criticism is particularly dangerous. And however much comfort it may have provided, maturity is more challenging and less clear-cut, but also much richer and more rewarding.

A few blogs have been discussing the experience of doubt, questioning, and changes to beliefs. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza describes it as entering a “black hole.”  DoOrDoNot discusses the experience, and emphasizes that it is better once one is “out of the closet.” And Daniel Kirk mentions his inability to say things “just so.”

De-conversion talks about the reason for leaving a faith tradition as accepting the burden of responsibility for finding and giving answers, rather than passing that responsibility to others who we assume do have the answers.

It is a mistake to think that any of this is something completely new – and Jeri Massi discusses the fundamentalist myth that the good old days were better, a time of faith, while now it is more of a time of doubt and skepticism. Faith and doubt have always existed and co-existed.

The blog Atheist Revolutions asks what the future of faith is, and suggests that more and more people will keep their irrational beliefs and superstitions to themselves and feel embarrassed about them. I am not persuaded that will be so, in the short term at least. But what I found most interesting is that many of the beliefs that an atheist would reject as irrational a liberal Christian most likely would too.

For many liberal Protestants since Paul Tillich wrote his Dynamics of Faith, faith is ultimate concern and is not the same as beliefs, which we may accept or reject, or embrace as mythical expressions of something that we find deeply and profoundly, and yet not literally, “true.”

Whether any specific beliefs are essential in order for our faith to be Christian faith is nevertheless an important topic, and there has been some discussion of this in the blogosphere over recent days. Today, Joel Watts suggested a bare minimum for Christian fellowship based on 1 Corinthians 2:1-2: humility, and Jesus crucified. Many would add the resurrection, but the problem is that historical tools seem incapable of providing the sort of evidence we would need to assert that as a historical event – as the blog Diglotting discussed today, and as I explored in The Burial of Jesus.

For me, the answer to the question someone asked recently about Christian agnosticism is that there not only can be Christian agnosticism, but that in fact that is all we have. There are no people who have actual historical certainty about every historic Christian claim about Jesus. There are only people who have managed to attain a feeling of certainty. But being honest about the uncertainty, even though it can be unsettling to feel it, is not at all something to be ashamed of. Instead of describing it as “agnosticism” we could also call it “honesty.”

It is important to recognize that honest uncertainty is better for you, for one’s faith tradition and for the world than unassailable conviction in spite of evidence to the contrary. But more than that, there is a whole stream of Christian thought, paralleled in other traditions as well, that views God as inherently incapable of being fully known by human beings, much less described in human languages. The mystical religious traditions typically emphasize divine ineffability. And while down the ages the “orthodox” have regularly found the mystics at best a nuisance and at worst a heretical challenge to their emphasis on right beliefs, it may comfort you, even if you have not had a mystical experience yourself, to know that those who have are usually not (at least in their mature years) among those who dogmatically demand assent to propositions, but instead emphasize the symbolic nature of religious language and that it at best points to God, rather than describes God.

So where does that leave us? I think that if one takes Paul Tillich’s definition of God as not merely a being among others but Being itself, then the question of God’s existence pretty much vanishes. There is an ultimate reality. What remains is what one thinks about the nature of Reality/God. And when it comes to such questions, those who have plumbed the the furthest into the depths of what the mind can contemplate have emphasized that the ultimate is shrouded in mystery. And so while most of us find doubts and uncertainty scary, and many view acknowledgement of doubt and uncertainty with hostility, inasmuch as doubt and uncertainty are expressions of honesty, humility and the quest for truth and understanding, my own view is that they can represent a move deeper into what Christian faith is all about, rather than away from it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01000798494472742263 J. L. Watts

    I was just, in a round about way, writing on this. An excellent post – both this one and the other.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    James,Thanks for an insightful post (not that others haven't been insightful on ocassion :-))…I think that Tillich's ulimtate concern, and moral/psychological development of self-understanding could agree. And then, "god" (outside of self) is not as important as before one comes to terms with self-understanding.I wonder is some of us (humans, that is) aren't capatable with living with uncertainty due to traumas, personality, etc. (There is such a thing as an authoritarian personality and disorders of personality that also are unable to deal with uncertainty)…One could acknowledge all of life and knowledge as part and parcel of "pointing toward" God, if one wants an apology for faith. And I've for a longtime thought that atheists that rationally choose to associate with Churches are really agnostic because of valuing certain values of the Church, as to behavior….etc.So, whether one acknowledges faith or not, it boils down to human development, choice, value and belonging…how those mix will play out differently for each life….

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Tough question. The best source foe our answers are obscure to us, and that is "What did the disciples believe after they had there visions?" It could be argued that what Jesus taught is not enough and that he never intended any thing like what his disciples developed. If one accepts that following the teachings of Jesus makes one a Christian, then even crucifixion and his resurrection may be out. I wonder if the apostles would consider anything we call Christianity, Christianity. How central was the second coming to Jesus or Paul?If we accept that later Christians can modify Jesus original teaching but keep the same spirit (as the can be Neo-Platonist, Neo-Confucians, and Marxist-Leninist and Maoist) Then I think the solution to the naturalist problem to Christianity can be solved. This would be in the viewing of the Church as the actual body of Christ, so Jesus is thought of as an active participant in the living world by the actions of his followers. The metaphor could be extended by de-personalizing it from merely the followers of the Jesus of Nazareth, but also to all who teach ideals like his. In that way the not only followers of Jesus become interchangeable with him as the Servant of God, but all people of good will. In this scheme, there is no need get people to stop following Buddha, but only to support those who do good. I know many will find this sort of universalism contrary to Christianity, as Jesus' specific actions get lost in philosophical generalities. I don't think the the people wrote Ephesians, Gospel of John, or Luke would agree with my syncratic view, and no doubt thought pagan philosophers needed to get right with the God of the Hebrews, (then again the Gnostics may not have seen paganism as a total evil). I say that the early Christians were, however, already making major modifications to the first Christian ideals and we should not shy away from modifying them. Doesn't this generation have the Spirit like they did? And isn't the Spirit essentially a metaphor for what is true about reality, God's reason, and God is that which allows for the possibility of existence? Some might argue that my theism is really dressed up atheism, but I don't agree. I would not expect a genuine God to have feelings like ours because our feelings are so tied to the mundane phenomenon of existence, God is very far removed from that while still present in all its features. What makes a god a god is not its human attributes but its worthiness of of our deepest respect, worship. Surely the miracle of our existence deserves such respect, and if you disagree, existence is not hard to leave. If any one finds defects in my arguments, feel free to correct me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15775977854913362396 DoOrDoNot

    I appreciate this post. I think I need to read Paul Tillich. Faith as "ultimate concern" instead of beliefs to be affirmed is the only recourse I have now. I think that faith as doctrinal statements becomes the undoing of many of us when we find we can no longer affirm doctrines which are lacking in support. I am left with what to do with Christianity when there is so little by way of historical claims that seem to have adequate support. It may have value as a path to understand God or live our lives to the fullest, but is it unique? Does it actually offer something other ways of understanding God does not? I think that is my ultimate question. It may be fine to go on as an agnostic Christian, but why should I want to? I mean this question as an earnest one, I'm not trying to be hostile.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15327079170088324442 Larry Kamphausen (priestly goth)

    Two thoughts: mysticism and apophatic path are perhaps related but different from doubt and uncertainty as we seem to use them and as used in these texts. Though I admit that the mystical and apophatic path stands against a great deal of what many currently think of as faith or belief.Second, I am puzzled at the seeming priority you give to historical tools and evidence as the ground or arbiter of Christian truth. It seems to me that even if the event of the Resurrection can in some sense be said to have happened at a point in history it is such an event that would elude the very nature of historical inquiry as it is also already something beyond history, as God is beyond being. In this regard I have found Colingwood's Idea of History both fascinating and devastating to any attempt to ground faith in historical science. History is an interpretive science, thus to some degree historical science never escapes the period in which it is written and never gives us the past except as reconstructed and assumed to be believable at the period the Historian is writing.But then I am far more interested in being part of the church the body of Christ, than I am in being a Christian. So, I may be on a different path than this question you are addressing.

  • Anonymous

    Christianity wiil not be destroyed, although milllions of believes may be imprisoned and die if the atheist trends continue and they actually get control.After all, that is what always happens when they get control.But the church thrives under persecution, because the phony preachers (liars and adulterers commonly) will openly abandon Christ and jump ship.Its better that way.Just imagine the damage men like Barker and Loftus (an admitted liar and adulterer) could have done if they had remained in the church.After all, Tillich (yet another liar and adulterer) remained a theist…on paper…and did terrrible damage.It would have been better if he had openly written an atheist book like others who abandon Christ.I Will Never Surrender to Atheist Rule

  • http://robertcargill.com/ robertcargill.com

    excellent post james. reblogging on my blog.it compliments well what i wrote for my friend jason boyett in september:http://blog.beliefnet.com/omeoflittlefaith/2010/09/robert-cargill-skeptic-sanctuary.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Anonymous, it is very fortunate that there haven't been liars, affairs and other scandals among conservatives. Otherwise your argument could have ended up being at best unimpressive, and at worst self-defeating.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Bob, glad you found it worth sharing. I shared your post you mentioned back when you wrote it, but am glad you mentioned it here again.Larry, thanks for your important points. I agree with you about the limitations of historical study, and so while I was trying to address the disconcerting experience many of us have when we find out that there don't seem to be tools to determine the historicity of things we were told we are supposed to accept as historical, I am also very concerned to find ways of formulating Christian faith that doesn't focus on claiming to know things that we cannot.You are also right that apophatic mystical theology and historical uncertainty are significantly different things. But I think that the humility and awareness of the limitations of human understanding the former offers can be helpful precisely as offering a positive, Christian way to address the latter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05947081596759328950 Matt

    I agree that christians should be honest (and that honest is a better word than agnostic) about their level of certainty in their beliefs but to redefine God as ultimate reality seems more like a trick to not have to be an atheist rather than an honest attempt to seek truth. I haven't read Tillich so I might have misunderstood what this god is from your post but a God that only exists because we've picked a way of defining him that can't be challenged hardly inspires a feeling of worship in me. I think I would sleep in on Sundays.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Matt, I think that if you read Tillich, you may well disagree with him, but I doubt you'll find him either dishonest or simply engaging in mere terminological sleight of hand. His book Dynamics of Faith is a good, relatively short place to start. I think that even if you disagree with him strongly by the end of the book, you'll still find that he raised issues and offered insights that stimulated useful thinking and reflection.Presumably everyone would agree that whether God exists depends on how you define "God." Christians have denied the existence of a wide array of deities, and even some so-called atheists might accept talk of a "guitar God" even when not in a foxhole. :)

  • http://therealitydysfunction.com Simon ‘Sye’ Robertson

    Thanks for this post. I would term myself as being very close to a Christan Agnostic. I am trying tobe honest, but it's hard when many people in the church don't understand how you can question at all, yet alone such 'basic' things as faith. Cheers

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05410057905377189336 skholiast

    Whether or not we agree that Christian agnosticism is "all we have," (this again depends on "how we define" the terms), it is certainly not an unprecedented position. See, e.g., the writings of Leslie Weatherhead, EH Johnson, HG Curteis, Alexander Mckennal, etc. Before anyone responds that there are no new heresies under the sun (or indeed among the clergy), I'll just offer my own favorite formulation of this position, from (non-cleric) Eric Voegelin — hardly an accommodationist apostle for the latest wind of doctrine — who said in The New Science of Politics that "uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity." (p 122.) (Voegelin called himself a "pre-Nicene Christian," for what that's worth). It is worth recalling that the early church had a life-&-death struggle not with atheism (a label often applied to Christians back in the day), but with Gnostics. Having said this, I'll add the caveat (and I'm interested if this is or is not borne out among commenters here) that this sort of retreat to agnosticism seems to me to be more frequent among onetime ( what is sometimes semi-disparagingly called "recovering") evangelicals and/or fundamentalists. I do not know as many Catholics or Orthodox who would feel the need to qualify their faith in these terms. But I emphasize this is just an unscientific impression.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    DoOrDoNot, I had hoped to post something in response to the question you asked, and since I still have not done so, I figure I should at least leave a brief comment in response!My sense is that Christianity does not need to be unique or the only way to God for it to represent a legitimate choice. One reason I don't consider myself a "pluralist" is that when I evaluate other religious traditions, I do so from my own standpoint shaped by Christianity on both the cultural and the personal level. And so I may find that Sufis seem to be experiencing and relating to the same God Christianity talks about, for instance, but I may just feel that way because I am a Christian.But certainly there are elements within the Bible that encourage us to expect other people in other traditions to be "on the right track." The Melchizedek story, John's prologue describing the Logos as the light that enlightens every human being, and the frequent assessment of the faith of even Gentiles, who could not be assumed even to be monotheists, as positive/salvific.I believe that we need metaphors, symbols, and stories, as well as community, in exploring the mysteries of existence and questions of value and meaning. And so the alternative to doing so within an existing tradition is to try to start from scratch, and of course none of us can ever really do that – even atheisms can differ based on the sort of religion that is the primary one being rejected, and among spiritually-oriented atheists, metaphor and mystery can still play a part.And so for me, it comes down to Christianity having mediated to me a life-changing religious experience that got me started on this journey, and providing me with a community of conversation partners as well as people to collaborate with when we become persuaded that our uncertainty about deep mysteries need not prevent us from acting in concrete ways to love our neighbors as ourselves.Anyway, those are some brief thoughts of mine on the subject. And there are some earlier posts that it may be time to dig out and repost sometime soon from earlier in this blog's history, with titles like "Why I Am Still A Christian," which also address the topic.Let me know if this is at all helpful, and either way I hope we can continue the conversation!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15991265512226039592 Like a Child

    More than anything, I would like to agree with the following: "And so for me, it comes down to Christianity having mediated to me a life-changing religious experience that got me started on this journey, and providing me with a community of conversation partners as well as people to collaborate with when we become persuaded that our uncertainty about deep mysteries need not prevent us from acting in concrete ways to love our neighbors as ourselves." However, this has been very tough, particularly as a female, to find anyone to discuss such topics. At the same time, it is very hard to remain in Christianity and go through the rituals without admitting where you are at.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I hope you can find a congregation that will give you the freedom to admit where you are at – even if there may not be many who are at a similar point.I know one individual came to our church after finding our name listed among the Evolution Sunday participants. I think there are some things at one can look at that may give an indication of whether a congregation is open to exploring serious issues and wrestling with challenging topics.In the mean time, I hope you'll continue to benefit from the online community – I know I have immensely!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15991265512226039592 Like a Child

    Evolution Sunday? Is this a national thing?On a side note, check this out:http://www.icr.org/article/5826/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Evolution Sunday (more recently Evolution Weekend, to include other religious groups) is an outgrowth of the Clergy Letter Project:http://blue.butler.edu/~mzimmerm/rel_evol_sun.htm

  • D Rizdek

    ” Christian faith ”

    Very very old post, but I am intrigued by folks insistence…no not insistence, their gravitation toward calling something Christian, when it seems they are only taking a few bits and pieces from Christianity and more or less building a new kind of doctrine and retaining the label Christian. It’s NOT that one cannot interpret many Bible passages to mean things in line with their new doctrine. That seems triflingly easy.

    Is it because, perhaps the person lives in a predominately Christian environment and want to be seen as not all that differently? Is it a desire to be accepted?

    If a Hindu, Buddhists, or whatever religion had these interesting progressive liberal thoughts about God…e.g. God IS reality, God IS the good, the love, the whatever we feel etc. Would they not continue to call themselves…Hindus, Buddhitst or Shintus and just rearrange their previous language into this progressive worldview?

    It’s not that I think it is deceptive or wrong, but why bother?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I doubt that “a desire to be accepted” in a predominantly Christian environment is likely to be the motivating factor for liberal Christians. Rejecting the miraculous components, including things like the virginal conception mentioned in the historic creeds, isn’t a good route to acceptance in a conservative Christian context. What you will find is that, in all of the traditions you mention, liberalism is not merely a response to modernity, but a response that draws deeply on historic elements of the tradition. It is because our tradition is meaningful to us and an important part of who we are, while not something to be accepted uncritically or left unaltered in light of new information, that liberal people in various traditions tend to self-identify as such.

      And if you look at conservatives, you will find that the selective use of tradition characterizes their worldview, too. The main difference is between those who admit that and do it consciously and critically, and those who pretend that they aren’t doing that.

      • D Rizdek

        What do you see as the “essential” points that liberal Christians believe that make them Christian as opposed to members of the “Follow the evidence and do your best” denomination. I’m being a bit light, but really, what are the essentials?

        I debated someone some time back who, I think must have been “one of those{:” liberal Christians. I couldn’t make head nor tail of WHAT made her a Christian OTHER THAN she believed in God, and believed and respected Jesus, and thought it our duty to be kind and live the best lives we can. I didn’t see any problem with that last part, but I noted that even the demons believed and respected Jesus, so I thought that wasn’t such a special thing.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I am not aware that “follow the evidence and do your best” is a denomination, rather than something that cuts across sectarian and ideological lines.

          Isn’t the difference between demons and disciples whether respect and obedience are given willingly?

          • D Rizdek

            “I am not aware that “follow the evidence and do your best” is a denomination,” But someone could make it up. Maybe that’s the universal Unitarian Church.

          • Maria

            I would argue that the difference is found in whether or not they choose to follow the teacher and learn from him.

      • Maria

        If the miracles of Christ and God(the virgin birth mentioned) are denied then the very deity of God is denied. The point of the deity claim is that God has power humans do not and if you make him to be like a man then you strip God of his power. And if Christ was not born of a virgin he would have to have a man as his father and would not be God but simply a good man. The very idea of a Christian who believes such things is in itself contradictory because there is no deity to follow if there are no miracles.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Saying “I want to draw this conclusion, therefore evidence pointing to something at odds with what I want to believe must be false” is obviously not going to be a persuasive argument. But as it turns out, at this point your concern is irrelevant. Only the Gospel of John depicts Jesus as the incarnation of the pre-existent Word, and it doesn’t depict Jesus as virginally conceived. The two are unrelated. That you think that Jesus’ divinity means he lacked a human father suggests that you probably have an Apollonarian view of who Jesus was.

          Your view that there is no deity but Jesus, and if Jesus was not virginally conceived then there is no deity, is one of the strangest heresies I’ve yet encountered on the internet.


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