Christian Agnosticism

Christian agnosticism

Someone on Reddit asked about Christian agnosticism, leading me to write the following (on which I based the quote in the image above, slightly modified to make better sense outside of its original context.

A lot of commenters here seem to reflect the mistaken view that faith means feeling certain about something despite there not being sufficient rational grounds. But faith in the Christian sense (on which I recommend reading Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith) means doing what the Bible tells us to, namely recognizing our own human limitations, and that we are not God, and that we must trust God precisely because of our inability to be absolutely certain, and our penchant for being wrong despite feeling certain.

One cannot be a Christian and not be an agnostic in this sense of the word.

I also wrote the following a while back, in response to someone who had experienced multiple personal tragedies and asked me what view of the world seems cogent to me:

For me the most cogent thing is a humble religious agnosticism that acknowledges that there is an ultimate Reality of some sort, but also recognizes that my perception and comprehension is exhausted long before I get anywhere near to fathoming that Reality.

You also cannot be a Christian without questioning the Bible. The Bible includes positive depictions of the slaughter of Canaanites and the calling down of fire on enemies (which Jesus challenged), and demands such as that all members of Abraham’s household be circumcised (which Paul challenged).

The Bible Demands that We Be Unbiblical (It’s Paradox Wednesday!)

How Can You Call Yourselves Christian When You Don’t Believe in the Bible?

Appreciating the Myths of the Bible

It Only Takes One Errant Word to Destroy the Inerrancy of the Bible


Gallup: Fewer People Than Ever Before Think the Bible is Literally True

Finally, if you scrolled down this far, Leslie Weatherhead’s book The Christian Agnostic may be of interest.

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  • David Evans

    I have some sympathy with your “humble religious agnosticism that acknowledges that there is an ultimate Reality of some sort” but also some doubts about it. Surely a firmly atheist scientist could go along with that, but his “ultimate reality” would simply be the framework of the material universe (which we do not now, and may not ever, fully understand). It’s not the sort of thing that one could trust in the usual sense. Trust it to go on functioning, maybe, but not trust it to take any note of us and our concerns.

    • James F. McGrath

      This is why I have said that I am “at least a pantheist.” I don’t know for certain how deep or extensive reality is.

      And on the other hand, if God means whatever is ultimate and most transcendent, then no one who understands the meaning of those words can deny the existence of an ultimate reality, and thus lf God, but merely disagrees about the attributes thereof and the language that it is appropriate to apply to it.

      • David Evans

        “Transcendent” can carry a lot of baggage. Some people use it to mean “outside or beyond the physical universe”, and for a materialist nothing is transcendent in that sense. Others might speak of a person transcending their limitations, where the truth is simply that the person found they could do more than they and others thought they could do.

        I have similar reservations about “ultimate”. If it turned out that everything was made of a finite set of elementary particles, with no possibility of going deeper, would those be the ultimate reality?

        I don’t think it’s helpful to define “God” in such a way that no-one can deny God’s existence. The materialist would be forced into saying something like “God is the material universe” which would not necessarily reflect what they thought.

        • James F. McGrath

          I don’t think there is a way around that, since whatever is most transcendent, whether infinite or not, is the ultimate reality, and God in the monotheistic sense cannot be anything less. If one is a materialist and believes that the universe is all that exists, one still affirms the existence of the divinity revered by pantheists, even if one may dispute the appropriateness of such terminolgy and reverence.

          • David Evans

            So, if such a materialist is asked “Do you believe in God?” he can in good conscience answer “Yes”? I feel such an answer would often be untruthful in terms of what the questioner meant.

          • James F. McGrath

            For that very reason I think the appropriate answer is to ask both “what do you mean by God?” and “what do you mean by ‘believe in’?” There is such a thing as religious materialism, and so your assumption that all materialists ought to be answering “no” seems problematic to me.

          • John Thomas

            In order to fully understand what Dr. McGrath is getting at, you have to understand that there are two prominent understandings of God that are being held by theologians and philosophers over centuries. On one side, we have an understanding of God that is otherwise called Theistic Personalism. This is currently held by predominantly Evangelical theologians and philosophers like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Dale Tuggy etc. In this understanding, you have God as a personal being who exists completely apart from the universe and who creates universe just like a carpenter creates a table with the exception that God also created the material for the universe. This is the understanding of God one could get from a literal reading of the Bible and is currently the understanding of God that is held by most laypeople. Then there is a second understanding of God that is sometimes termed in philosophy of religion circles as “ultimism”. Ultimism has its origin in Aristotle’s metaphysics which was further taken up by Neoplatonic philosophers. This is the understanding of God that is traditionally held by the philosophers over centuries, which is God as the ultimate or fundamental nature of reality and ground of everything else that exists, or intelligence and life behind the normal workings of reality. So for example in Neoplatonic philosophy (most popular understanding of God among philosophers since the times of Plotinus), the One is at the ultimate nature of reality from which Nous (intelligence) and Psyche Cosmos or World Soul (life) behind the reality emanates out of and to which we can reason back to by application of our reason and logic (contemplation) on our empirical investigation (experience). Even though it could be called pantheism, it is not strict materialistic naturalism, as the reality itself is considered intelligible and constantly animating due to presence of intelligence and life behind the workings of sensible reality.

          • John MacDonald

            “I got to a point where I just didn’t believe it any more. This wasn’t because I was a biblical scholar who knew that the Bible was deeply flawed as a very human book filled with contradictions, discrepancies, and mistakes. All that was irrelevant. It also wasn’t because I was a historian of early Christianity who realized that traditional Christian faith developed as the result of historical and cultural forces, not divine guidance, that there was a huge variety of conflicting Christian views in its early years, decades, and centuries, and that what we know of Christianity is more or less the result of historical accident. That too was irrelevant.
            What was relevant was the very heart of the Christian claim that God loves his people, answers their prayers, and intervenes when they are in need. I came to think there was no such God, and decided that I had no choice but to abandon my faith and leave the Christian tradition.”
            – Bart Ehrman

          • John MacDonald

            As Hegel said, when we abstract to “Being,” we are dealing with the most all encompassing category, and therefore also the most meaningless, since it supports a theistic framework just as easily as it does an atheistic one.

          • James F. McGrath

            But that is precisely the point – the issue is not the existence of Being, but its attributes!

          • John MacDonald

            Yes, which is why a theistic framework is no less rational a position than an atheistic one.

          • Nick G

            Would you care to spell out the chain of reasoning leading to that claim? It appears to me to be complete tosh.

          • John MacDonald

            The ultimate Ground of reality may be something sacred, just as it may be something profane. We simply don’t know. Making positive atheistic claims, just like making positive theistic claims about this ultimate Ground, involve a leap of faith.

          • Nick G

            The usual “atheistic framework” is simply the denial that there is any good reason to believe in a god or gods*, just as there is no good reason to believe in leprachauns. Would it be your view that a leprachaunist framework is no less rational than an aleprachaunist framework?

            *While there is good reason to disbelieve in many specific gods.

          • Nick G

            Incidentally, “sacred” and “profane” usually refer to the attitude of some individual or group to an object, place or whatever, not to that object or place’s intrinsic properties. What do you mean by the terms here?

          • Nick G

            The phrase “the existence of Being” is either tautologous, or simply hogwash.

          • James F. McGrath

            Thank you for finally grasping that those who say “no God exists of any definition or any sort” are making no semse, since they are denying in the process the existence of the existence, which is what is viewed as divine in several different systems of thought.

          • Nick G

            Ridiculous tosh. The fact that some people regard everything that exists as divine does not mean that denying the existence of God makes no sense – it means that those who do so do not agree that everything that exists is divine. Some people think Barack Obama is the Antichrist. Does that mean denying the existence of the Antichrist makes nonsense?

          • James F. McGrath

            This is the problem – you consistently start your comments, which you think are critiques, with insults, and yet often provide beautiful illustrations of precisely the point I have been trying to make. In your example, you are not denying the existence of Barack Obama. You are saying (less precisely than you might have if you simply accepted my point, to be sure) that you think the very act of categorizing people as “the Antichrist” is based on a mistaken view of things.

          • Nick G

            Are you claiming that denying the existence of the Antichrist makes no sense? Because if not, you have conceded my point. And if you are – that’s ridiculous tosh.

          • James F. McGrath

            I am claiming that you are offering insults – the same odd ones – instead of engaging the substantive point. You are denying the appropriateness and meaningfulness of the label “Antichrist.” You are not denying the existence of any individuals that people have so identified.

          • Nick G

            I understand that. What I don’t understand is why you think it is of any significance. What your atheist is doing in saying: “no God exists of any definition or any sort” is denying the appropriateness and meaningfulness of the label “God”. If you can come up with a quibble about the exact form of words – why should anyone care?

          • James F. McGrath

            If and when atheists say that, in that way, then it is possible to get beyond short slogans and to focus on what is meant by the application of religious language to reality as a whole or some entity within it, and possibly make some progress and see fruitful mutual understanding. That is why anyone should care – understanding views precisely even if one ends up disagreeing with them.

          • Nick G

            So why did you resort to a cheap shot, rather than seeking to understand what an atheist (if one did indeed say “no God exists of any definition or any sort” – because no one here said that) would have meant?

          • John MacDonald

            “Being,” as it is normally understood, is usually divided into “essentia (essential)” aspects, and “existentia (existential)” aspects. As Kant observed, for human experience, “existence” is not a real predicate (does not pertain to the ‘res’), but rather reflects relative or absolute positing (relative or absolute position). So, for instance, if I judge that “this chair in front of me exists,” I am positing the being of the chair absolutely, which is to say “not in relation to my faculties.” Hegel correctly observed, beyond Kant, that the absolute positing of the chair, “the chair AS SUCH,” only ever encounters human experience as an act of the understanding, and so in this regard the human mind mirrors what we would normally understand as the absolute mind insofar as they would relate to the Being of the chair.

            Of course, mapping theistic or atheistic systems of thought onto Being is merely guesswork, because adopting positive theistic or atheistic frameworks transcends what human understanding is capable of knowing.

          • Nick G

            “Existence” is not a predicate at all, but a quantifier. This distinction was not properly understood before Frege’s work in the late 19th century. But that doesn’t really excuse the reams of ludicrous hooey Hegel produced.

          • John MacDonald

            Sorry it took so long to reply (vacation time and all, lol). I would suggest you read some Heidegger (who published, including his lecture courses, about 100 book length manuscripts), who was addressing the “Being” question in a way different from the analytic philosophers well into the latter half of the twentieth century. Heidegger is much indebted to Hegel, and Heidegger is widely considered one of the true Philosophers, along with the likes of Aristotle.

          • Nick G

            I would suggest you read some Heidegger

            Ah, the well-known and respected Nazi. The fact that he is “widely considered one of the true Philosophers” is to the undying shame of a considerable part of the academic philosophy community. I suggest you read Hitler’s Philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt. Nor was his early and enthusiastic adherence to Nazism unconnected with his oracular and obscurantist pholisophy. He shared the Nazis’ puerile beliefs in an “authentic” past, and the virtues of “traditional” – i.e., purely German – rural communities. If he had not been, as one might say, pre-adapted to Nazism, he could scarcely have adopted it so readily and wholeheartedly. The debt to Hegel is entirely in keeping with this – Hegel himself was a totalitarian thinker, exalting the national state and “world-historical” leaders who must not be judged by the canons of ordinary morality.

  • blogcom

    Ok I understand the agnostic part but not prefixing it with Christian.
    Also- not to put too finer point on it but you seem to veer more toward skepticism than anything.

    • James F. McGrath

      If you only understand one of the words on its own but not the two in conjunction, then you haven’t understood.

  • Nick G

    I recommend reading Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith

    I did. It’s intellectually sloppy and dishonest garbage. Here’s my critique, reposted from here.

    …it confirms my intuition that I’m not missing anything of
    intellectual significance by not reading theology, and I think it shows
    how surprisingly close modernist theology is to fundamentalism – not in
    its specific content, but in its dogmatism, lack of intellectual
    coherence, smug self-satisfaction, and attitudes to non-religious

    I’ll start with some relatively minor points before
    proceeding to the central issue – how Tillich defines and describes
    “faith”, and the implications this definition and description has.

    First, it’s notable that a Martian could read the whole book without gaining
    any idea that such beings as women or children exist – it’s all “man”
    this, and “a man” that. Now admittedly this just makes Tillich a man of
    his time but still, the linguistic erasure of more than half of humanity
    should not be ignored. One might also excuse how seriously Tillich
    takes the pseudoscientist Freud (pp.96-7) – Tillich was after all a
    German-American, and I believe Freud is still taken seriously in
    both countries. But his credulity about faith-healing (in the usual
    sense, pp.125-8) surely raises two or three eyebrows, as does his
    apparent belief that Locke and Hume confined themselves to “special
    problems of the doctrine of knowledge” (pp.105-6) – and therefore
    weren’t really philosophers.

    Tilich sprays the words “ultimate”, “ultimacy”, “unconditional” and ”infinite” around as if they had a “best before” date. I’ll come to “ultimate” later, but his use of “infinite” is at best, sloppy – and also, I think, reveals that his belief system
    is ineradicably supernaturalistic. He insists (e.g. p.44, p.88) that
    “man” is a finite being, but one aware of “his [sic] potential infinity”
    (p.88). Then he also talks of the “infinitely complex phenomenon of
    human freedom”, and says:

    …a theory of evolution which interprets man’s descendance from older forms of life in a way that removes the infinite, qualitative difference between man and animal is faith and not science. (p.95)

    How can a finite being have “potential infinity”, partake of
    “infinitely complex” freedom, and be infinitely different from other finite beings?
    Particularly other finite beings from which it is descended? At what
    stage in human evolution did this “infinite potential” appear, and how?
    Did Neandertals have “infinite potential”? Homo erectus? Or
    does all life perhaps have “infinite potential” – in which case, again,
    how can there be an “infinite difference” between us and our chimpanzee
    and bonobo cousins, or for that matter, us and a tapeworm or bacterium?
    The only even arguably coherent response would seem to be a
    supernaturalistic one: God touched some of our ancestors with his
    holy-ghostly appendage and we then had “infinite potential” – or a soul,
    to use the more common term.

    Closely related to this supposed infinite difference between us and other animals, and to the half-concealed supernaturalism, is Tillich’s essentialism. This surfaces repeatedly, but perhaps most tellingly here:

    First, it must be acknowledged that man is in
    a state of estrangement from his true nature. Thus the use of his
    reason and the character of his faith are not what they essentially are
    and, therefore, ought to be. (p.89)

    Now it’s my view that essentialism of any kind is a fundamental philosophical error, but if things had essences – an “essence” being that without which a thing would not be the kind of thing it is – they could not possibly lose them without
    ceasing to be the kind of thing that has that sort of essence*. The
    sentences I quote above are therefore just gobbledegook. It’s also worth
    noting that the notion that “man is in a state of estrangement from his
    true nature” is again ineradicably supernaturalistic. Who or what could
    conceivably define what this “true nature” is, other than a supernatural being?

    That brings me to Tillich’s treatment of the concept “God”.
    At one point, he says:

    If “existence” refers to something which can
    be found within the whole of reality, then no divine being exists… The
    question is not this, but: which of the innumerable symbols of faith is
    most adequate to the meaning of faith?.. This is the problem and not the
    so-called “existence of God” – which is in itself an impossible
    combination of words. God as the ultimate in man’s ultimate concern is
    more certain than any other certainty, even that of oneself. (p.54)

    But then later he says:

    The ultimate is one object besides others, and the ground of all others. (p.123)

    So God/the ultimate is not “something that can be found
    within the whole of reality”, but is “one object besides others”. This is simply incoherent.

    One more relatively minor matter: Tillich’s treament of symbols.
    Here his dogmatically propounded errors seem to be merely factual
    rather than conceptual. He claims that symbols (of which he gives
    national flags as examples) cannot be intentionally produced. But many
    of the national flags in current use have in fact been designed by
    committee! Many more amusing examples of deliberately produced symbols
    are described in The Invention of Tradition, edited by Terence
    Ranger and Hugh Trevor-Roper. (For example, the so-called “clan
    tartans” of Scotland, regarded today with great reverence, were designed
    by a pair of pseudonymous chancers calling themselves the Sobieski
    Stuart brothers, who then persuaded the clan chiefs to adopt them for the royal tour of Scotland by William IV.)

    Now, to the central concept of the book: faith. Initially,
    it appears reasonably clear what Tillich means by this:

    Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are
    the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern… man, in contrast to other living
    beings, has spiritual concerns – cognitive, aesthetic, social,
    political… each of them… can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life
    of a social group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender
    of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even
    if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name.

    Examples are given of non-religious faiths, in “success”
    (scare-quotes in original) or in a person’s nation, and Tillich says:

    Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.
    The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it
    does not matter for the formal definition of faith. (p.4)


    Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements. (p.4)

    It’s a bit odd that Tillich does not admit that his use of “faith” is
    completely different from the way most believers use it, and have used
    it for the last couple of thousand years. Notably Paul of Tarsus**
    (Hebrews 11:1-6):

    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
    2 For by it the elders obtained a good report.
    3 Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of
    God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.
    4 By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice
    than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God
    testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.
    5 By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not
    found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had
    this testimony, that he pleased God.
    6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

    This appears far closer to the everyday meaning of faith, which is, roughly, strong belief in specific assertions or promises, than Tillich’s “state of ultimate concern”. Of course any author is free to define any term as they wish: Tillich could define faith as half a tonne of pickled herring if he wanted. But it does seem very presumptuous to insist that his is the correct definition, and anyone who defines it otherwise is just wrong, as he does in chapter II.

    However, let’s accept his definition and description, as quoted
    above, and see what he does with them. It seems from those quotes that
    it would be quite impossible to have faith, or to perform an “act of
    faith”, without knowing it, and knowing what it was faith in –
    indeed, without both the occurrence and its content being undeniable,
    unmistakeable, and unforgettable. It’s supposedly “an act of the total
    personality”, which “demands the total surrender of him who accepts the
    claim” and “promises total fulfillment”. OK, then, in those terms I can
    say without doubt or hesitation that I have never performed an act of
    faith, or had faith in anything. I’m pretty sure many people would say
    the same, but of course I can be most confident in my own case. I admit
    that none of us are totally transparent to ourselves, but given the way
    faith has been defined, I just don’t see how I could have overlooked
    or forgotten having faith in… whatever it was I had faith in – let alone
    fail to recognise any faith I have now.

    But Tillich will not allow this. He insists over and over again that everyone has faith in something – an “ultimate concern” to which everything else is subordinated – this may be worthy or unworthy (“idolatrous”), but nobody can be without one. I may think I’m a value pluralist, taking several things
    seriously but holding none of them as the “ultimate concern” to which
    everything else must give way, but according to Tilich, I’m just wrong,
    and he knows my psychology and value system better than I do, despite
    never having met me. I’ll illustrate with a trio of quotes:

    Often people say they are secular… and consequently
    that they are without faith! But if one asks them whether they are
    without an ultimate concern, without something which they take as
    unconditionally serious, they would strongly deny this. And in denying
    that they are without an ultimate concern, they affirm that they are in a
    state of faith.(pp.72-3).

    Well no, I would, as I just have, emphatically deny that I have
    an ultimate concern. Yes, there are things I take seriously
    (“unconditionally” is just empty noise here as far as I can tell), but
    none of them are “ultimate” in the very sense on which Tillich has
    repeatedly insisted. Again:

    As the ultimate is the ground of everything that is, so ultimate concern is the integrating center of the personal life. Being without it is being without a center. Such a state, however, can only be approached but never fully reached, because a human being deprived completely of a center would cease to be a human being. For this reason one cannot admit that there is any man without an
    ultimate concern or without faith. (p.123)

    So now he’s saying I’m either completely wrong about my own value-system, or
    I’m not human. But besides the bald dogmatism and astounding arrogance
    of this claim, it seems quite incompatible with what Tillich has said
    earlier about faith. How could one approach (but not reach) a state of faithlessness, when faith is defined as “an act of the total personality” which “demands… total surrender” and “promises total fulfillment”? Can you have a vestigial act of the total personality, which demands a smidgeon of total surrender, and promises a minuscule amount of total fulfillment? It’s blithering nonsense.

    One more:

    …every human being is longing for union
    with the content of his ultimate concern. (p.132)

    Er… no. If I were, I’m pretty sure I’d know it.

    So, why is Tillich so insistent that everyone has faith, even though this means
    he must effectively abandon the bold description he gave of faith at
    the start of the book? At bottom, his attitude is no different from that
    of the fundamentalist who insists that atheists are just “angry with God”, or “worship themselves”, or “want to sin”, but really know that God (the fundamentalist’s God) exists. We can see this by some of the things he says about secular belief systems – which he insists are forms of faith:

    …if faith is understood as the state of being ultimately concerned about the ultimate, humanism implies faith. .. for humanism the divine is manifest in the human; the ultimate concern of man is man. All this of course refers to man in his essence: the true man, the man of the idea, not the actual man, the man in estrangement from his true nature. (pp.71-72)


    Ultimate concern cannot deny its own character as ultimate. Therefore, it affirms what is meant by the word “God”. Atheism, consequently, can only mean the attempt to remove any ultimate concern – to remain unconcerned about the meaning of one’s existence. Indifference toward the ultimate question is the only imaginable form of atheism. Whether it is possible is a problem which must remain unsolved at this point. (p.52)

    Some humanists probably do have the kind of quasi-religious and grossly essentialist attitude to “man” exemplified in the first of these quotes, but those I have anything in common with (I don’t in fact identify as a
    humanist) certainly do not. As for the second quote, as we’ve seen, Tillich later
    answers his question in the negative: he thinks everyone must have an
    “ultimate concern”, and so, given what he says here, denies the very
    possibility of atheism. This is just the same kind of arrogant failure
    or refusal to imagine ways of living and thinking basically different
    from his own, as is demonstrated by those fundamentalists I mentioned
    above. He also shares with those fundamentalists the conviction (free of
    any requirement for actual evidence) that morality cannot survive without being tied to religion:

    History has shown this weakness and final emptiness of all merely secular cultures. (p.74)

    History has shown no such thing, if only because no
    completely secular culture has yet existed, as far as we know. But what it does appear to show is that more secular cultures also tend to be those with lower levels of various social pathologies – see for example here.

    Without an ultimate concern as its basis every system of morals degenerates into a method of adjustment to social demands, whether they are ultimately justified or not… This is a description of what has happened on a large scale in Western civilization.

    Also consider that it was precisely as Western civilization
    has become more secular that degenerate notions such as the rule of law,
    freedom of religion and expression, democracy, the abolition of slavery,
    the emancipation of women and of gender-sexual minorities, and so
    forth, have gained ground. Like most of his assertions, these claims of
    Tillich about secular morality are based on nothing more than dogmatic
    insistence without – or often in the teeth of – empirical evidence.

    Finally, it is notable that the faith that turns out to be
    absolutely the best of all is that of modernist Protestant Christianity. Not
    surprising, of course – if Tillich thought otherwise, he’d preumably
    have been something other than a modernist Protestant theologian – but
    again, the gounds on which this is asserted are remarkably weak:

    That symbol is most adequate which expresses not only the ultimate, but also its own lack of ultimacy. Christianity expresses itself in such a symbol in contrast to all other religions, namely, in the Cross of theChrist. (p.112)

    How “the Cross of the Christ” expresses this in a way other religious symbols do not, is not explained.

    The same criterion is valid with respect to the whole history of religion and culture. The criterion contains a Yes – it does not reject any truth of faith in whatever form it may appear in the history of faith – and it contains a No – it does not accept any truth of faith as ultimate except that no man possesses it. The fact that this criterion is identical with the Protestant principle and has
    become reality in the Cross of the Christ constitutes the superiority of
    Protestant Christianity. (p.113)

    In fact, of course, Christianity has been historically the
    most intolerant of the major religions, and the most insistent (along with
    Islam) that it possesses the whole truth. But such mundane facts are
    not, it appears, relevant to the “superiority of Protestant
    Christianity” – and, one can scarcely avoid concluding – Protestant
    Christian theologians.

    *One could make a case for, say, it being the “essence”
    of a carbon atom to have 6 protons in its nucleus – carbon atoms do seem
    to constitute what’s sometimes called a “natural kind” – but the term
    comes freighted with so much outdated metaphysics that I think it’s best
    avoided even there, and certainly when more complex entities are
    considered, the whole system of essentialism disintegrates into absurd
    quibbles about how many essences there are, and what makes a feature
    or property of something “essential”. And if a carbon atom gains or
    loses a proton, it’s no longer a carbon atom – it’s
    not a carbon atom “in a state of estrangement from its true nature”.

    **Something was niggling at the back of my mind, and when I
    checked, I found that this probably wasn’t written by Paul of Tarsus.
    Nonetheless, it’s in the NT and attributed to him, so I think the point

    • James F. McGrath

      Thank you for sharing this. In the future, it might make a reader more likely to take what you write seriously if you don’t make it your first point to rail against the fact that in English in the past, “man” was used as synonymous for humankind. It is, to be sure, laudable that we are seeking to move away from that usage. But pretending that this universal element in older literature justifies dismissing anything not written in recent decades just seems like you will be offering chronological snobbery rather than substantive critique.

      • Nick G

        That’s a rather silly and petty response, given that I was explicit that this was a “relatively minor point” and that “Now admittedly this just makes Tillich a man of his time”. And for you to pretend that I said or implied that it justified dismissing Tillich is plain dishonest.

        • James F. McGrath

          The fact that you started with relatively minor points, which did not really deserve mention other than perhaps as observations about the fact that there are issues for modern readers of older literature, together with your dismissive tone from the very outset, is precisely what made the initial impression of your long comment so negative.

          • Nick G

            So you responded without bothering to read it? And falsely claimed that I said or implied that Tillich’s sexist language justifies dismissing his book. My dismissive tone is the result of reading it twice, and noticing glaring absurdities and internal inconsistencies, which I describe in some detail. Do you deny that they are there?

          • James F. McGrath

            I did read it. It was not easy, since so much of it seemed to be either quibbling about details, or missing Tillich’s point (which it is admittedly easy to do, since “ultimate concern” can mean both the All which Tillich believes ought to be the focus of human concern, and the “ultimate concern” among others in the hierarchy of things humans focus on), or saying in essence “I’m not that kind of atheist.”

            If your tone were less dismissive, I would find it far more enjoyable to try to identify and discuss the things that we actually disagree about. For instance, even though I have ended up as a liberal Protestant who likes Tillich, I find his smug assertions of the superiority of liberal Protestantism grating.

            As for value pluralism, which has come up in our conversations before, I suppose the question is how well any of us is poised to really recognize our own ultimate concern, a question that Tillich does not adequately address. If I have understood your stance, you are not denying that some of your values may be hierarchically related to one another, only that any of them reigns supreme. Is that correct? If so, might it not still be the case that one such commitment or object of attention might “float to the top” and be such that it is not your only concern (nothing ever is) but your ultimate concern, the one that is never overridden by any others?

            Finally, placing minor details where they belong at the end, if you are reading a Bible that attributes Hebrews to Paul, kindly discard it and replace it with something that reflects a point that almost everyone today agrees on, even among conservatives. The style and theology of that letter really cannot be mistaken for Paul’s by anyone who is truly familiar with both of them.

          • Nick G

            I did read it. It was not easy

            Nor was reading such a farrago of nonsense as Dynamics of Faith! Twice.

            What point(s) of Tillich’s are you claiming I missed?

            I suppose the question is how well any of us is poised to really recognize our own ultimate concern, a question that Tillich does not adequately address.

            If we take the way Tillich talks about “faith” and “acts of faith” early in the book, it would be quite impossible not to recognize your own ultimate concern.

            If I have understood your stance, you are not denying that some of your values may be hierarchically related to one another, only that any of them reigns supreme. Is that correct?


            If so, might it not still be the case that one such commitment or object of attention might “float to the top” and be such that it is not your only concern (nothing ever is) but your ultimate concern, the one that is never overridden by any others?

            No: a number of values are important to me, but for every one, I can envisage circumstances in which I would give priority to something else. Why are you so insistent that everyone must have an “ultimate concern” – and so that I must be wrong about my own value-system?

          • James F. McGrath

            I am not at all certain that you must be wrong about the evaluation of your own value system. But just as I am open to the possibility that what I believe is ultimate for me may not in fact be in practice, so I am also open to at least considering whether others might also have different perceptions of what is or it not valued for them, which could potentially be different from what their actions might suggest is valued by them, and to what degree.

            I am not a Tillichian inerrantist. I find him insightful and I appreciate the view of faith that he advocates. That is the extent of it.

          • Nick G

            I concede that we cannot be certain we would act as we now think we would, in extreme circumstances. But that’s just as likely to mean you don’t have an “ultimate concern” even though you think you do – that in different extreme circumstances different values would “float to the top” for you – as to mean that I do, even though I think I don’t. But why should it not be the case that some people do, and some don’t?

  • robrecht

    Christian agnosticism, even Christian atheism in the sense of the apophatic theological tradition, may even lead some to deep sense if personal certitude that goes well beyond what can be attained with mere verbal affirmations. Our actions are a much more truthful expression of who we really are than our thoughts and words. Orthopraxis, not orthodoxy, is the real measure of Christian faithfulness.