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Agnostic Christianity: Faith for a New Year

Agnostic Christianity: Faith for a New Year December 31, 2010

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.


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