The popular view of an agnostic, I suppose, is of some poor devil who simply cannot make up his mind whether God exists, or not. Most dictionaries, however, tend to offer a more positive definition. Chambers, for example, holds that an agnostic is “one who holds that we know nothing of things beyond material phenomena.” He might, therefore fervently believe that God does indeed exist, but that we have no such evidence and that we are unlikely to find any – in this world, at any rate.
The term ‘agnostic’ (in contrast to ‘gnostic’) I find, was first used by T.H.Huxley in 1869, though there is mention of an inscription “To an unknown God” in the book of Acts 17,23. The term has also been used to include the more extreme view that knowledge in general can only be applied to what is available to the senses: everything else being irrelevant. Any agnostics found lurking in our churches would scarcely go that far. Others may feel pretty sure that God probably doesn’t exist, but are nevertheless quite prepared to be convinced otherwise.
When I contemplate the immensity of infinite space with its innumerable galaxies, I may find it impossible not to think that somebody must be in control. At the same time, it may also seem equally impossible to concede that anybody is in control. Whether that ‘body’ is masculine, feminine or neuter simply defies human imagination.
Most church-goers, of course, are not plagued with such ambivalent misgivings. They have presumably long ago been totally persuaded, or have persuaded themselves that God, in some shape or form, undoubtedly exists, if not in bodily shape then maybe in some other way.
In this latter case the agnostic’s problem may be somewhat diminished. I suspect that some dubious agnostics, who are also devout church-goers, may attend in the hope that Christian conviction may rub off on them, as it were by a process of osmosis. Such aspiration, I hasten to say, is by no means the same as what a true worshipper experiences as devotion. It can nevertheless be sincere and heartfelt.
However, our benighted agnostic may already have made up his mind that church-goers, though possibly on the right lines, are much too glib altogether. He will seek his evidence elsewhere – in the wonders of the natural world perhaps. Do they speak of God?
The world is full of remarkable things and contains great mysteries – but they prove nothing. Nature might, after all, well, have just happened – sort of emerged ever so slowly all by itself as Darwin and Dawkins eloquently suggest. Then there is the notion that maybe it all stands for something else. Perhaps our planet is a great treasure-chest full of symbols, all of which hold-hands and spell out some almighty ‘spiritual’ story. One day the divine story-teller himself will explain it all – that would surely clinch the matter.
Agnosticism is a perilous addiction, for which no cure is infallible: it requires excellent balance like learning to ride an unswerving holy bicycle: it is so easy to fall for a religious faith on one side or slide into atheism on the other. Such are the perils of uncertainty, the demands of honesty can make for a bumpy passage.
There are many perfectly good and virtuous reasons for regular church-going, not all of which are necessarily theological. A love of church music can be a powerful incentive, especially where there is a good organ and an impressive choir. Tradition and liturgy can impart great comfort in a changing – often threatening – world. The discussion of moral problems helps to stimulate the brain and maintain a caring social conscience. Some of us enjoy holy theatre, and are moved by ritual. Some like to keep up with the local news: the church may often be the best social club in town, and the incumbent an ever-present comfort in times of trouble. But, I wonder, though it is none of my business, may not some of these good people perhaps harbour the guilty secret that they are not always, absolutely certain that God exists?
Sitting on fences is never an easy stance to maintain, since it is, I suppose, an intellectual position without a great deal of support. A true religious faith, on the other hand, is altogether more heartfelt, arising from emotional springs deeply grounded in the human soul. The agnostic needs all the help he can get: fortunately, he gets along very happily with others of a like disposition.
Christian agnostics, being scarce and hard to identify, probably pose the greatest challenge and problem to the believer. But the mysteries of Incarnation are much too deep to fathom here.
Copyright 2010 G Roland Smith